Midnight Hour: Luka’s Ascension

At 22, the Slovenian baller is already a game-shifting talent, but will Mark Cuban maximize Dončić’s youth and skillset?

Mars Robinson
HeadFake Hoops

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Original illustration by Double Scribble, design by Antonio Losada

If you haven't been living under a rock for the past two years, then you know that there has been a supernova in Dallas wreaking havoc across the NBA. He even lit up the world (literally) at the Olympic games by dragging his team to the semifinals and breaking records with a historic triple-double, before losing to an overpowering France.

This superstar is none other than the generational Slovenian sensation, Luka Dončić, a 6'7" guard out of eastern Europe who has already proven he can score, distribute, and dominate around the globe.

Coming into the States and the NBA at once, Luka had many critics who were skeptical of his talent and even questioned his success overseas. The Mavericks, however, went all-in on the hybrid guard, famously trading up in the 2018 Draft to land him with the №3 overall pick (they gave up their pick, Trae Young, and a 2019 top-five protected pick that would become Cam Reddish, to Atlanta, who — by the way — are looking hot right now).

A young prodigy, Luka honed his craft as a teen playing for Real Madrid — a Euroleague powerhouse— from 2014 to 2018. He caught the attention of scouts in the U.S. in 2017 when he averaged 16.2 PPG and took home the MVP award in both the Euroleague and Liga ACB — all at the age of 18.

The rest is quite literally hoops history. The Dallas Mavericks became one of the luckiest franchises ever when it comes to picking Europeans — from Dirk Nowitzki to Luka Dončić, the Mavs fans get to fall in love yet with another unguardable Euro star who seems to be automatic when he shoots his patented “stepback three” (a respectable heir to Dirk’s high-knee fadeaway). For the three seasons that Luka has now been in the league, he's averaged a combined 25.7 PPG, 7.7 APG & 8.4 RPG. Re-read those numbers. They’re huge. So, the potential for this kid is literally through the roof.

For the past two seasons, Luka has had to deal with the star-powered Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. Last year, during “the bubble games,” the Mavs were eliminated in six — while this year, it took seven games. The Mavericks jumped off to a hot start with a 2–0 series lead, but would ultimately fall short. In both years, Luka averaged a combined 33.5 PPG on 49/39/60 shooting splits. What this mostly shows is that besides his poor free-throw shooting, Luka has proven he can raise his game to new heights when it’s needed.

That’s where Dallas’s management comes in.

The Mavs are currently in a state of organizational disarray — it seems —when a recent report leaked about Luka’s opposition towards Haralabos Voulgaris, a former gambler who apparently acts as a “shadow GM” and has a large influence on the Mavs’ basketball operations. Mark Cuban, the notoriously unbridled billionaire who owns the team, called “BS” on the article and now has to deal with the departures of both his long-time GM, Donnie Nelson, and the second-longest tenured head coach in the League, Rick Carlisle, who each stepped away from the team shortly after the article was made public.

Since then, the Mavericks have hired replacements for both their head coach (Jason Kidd) and their GM positions (Nico Harrison).

Luka, who is eligible for a “supermax” extension projected to be worth $201M over five years, is expected to sign — and he definitely deserves every penny. But what sort of rodeo is he getting himself into in Texas? Although he reportedly wasn’t happy with Nelson leaving as the GM, he also must know that he has the franchise in his pocket. In the days of “player empowerment” and making sure the athlete gets their just due, Luka has to capitalize by putting pressure on Cuban, for the sake of winning.

Cuban also has to make sure the Mavs don’t come into next season with the same roster — with mediocre and sometimes washed out players like Kristaps Porzingis and recently re-signed SG Tim Hardaway Jr., who are both expensive and inconsistent counterparts. Luka needs a roster comparable to his playing style, which would ideally consist of a secondary ball-handler who can take pressure off of the Serbian, who is currently responsible for scoring every point and creating every opportunity for his teammates without any other true playmaker to support him.

Dallas’s defense must also improve if they hope to compete in the bruising West. The Mavs traded Seth Curry — who shot lights out for the Sixers this year — for Josh Richardson, who provided absolutely nothing of value on either side of the ball in the playoffs. Josh has recently been traded to the Celtics, but their roster is still lackluster on both sides of the ball.

Make no mistake, change is never easy. Trading Kristaps’ contract, for example, will be a challenge in itself, as he makes way too much bread off the court to not be eating on the court— especially as a 7'3" “unicorn.”

Undoubtedly, Luka is still young and getting better each season. For the Mavs, getting him to sign that contract extension should be their biggest roster priority. Next, Mark Cuban and the rest of the team’s front office needs to take action now. This doesn’t need to be the Lone Star State for much longer.

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Mars Robinson
HeadFake Hoops

Freelance NBA writer and host of “The No Bias Podcast” Twitter: @marsjoint @nobiaspod