Oftentimes with international prospects it can be harder to know. Giannis Antetokounmpo was MVP in his sixth season, confounding the scouts who remember a stringy, poor shooting forward who played in a second-tier Greek league. Nikola Jokic was a pudgy pivot with a limited offensive game when the Nuggets took him with the 41st pick in 2014; five years later, he is the league’s most complete center. Plenty of other seemingly surefire foreigners have flamed out, their talent lost in translation to the NBA. Think Czech forward Jan Veselý, chosen sixth by the Wizards in 2012, who averaged 3.6 points in three seasons. Or 7-foot Dragan Bender from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the No. 4 pick in ’16, who’s logged G-League time this year.
With Luka Doncic you thought you knew. You began to believe in 2012, when Real Madrid signed him out of Ljubljana, Slovenia, at 13. Three years later he became the youngest player ever on the European powerhouse. Then at 19, Doncic not only led Real to the EuroLeague title but was also named league and Final Four MVP.
But Mavericks president Donnie Nelson knew. For years he had hopped flight after flight to watch Doncic play. What he saw amazed him. The NBA’s bread-and-butter play is the pick-and-roll, and Doncic already showed mastery as a teen. A gifted passer, he could use his 6' 7" height to see over defenses and his sturdy frame to knife through them. At 19 he was averaging 16 points per game against grown EuroLeague men. Whenever Dallas coach Rick Carlisle asked Nelson which player he liked most in the 2018 draft, Nelson told him Doncic—and that it wasn’t even close.
Now, about 100 games into his NBA career, everybody knows. Doncic averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists last season, running away with Rookie of the Year honors. This season he is pouring in around 30 points per game and threatening to become just the third player in NBA history to average a triple double. At 20, he’s an MVP candidate leading a surprise contender in the West. After dueling with the Lakers in November, LeBron James bear-hugged Doncic, telling him, “You’re a bad mother------.”
A sharp three-point shooter, Doncic uses a step-back to create space against quicker defenders. Force him into the mid-range and he can become a drive-and-dish playmaker, sucking in defenders while spinning outrageous passes. Marveled Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently, “The game is so slow to him.”
Cuban didn’t know before the 2018 draft. But he knew enough to trust Nelson. In ’13, Nelson wanted to draft Antetokounmpo with the 13th pick. As Cuban tells it, the Mavericks, two years removed from a title, were in win-now mode, and he preferred salary-cap flexibility over a mid-round prospect. Dallas drafted Kelly Olynyk, and immediately flipped him to Boston. Antetokounmpo went to Milwaukee two picks later.
With Doncic there was no debate, even though the class was loaded with talent. Drafting fifth, the Mavs chose Trae Young and shipped him to Atlanta—along with another first-round pick—for Doncic, the No. 3 choice. Two decades earlier Dallas had pulled off a similar trade of lottery picks for a floppy-haired, 7-foot German. No one could have known Dirk Nowitzki would rack up 14 All-Star appearances, an MVP and a championship while becoming the best foreign player in NBA history, especially after he struggled as a rookie.
But Doncic took over upon arrival, and now he’s putting up numbers at age 20 not seen since James. Kristaps Porzingis, a 7' 3" forward who’s healthy after missing all of last season with a left-knee injury, has given Doncic a truly terrifying pick-and-roll partner. Last month Doncic dropped 42 points on the Spurs. Two weeks later he pumped in 42 more against the Suns—one of the two teams that passed on him. He manipulates the game, brilliantly. If there was a concern about Doncic before the draft, it was that the speed and length of NBA players would bother him. But Doncic counters with astonishing patience, reading defenses, letting plays develop. And his body—another focus of pre-draft criticism—is a more-sculpted 230 pounds in his second year.
In Doncic, Dallas doesn’t just have the breakout player of 2019—they have a breakout star. His teammates have dubbed him the Matador, a nod to his flair for showmanship. They say he loves going up against other top players. Consider: Earlier this month, in a rematch with the Lakers, Doncic stared down James in the fourth quarter. A teammate came to set a screen. Doncic waved him off. Two dribbles between his legs got James moving backward, and a step-back created enough space for Doncic to bury a 27-footer. There is no more doubt.