Luka Doncic Is In A Class Of His Own
By Martin Rogers
About 10 months ago and part of a different lifetime, I ventured from the press seats at Staples Center to watch some of an NBA game with a friend who had scored a couple of prime spots just a few rows back from courtside.
When I got there, midway through the second quarter in a matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks, my buddy was engaged in a conversation with a man sitting next to him, who happened to be from Slovenia and was, unsurprisingly, supporting Luka Doncic.
The man began speaking about the basketball culture and history of the sport in Slovenia. From youth development programs to the passion of the local league system and its diehard fans, a love of fundamentals and a vibrant school system, basketball courses through Slovenian life.
“Wow,” my friend exclaimed excitedly, “a whole country of Luka Doncic-es.” Not quite, came the reply. A whole nation of basketball fanatics, “but only one Luka.”
The reality that there is only one Luka Doncic was rammed home on Sunday night with a highlight reel buzzer-beater from the heavens that you have undoubtedly watched many, many times already. That is, unless you’re a supporter of the Los Angeles Clippers, in which case you want to forget all about it.
There is nothing much more to be said about that shot except that it was fearless and marvelous. It made a Mavericks beat writer eat his words, and made Mark Cuban leap off the elliptical, and proved that the step back is the NBA’s new cheat code.
It was also further evidence that basketball is the world’s game now, not quite as much as soccer, perhaps, but increasingly, undeniably and overwhelmingly global. They don’t just watch hoops in every corner of the world, they play it. And yes, there are countless youngsters who wish to be great, and a few who will ultimately get there.
Doncic, who was born in Ljubljana, Slovenia and is still only 21, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was born in Greece to Nigerian parents, are the two players most likely to carry the league on their shoulders these coming years. They are not American, but have already been adopted firmly by the United States public.
Doncic, believe it or not, had some critics in the early days of his time in Dallas. You’d be seriously hard pressed to find one now.
“In 30 years you’re not going to be able to write the history of the NBA without talking about Luka,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on First Things First. “And over the next 15 years you’re not going to be able to talk about who the best player in the league is without talking about Luka. This is how you become a legend.”
In some quarters, the Luka Legend nickname is already being trotted out in deference to a certain former Boston Celtic, a fresh trend which is alliteratively catchy but otherwise lazy. Because while Doncic is indeed like Larry Bird in that he is excellent, and clutch, and that his skin is white, the truth is that his game and style has more in common with LeBron James than with Bird.
He is that irresistible combination of a guy who is unfailingly polite and seems like a genuinely good dude, yet will not hesitate to rip out the soul of his opponent like he did with a catch, two crossovers, a step back and a beautiful stroke on Sunday night.
“He sees the game in 6G,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle told reporters. “It’s not 5G. It’s another level beyond the way most people see it. Just a very, very special player. This game was from another planet.”
In the moments after the biggest and most dramatic shot of his career, Doncic gave thanks to the medical staff who got his left ankle in a serviceable enough condition to play, accepted the apology of opponent Montrezl Harrell for an ill-thought outburst and described his teammates running towards him at the end as “one of the best feelings ever.”
All that and he plays and talks with a smile etched on his face? Yeah, he’s hard not to like.
Make no mistake, the Clippers are still the stronger team overall and remain a heavy favorite to escape from this first round series, which is currently tied at 2-2.
Yet Doncic has served notice that he is here, he is ready to make an impact and that he will not be brushed aside by anyone. He has made that point very clear to Kawhi Leonard and Paul Goerge, as well as to the rest of the NBA playoff field and whoever plans on being part of the league for the next decade or more.
And, most of all, he sent a message to the fans seeking comparisons and to anyone who wants to pigeon-hole a transcendent talent - that there’s only one Luka.