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The rise of Luka Doncic happened faster than anyone predicted

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Why Luka Doncic is must-see TV (1:03)

ESPN personalities sound off on Luka Doncic's brilliance through the start of the 2020-21 NBA season. (1:03)

THE BALL BOY, too young to tie his sneakers, made quite the impression on Goran Dragic.

The kid was the son of a veteran player on Geoplin Slovan, an Adriatic League first-division club where Dragic began his professional career. The boy, 5 years old when he first met Dragic, always had a basketball in his hands and put up shots any time a basket was open. Occasionally, he entertained the crowd with halftime dribbling exhibitions at midcourt.

"It's really hard to predict how the future would go," Dragic says more than a decade-and-a-half later. "But the one thing I could say is as a young kid, he already had a passion for basketball."

Luka Doncic soon grew out of ball-boy responsibilities and halftime entertainment.

It didn't surprise Dragic when he later heard that EuroLeague powerhouse Real Madrid recruited Doncic to join its academy at the age of 13. He was dominating the junior levels and making headlines in their native Slovenia.

"Everybody started talking about him," Dragic says. "At that age, we figured out that he was probably something special."

Dragic had no doubt after sharing the backcourt with Doncic during the 2017 EuroBasket tournament, where they led Slovenia to the nation's first title. Dragic earned the tournament MVP, but he was certain that Doncic was destined for stardom after the then-18-year-old stood out against NBA players, displaying a deep skill set and an uncanny combination of competitive fire and calm under pressure.

"He's going to be the best player in Europe in a couple of years, trust me on that. In the NBA, too," Dragic declared after the championship game.

"Mark my words, he's going to be one of the best in the whole world."

Dragic has been proved right. After all, Doncic became the youngest MVP in EuroLeague history after leading Real Madrid to Liga ACB and EuroLeague titles the next season. His honors after two seasons with the Dallas Mavericks include Rookie of the Year and first-team All-NBA selections, becoming the first player to accomplish that in his second season since Hall of Fame inductee Tim Duncan. At 21, Doncic entered his third NBA season as the odds-on MVP favorite.

Dragic's expectations are far from the only ones that Doncic has wildly exceeded. Doncic somehow managed to be both the most hyped international prospect in basketball history and drastically underestimated as he arrived in the sport's premier stage.

"I thought he was going to need some more time to develop and to figure out the NBA style and NBA game," Dragic says. "I knew that in four or five years, he would be one of the best players in the league. But, yeah, he demonstrated that I was wrong about that.

"It happened a lot faster."


WHEN JOSH RICHARDSON returned to Miami after training on the West Coast, he couldn't wait to talk about one of his workout partners.

"Yo, I just met this kid," Richardson recalls telling his friends. "He's going to be the first pick in the draft."

It was the summer of 2016 and Richardson, who was entering his rookie season with the Miami Heat, was training at P3's facility in Santa Barbara, California, working out under the watchful eyes of biomechanical experts in the morning and playing in world-class pickup runs in the afternoon.

In Spain, the buzz around Doncic was similar to the hype generated by Zion Williamson at Duke, according to Salah Mejri, who played for Real Madrid then and the Mavs when Doncic arrived in the NBA.

"When he played guys his age, he was killing them!" Mejri says. "We always checked his numbers."

But Richardson had never heard of the young Slovenian who was in the same weight room one morning. Doncic was fresh off his first full season with Real Madrid's top team and his agent, Bill Duffy, who also represents Richardson, suggested that both players train at the facility.

"No way," Richardson recalls thinking when someone told him that the broad-shouldered, 6-foot-6 guy was a 16-year-old kid. After watching Doncic display a smooth shooting stroke, precise footwork and rare handle for a player his size, Richardson was impressed.

Doncic wowed Richardson during pickup ball, hitting some step-back jumpers, flicking some pretty passes and setting the pace in a game that included established pros.

"He's got it. He's got it," Richardson recalls thinking to himself.

"I still think he should have been [the first pick]," adds Richardson, who is now Doncic's backcourt partner after a trade in the offseason.

"I knew that in four or five years, he would be one of the best players in the league. But, yeah, he demonstrated that I was wrong about that. It happened a lot faster."
Heat guard Goran Dragic

Doncic went third overall in the 2018 NBA draft, when the Mavs made a deal with the Atlanta Hawks to move up two spots. Dallas always considered Doncic the best prospect in the class -- "far and away," president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson says -- and the team's Europe-based scouts had been closely tracking Doncic since he joined Real Madrid's junior program.

Nelson first scouted him in person during Doncic's third professional game as a 15-year-old. He would time trips to Europe to see Real Madrid play lower-level teams, understanding that Doncic wouldn't play much against elite rivals at that age.

"Every time I would go see him, it was just another validation of how unique and special he is," says Nelson, who has long had an affinity for European prospects, dating to when he facilitated the arrival of Sarunas Marciulionis from Lithuania in 1989 to play for the Golden State Warriors team coached by his dad, Don.

Nelson was the first member of the Mavs' organization to identify a German wunderkind named Dirk Nowitzki as a lottery target and was convinced long before Doncic declared for the draft that the Slovenian teen could be a worthy successor.

"He was really hyping the kid up, which Donnie really never does," says Mike Procopio, the Mavs' former director of player development.

"Donnie Nelson was spot on this the whole time," Duffy says.

"I had this feeling and thought that [Doncic] could play point guard, that he was like a cross between Magic and Bird. That's the first thing I saw. He's a triple-double machine. I saw that, and then Donnie saw that. I just remember him saying, 'He's a point guard. He's like Magic.'

"You're damn right he is."

Nelson unsuccessfully lobbied for Dallas to draft Greece's Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2014, but he completely sold owner Mark Cuban in 2018. Doncic was the target as the Mavs tanked during the 2017-18 season. Commissioner Adam Silver fined Cuban $600,000 for "public statements detrimental to the NBA" after the billionaire blurted out on a podcast midway through the season that he told the team's veterans that "losing is our best option."

When Dallas, which had the third-best odds to win the lottery after a 24-58 season, ended up with the No. 5 pick, Nelson was crushed. "I was honestly devastated," Nelson says.

Doncic was never considered the consensus best player in a draft that saw Deandre Ayton go No. 1 to the Phoenix Suns and Marvin Bagley III go No. 2 to the Sacramento Kings. Some questioned whether Doncic had "maxed out," as Duffy put it, wondering if a player who was so polished could improve.

"I was glad every time he lost a foot race or didn't look very athletic, to be honest with you," Nelson says, cracking up with laughter. "I was cheering for him to screw up in the European championships [days before the draft].

"I just wanted him to drop!"


PLENTY OF PEOPLE around the NBA doubted whether Doncic, who had grown to a shade taller than 6-foot-7 and more than 230 pounds, could play point guard in the NBA. One talent evaluator for a team picking a little later in that lottery compared him to Hedo Turkoglu, a skilled forward with playmaking ability -- a good player but far from a superstar.

Mavs coach Rick Carlisle admits that even he considered Doncic's NBA position to be "unclear" when he studied his European film. He knew Doncic had the savvy and vision to be a primary ball handler, but he wasn't sure a player that size could play point guard against the world's premier athletes.

"There's just a perception that players that are big and strong just aren't going to be able to do it, because how could they possibly be quick enough," Carlisle says. "But one of the things that you find out about Luka when you see him day to day is that he's not only strong, but he's quick and powerful and fast -- and deceptively so in all those areas."

It took about a day or two of watching Doncic play pickup ball at the Mavs' practice facility in the fall before his rookie season for Carlisle to be convinced.

"He was playing the point and he was seeing everything, he was making amazing passes look so simple," Carlisle says. "He was impacting every part of the game. He was getting a lot of rebounds. He was finding people on time, on target. It was clear that he could play point guard, let's put it that way."

There was one problem: That position was already manned by Dennis Smith Jr., the previous year's lottery pick and an All-Rookie selection the Mavs had proclaimed to be a foundation piece. Doncic began his NBA career officially listed as a forward and sharing facilitating duties with Smith, although Smith got a larger share of playmaking assignments because he struggled playing off the ball.

"I was glad every time he lost a foot race or didn't look very athletic, to be honest with you. I was cheering for him to screw up in the European championships. I just wanted him to drop!"
Mavericks president Donnie Nelson

Doncic made his first start at point guard six weeks into the season, when Smith missed a game due to injury, and recorded 15 points and eight assists in a home win over the Boston Celtics. Doncic then averaged 19.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists during an 11-game stretch in December, when an injury sidelined Smith for all but one outing.

The Mavs soon came to the conclusion that they needed to move on from Smith to maximize Doncic's potential, which Nelson acknowledged he anticipated even before Doncic's arrival. Smith ended up being part of the package Dallas sent to the New York Knicks in the Kristaps Porzingis trade at the end of January 2019.

"In the first year, we were trying to figure things out," Nelson says. "How quickly do we put [Doncic] in that position? Things really opened up once we made that New York trade. ...

"He was born to be a quarterback."


DONCIC RAN AWAY with 2019 Rookie of the Year honors but made such a leap in his second season that he was a Most Improved Player finalist, averaging 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. The only players to stuff box scores with statistics that matched or exceeded Doncic's in those categories over the course of a season: Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson (four times) and Russell Westbrook during his MVP season in 2016-17.

Doncic was more productive during the playoffs (31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.7 assists), when the Mavs pushed the Clippers to six games despite losing Porzingis to a knee injury midway through the series.

"Once that ball was given to him, you could tell that it sort of shifted -- everything ran through him," says Procopio, who left the Mavs after Doncic's rookie year. "You could really tell that he could be an MVP-type player."

That is the standard now for Doncic, who turns 22 on Feb. 28. He'd be the youngest MVP winner in NBA history if he earns the honor this season.

"It's good and bad," said Doncic, whose conditioning was heavily scrutinized in the early weeks of the season after he came back from the short offseason carrying a few extra pounds. "A lot of people expect a lot from me. You have a lot of pressure, but on the other hand, people know I can do it."

Those high expectations also create a sense of urgency not typical for a team building around such a young superstar.

Dallas expedited its rebuilding process during Doncic's rookie season. The biggest step was acquiring a potential co-star in Porzingis. The Mavs also traded Harrison Barnes, the team's leading scorer the previous season, before that year's deadline in a move motivated by creating salary-cap flexibility. Dallas had planned to swing for another superstar next summer, a strategy that hit a roadblock when players scheduled to become free agents agreed to extensions with their current teams.

The Mavs have remained aggressive in pursuing complementary pieces around Doncic, such as the offseason trade of premier shooter Seth Curry for a stopper in Richardson, a move made because Dallas felt upgrading its defense was the only way to contend.

Despite the Mavs' rocky 8-10 start, the hype around Doncic has only gained momentum.

Any lingering doubts since his arrival as the most accomplished European teen in NBA history have been replaced by a sense of anticipation only a handful of players can command. And it happened much faster than many predicted.

"At any time," Carlisle says, "you can see something you've never seen before.

"I played with Bird. For three years straight, I watched, and that was the feeling when you watched him every single night. Magic Johnson was the same kind of player. Really, LeBron James is the same kind of player, too. These guys can do anything on a basketball court."