NBA players, especially the international ones, don’t just show up at training camp as the exact same player they were the last day of the previous season.
Many play streetball tournaments (Kyrie Irving), train with other players (Josh Green) and trainers (almost all of them, notably Luka Dončić with physical trainer Anže Maček), and some spend 4-6 weeks of the off-season training, traveling and playing with their national team.
Everything It Takes - Ep. 1: “We Believe” pic.twitter.com/lFFyVPsFwB— Luka Doncic (@luka7doncic) August 23, 2023
All these things affect how they come into training camp—some negatively, many positively. Players are not static beings, they develop and learn, and get bad or good habits along the way.
An example is Luka Dončić’s disappointing end to last year’s EuroBasket. Slovenia was knocked out by a less talented Polish team in a game that everybody expected them to win, in a tournament where they were contenders. Luka Dončić played one of the worst games I’ve ever seen him play, yelling at refs and teammates, while not running back on defense most of the time. It was a disaster of a game that the team has called a shocking experience.
Luka Dončić’s response to this adversity seems obvious, in my opinion. He started the following 2022 NBA season averaging 34.2 points, 8.9 assists and 8.7 rebounds in 34 games between October and December 2022; just extraordinary numbers.
And my hypothesis after watching all this unfold is that Luka might not only have been making up for the roster weaknesses every time he stepped on the court, but also for his mistakes in that Poland game. Except that the worst of his behavior, the incessant complaining and missing defensive effort, seemed to linger or get worse. I wrote more about that here.
And clearly, the outcome, pressure and experience gained from these tournaments affect players afterwards. So I spent the World Cup watching these players to get a sense of what we can expect from them this upcoming NBA season.
What did we see at this year’s World Cup that may help us understand how Luka and the other Mavericks will come into this season?
Let’s take a closer look.
We’ll start with Luka Dončić. He actually had a great World Cup with Slovenia in the sense that he had some amazing performances, led his team as captain in a positive way most of the time, and finished seventh with his team. This was quite the feat, considering that Slovenia was missing two key pieces and lacked an interior presence. Slovenia made it to the quarterfinals, a result to be proud of. Luka averaged 27 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists in 32 minutes.
On the negative side, however, he ended a good run with Slovenia with a really negative loss against Canada, where he complained so much about the (granted, very uneven) effort by the referees that he ended up with two technical fouls, getting him ejected with most of the fourth quarter left.
This resulted in a barrage of media talk and narratives about him, which didn’t really reflect the tournament as a whole. It did reflect that game, however, and once again, we saw how the talk about Dončić went from being about his greatness and magic to questions about when he will stop whining. Our colleague here at Mavs Moneyball, Jack Bonin, wrote an excellent column about how Luka needs to grow up, and he is absolutely right.
The interesting thing is that this situation is eerily similar to that Poland game in EuroBasket 2022 I mentioned earlier. Dončić not being able to control his emotions, taking the attention away from his great basketball skills to refereeing, lacking emotional control and maturity.
Does this mean that we will see Dončić start the season in a similar way to last year?
The two tournaments ended in very similar ways, which could point to somewhat of a repetition of last season, when Luka put up the crazy numbers.
But the situations are not that similar in most other ways, however. This year’s World Cup loss to a very talented Canada team was not the humiliation the Poland game in EuroBasket was. Despite the complaining, techs and ejection, the attitude was not as bad as in the Poland game, in my opinion, and the result was not an embarrassment at all.
What’s more, this season, the Dallas Mavericks have a few additions to the roster, who may actually help Luka carry some of the weight he needed to carry with the Mavericks last season. This carrying has been injuring him mentally and physically since Jalen Brunson left, and no matter how bright of a star he is, he cannot carry it by himself anymore. The good news is that at least one, perhaps two (or more) of the new additions to the team can, and most likely will, help Luka carry.
Kyrie Irving is a stable player and performer when he’s locked in, whose maturity and understanding of himself really has the potential to help Luka lead, both on the floor and in the locker room. He has shown that he can lead, mentor and carry when needed (and when he’s locked in), and he has been doing it since he arrived in Dallas.
Grant Williams is also an experienced player, who takes responsibility and puts it on his shoulders, especially defensively. He has good playoff experience and is a communicator, who talks a lot in the locker room and on the court.
Feels good to be in blue pic.twitter.com/0pJ5eHP7Qm— Grant Williams (@Grant2Will) September 13, 2023
I expect Dončić to start the season in a high gear again, but less because he has to and regrets his behavior, and more because he can.
I expect him to find his way back to the joy of his first years in Dallas through a more balanced team effort, and because he’s learned a thing or two about being a captain for Slovenia and what that means. (More about that in a future column).
Whether he manages to get the refs out of his head or not, he’s in a great position to get to the next level - if he does the work that’s needed. Nothing ever comes for free, you have to work to accomplish something, and Luka knows this better than most.
Then there’s the great story of Dwight Powell. He played a key role on the high performing Canadian team as starting center. This team managed to match many of the best European teams in physicality, team play and aggressive defense and left with an impressive bronze medal, which they secured with a win against Team USA. He averaged 5.5 points, 4.4 rebounds in 24 minutes in the World Cup.
You don’t come off a deep FIBA run like that without having learned a thing or two about how to play under pressure and what it takes to win. I expect that Powell will be better equipped for these moments in the upcoming season with the Mavericks, maybe even in the playoffs, where he has struggled in the past.
The valuable experiences a player gets from playing with different players than he is used to, other coaches, in other settings and schemes and maybe even under pressure like Powell did multiple times during the World Cup is just one of many reasons why national team competitions are a good idea to participate in for professional athletes.
Josh Green was also a key player for the Australian team that wanted to build around long, athletic wings and play a fast paced transition game. He was a starter for about half the games, only benched because he was recovering from an injury. Despite big expectations to this talented team, they didn’t make it out of the Second Round and had to return home after a loss to Slovenia, who was playing better and more aggressively on defense the whole game.
That said, Green averaged 8.2 points, 2 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 19 minutes, and had some very good games and a few lukewarm ones on offense, but he always made a difference on defense as the team’s primary point-of-attack defender.
I expect Green to both have had some great experience in leading a defense and gained a good amount of healthy confidence through being able to play through the pressure this comes with.
We got to see the new Maverick, Dante Exum, get a lot of minutes with Australia, as well. He showed great play as a backup point guard and on-ball defender, very talented at pushing the ball in transition especially and very stable performances from him. He averaged 11 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3 assists in 18.7 minutes and shot 47 percent from three.
With a lighter Luka, in more than one sense, a (hopefully) more confident Josh Green and Dante Exum, and a more poised and pressure-tested Dwight Powell, the Mavericks are definitely poised to reap the benefits of the World Cup.