Luka Doncic Only Makes Basketball Look Easy
SALT LAKE CITY — Luka Doncic couldn’t sleep after playing the game of his life. None of the N.B.A.’s one-name greats — Wilt, Kobe, Jordan, LeBron — had ever managed a night quite like his. He was exhausted, but tossed and turned in his bed for hours, then got up to channel his energy into playing the video game Overwatch until the sun rose.
Everything had gone right that December night: 60 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists, an overtime win for his Dallas Mavericks against the Knicks, who were playing at home. He wows crowds without appearing to break a sweat.
“It’s hard every game,” Doncic said recently in an interview at his hotel on the road. “People say that it looks easy, but it’s not easy, trust me.”
He smiled. “Maybe it looks easy because I’m slow,” he said.
Doncic, who is from Slovenia, came to the N.B.A. five years ago as both a known commodity and a mysterious figure, already a superstar in the EuroLeague but still a media-shy teenager trying to find his way.
At 23 years old — “I’m 22, no, 23, about to be 24,” Doncic said — he embodies the N.B.A.’s decades-long effort to have global reach.
“Luka plays at the highest level with joy, passion and creativity,” N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said. “He’s an exemplar of this new wave of international stars who are influencing the game in their own unique way.”
Mavericks Coach Jason Kidd said Doncic, above, has a “cheat code” for the game with his court vision.Credit…Tim Heitman/Getty Images
Doncic received more than 5.5 million fan votes for the All-Star Game on Sunday night in Salt Lake City and will make his fourth consecutive appearance. His jersey ranks among the league’s top sellers. College teams and even some N.B.A. players play in his signature sneaker from Nike’s Jordan Brand line. And now, after Dallas traded with the Nets for Kyrie Irving this month, he may have the dynamic partner he has been missing as he has tried to lift the Mavericks to their first championship since 2011. He’s slowly stepping into the spotlight, opening up about how he got to this point — and where he wants to go.
“I’d rather have the championship than M.V.P.,” he said, “but if you win an M.V.P., it’s amazing, too.”
‘He didn’t have any fear’
Doncic said he was nearly trembling when he became the youngest professional player to debut for Real Madrid in the Spanish basketball league at 16.
He shot a 3-pointer in the closing moments of a game against Unicaja in 2015. “I don’t know how it went in,” Doncic said. “It was the 30th of April, my girlfriend’s birthday. So that’s a good day.”
Doncic is now known for wanting the ball with the game on the line.
“Some people are just put on the planet and they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do,” said Bill Duffy, Doncic’s agent, who has known him since he was 14.
Those who recall Doncic’s early days in Slovenia describe his play as the merging of genetic gifts and tunnel-vision devotion. His father, Sasa Doncic, played professionally for years. He had “the greatest court vision,” said Damir Radenovic, who practiced with Sasa Doncic and is the marketing director for the Basketball Federation of Slovenia.
Luka Doncic could always be found in his father’s shadow, begging to take shots during downtime or talking in the locker room. “He learned, maybe unconsciously, some of those veteran things,” said Marko Milic, a Mavericks assistant coach who was the first Slovene player drafted into the N.B.A., in 1997.
Playing against children his own age was too easy for Doncic. Grega Brezovec coached an 8-year-old Doncic for about 13 minutes. “OK, Luka, this is not for you,” he recalled telling him before moving him up to a group of 12- to 14-year-olds.
Doncic wanted to play so often that Jernej Smolnikar, another of his youth coaches, worried about how his prepubescent body would absorb some of the drills. He occasionally tried sending Doncic home, only for Doncic to plead with his parents to call Smolnikar to let him back on the court.
At 13, Doncic left Slovenia, signing a five-year contract with Real Madrid.
Alberto Angulo, a former Real Madrid player and director of the Real Madrid Academy, said in an interview in Spanish that Sasa Doncic saw it as a good development opportunity. Mirjam Poterbin, Luka’s mother, was more reluctant, he said.
Doncic was wary of leaving the familiarity of his home and mulled the decision for months. “Then the last week came, I made a decision,” he said. “I just decided to.”
Real Madrid had rules designed to build character in its young players — no hats in the dining room, finish your dinner, be on time. Doncic once overslept for a morning meeting. Coaches sat him the next game.
“To punish a player, you take away what they love the most,” Angulo said.
Doncic never overslept again. He wanted the chance to sharpen his game, Angulo said.
“He didn’t have any fear — in fact the opposite — of bringing in a player that could be better than him or take minutes away from him,” Angulo said. “He thought, ‘No, no no, if he’s good, he’ll make me better.’”
Doncic was named the most valuable player of the under-16 Spain championship. But Doncic said he missed his friends and being home.
“So that’s one part I’m never going to get back, but I think it’s worked,” he said.
He added: “If I had it to do again, I would do it.”
‘That’s the cheat code’
In every N.B.A. generation, a player or two can see the future. In the 1980s, it was Magic Johnson. In the 1990s, there were Jason Kidd and Steve Nash. Then LeBron James and Chris Paul came along. Now it’s Doncic who can see a play or two ahead.
“It’s not all about speeding,” Doncic said. “Obviously, speeding would be even better. But it’s just the angles, the timings.”
He isn’t fast like other top guards, but he said his legs give him an edge for getting into advantageous positions. “I was just born like this,” he said. “My father is like this. His legs are really strong. The trainers call them tree-trunk legs.”
Dorian Finney-Smith, who signed with the Mavericks two years before Doncic was drafted, laughed as he recalled the origins of Doncic’s now trademark step-back shot. Doncic tried one in a game. Rick Carlisle, then Dallas’s coach, said it a was bad shot and told Doncic to put it where the sun doesn’t shine, Finney-Smith said.
“Against the Sixers, he came out, made three in a row,” Finney-Smith said. “Nobody else said nothing else about that step-back.”
Kidd, who took over as Mavericks coach last season, said he could tell Doncic viewed the game the way he did from their first game together.
A defender had ducked under a screen. Kidd called a timeout, but before he spoke, Doncic told him that he had seen it and would take advantage of it.
“That’s the cheat code, and some are born with it, some are not and some can take it to a different level,” Kidd said.
Doncic plays dominoes with Kidd on team plane rides, and he loves chess. He plays on his phone so often that Chess.com recently partnered with him. “I always say basketball, you try to play like chess,” Doncic said. “We’re trying to anticipate opponents’ moves and read the game.”
Kidd likes to push Doncic. He has jokingly asked him if he can pull a Klay Thompson and score 60 points on just 11 dribbles.
“When you have a Picasso-like player, you got to challenge him in other ways to be successful because there could be boredom,” Kidd said. “Because he’s seen everything.”
‘He markets himself’
The Phoenix Suns trailed badly in Game 7 of the 2022 Western Conference semifinals. By halftime, Doncic had as many points as all of the Suns. As he leaned over in one moment, he looked up at Suns guard Devin Booker and grinned, creating a cutting and defining meme for the Dallas victory. He has racked up dozens of technical fouls in his career, but not this time. “I was like just: ‘Don’t blow this, please. Let’s not do this,’” Doncic said.
Dallas lost to the Golden State Warriors, the eventual champions, in the conference finals.
“It was really hard to win against them,” Doncic said. “We won only one game. But you can learn from them. You can learn from losses.”
He also had a brief chance to learn from a Dallas legend: Dirk Nowitzki, 44, who retired from the Mavericks after Doncic’s rookie season. Nowitzki, who is from Germany, said he initially wondered if he belonged in the N.B.A. But he was a trendsetter for international players thriving in the league.
“If you look at some of the M.V.P. candidates now with Jokic, Giannis and Luka in the mix now every year, that already tells you where European basketball is at the moment,” Nowitzki said, referring to Nikola Jokic of Serbia and Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece. He added of Doncic: “He’s tons of fun to be around. He’s cheeky, he’s funny and he’s got a good heart.”
Doncic is steering the N.B.A.’s future.
“His play supersedes everything,” Mark Cuban, the owner of the Mavericks, wrote in an email. “We don’t really have to market him. He markets himself.”
The rapper Bad Bunny frequently mentions Doncic in his music. “When you hear your name in a song from Bad Bunny, it’s amazing,” Doncic said.
Doncic recently went viral after he came to a game in a doomsday-looking Apocalypse HellFire truck. He’d been wanting a six-wheeler like it for a long time. He used to stand in the street, marveling at the cars here; they’re much nicer than in Slovenia, he said.
But he said his life is low-key.
Doncic and his girlfriend, Anamaria Goltes, have known each other since they were children. They share three dogs, Hugo, Gia and Viki, who help Doncic escape from the game he has chased all his life.
“They don’t know if you had good or bad game,” Doncic said. “They’re just happy to see you. So they bring a real joy to my life.”
He already has his retirement planned out.
Doncic wants to farm.
“It’s slow,” he said.
James Wagner contributed reporting from Los Angeles.