THERE was only 69 seconds of overtime remaining when Luka Doncic recorded his 19th assist of the Dallas Mavericks’ 136-132 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, and he’d saved the best for last.
Up against the NBA’s best team and sternest defence, with the game on the line, Doncic got creative. Dribbling into the lane, he drew two Bucks defenders toward him, both anticipating a shot. But the Slovenian produced a left-handed, no-look, between-the-legs pass to pick out an open Maxi Kleber in stride, setting up the German forward for an easy dunk to clinch the win for the Mavs.
“I don't know why I did it," Doncic said of his match-winning moment of inspiration. "I just did it. I saw it, I don't know. I didn't think about it before – right in the moment.”
The showdown between the Mavericks and the Bucks in Orlando on 8 August offered a glimpse into the NBA’s future. It pitted Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 25-year-old reigning MVP, against 22-year-old Doncic, two stars of basketball’s present who will surely go on to contest MVP awards over the next decade.
This time, despite Antetokounmpo’s 34 points and 13 rebounds, it was Doncic who shone brightest. The Slovenian point guard produced arguably the best performance of his young career, adding 36 points and 14 rebounds to his best-ever assists tally, registering his 17th triple-double of the season.
Doncic has been an elite prospect for several years. A starter for Real Madrid and 16 and a EuroLeague champion and MVP at 19, he was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year last season. But the leap he has made in 2019-20, elevating himself into the MVP race, has put him ahead of any reasonable developmental schedule.
At 6’7”, Doncic has the size and robustness of a power forward, yet he has the deftness, creativity and flair to shape games to his will from basketball’s equivalent of the quarter-back position. His combination of size, unselfishness and inventiveness down in the paint is reminiscent of LA Lakers icon and five-time NBA champion Earvin “Magic” Johnson, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle sees other legends reflected in Doncic’s game.
“He knows where everybody is, not only on offence but defence," Carlisle said after his side’s win over the Bucks. "That's the sign of a savant-type guy. I've played with Larry Bird, he could see everything like that. I had the privilege of coaching Jason Kidd. Luka is in that same mould.”
And it is to Carlisle’s and the Mavericks’ credit that they have surrounded Doncic with a supporting cast worthy of his talent, building an exciting line-up whose 116.7 offensive rating is not only the best in the league right now but the best of all time.
An unfortunate ACL injury to Dwight Powell in January has led to Kristaps Porzingis, Doncic’s Latvian co-star in Dallas, playing at centre, as opposed to the power-forward role he occupied earlier in the season. With his length – a vertiginous 7’3” – he is a formidable rim protector on the defensive end, while the smoothness and range of his shot makes him a scorer capable of 30-plus points on any given night.
With a minute left in overtime?! pic.twitter.com/sHk34y4J6S
— Bobby Karalla (@bobbykaralla) August 9, 2020
Tim Hardaway Jr. has parlayed his reliable shot and scoring potential into a valuable 3-and-D role, and Powell’s injury has allowed Seth Curry – brother of Golden State Warriors guard and two-time MVP Steph Curry – to bring his all-time-great three-point shooting (his success rate from beyond the arc is a stunning 45 per cent from five attempts per game this season) into the starting five.
Encircled by high-level defenders and no shortage of scoring options, Doncic has thrived. Averaging a near-triple-double for 2019-20, he ranks sixth in the league for points per game (29.1), third for assists (8.9) and is the only guard among the top 20 rebounders (9.5 per game).
The scary thing for the rest of the league is, Doncic still has room for improvement: he is too often passive or out of position on defence, and his 31.6 per cent accuracy from three-point range is the lowest of Dallas’ current starting line-up.
With their relatively young core, abundance of offensive talent and, in Doncic and Porzingis, a star duo the envy of at least 25 of the NBA’s 30 teams, Dallas’ current seventh-seed spot in the Western Conference belies their future championship potential.
But while no team will relish facing the Mavericks in the post-season, a title run this year will likely have to see them run a gauntlet of Kawhi Leonard’s LA Clippers, LeBron James’ Lakers and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks.
Such a task is likely beyond Dallas this season. There’s no doubt that Doncic’s shoulders are broad enough to someday carry a championship team, though.