I have no idea how Luka Dončić, point guard for the Dallas Mavericks, got on this planet. I remember the image of this young 18-year-old champion when the Slovenian team won the European championship in 2017. I remember him from photos like the one above; I remember his joy and the forceful expression on his face. After the win in Ljubljana, Dončić went to play in Spain and then last year was drafted to the NBA by the Dallas Mavericks. He was 19 years old when signed a contract for $6.5 million a year. I am sure there are more statistics that could describe and explain the meteoric rise of the young basketball star. But other than some highlights of his playing–the famous back-step jump shot and numerous three-pointers–I haven’t seen Dončić play an entire game. Not even on television. On the other hand, every time I went back to Ljubljana, I noticed his growing popularity in the country that this year celebrates only 28 years of independence. Luka, as they call him in Slovenia, is a child of independence, born into the world without borders, free.
The motherland follows its hero. Dončić is not a divinity but a hope, some good news for Slovenia, which can be proud of her fresh talent. Here is a short note from Slovenia’s most popular columnist, Leon Magdalenc. In his weekly column, Magdalenc describes the fever of a young nation that is still in search of an identity and is, therefore, very creative and dynamic. So when Dončić moved to the NBA, the columnist wrote the following in a slightly ironic tone:
Long sleepless nights. The main hero is Luka Dončić. It’s been a long time since he abandoned his native soil, struggled in a foreign language environment and finally passed over the puddle. We were all trembling for him, hoping that he would not break his teeth in the new land, that they will not cut down his youth there. Deep in the night, when the games are being played in the U.S., we followed his challenges with the giants and merciless warriors of the NBA; we count his scores, jumps, and passes, praying that he would endure all this psychologically. However, there is the awareness that the plot will get even more tangled with an increasing entourage trying to earn money on his account, the herds of suitors proposing to his mother, and the teenagers harassing and disturbing the national hero. We may even witness the surprise intrusion of an always absent father.
So, a few weeks ago, when the Mavericks came to play in the Capital Arena against the Washington Wizards, I bought tickets. Good tickets near the court so I could watch Dončić better. Let’s be clear: the Mavericks lost, yet Dončić was the best player on the court. My impression was that this game night was not a regular part of NBA competition, but some kind of training camp. Both of the teams are young and building a future. I could not see much of one for the Wizards, but the Mavericks are clearly building the team around the young star Dončić. Well, he only recently turned 20 years old, but from the first time I heard about him, I knew he was a different player. He is incredibly mature, yet still has moments of palpable joy, rotating his head and hands after an excellent pass or a shot with an expression that says, “How on earth was I able to do this!”
Sometimes he tells a different story. He is not always 100 percent in the game, but when he decides to go for it, the impression is that he is able to do whatever he wants. He is no longer a boy that happily runs after the ball. When he steps on the court, he dominates it, but in a very selective way. In D.C., he did not warm up very intensely. He instead went to shake hands with all the referees. Not because he is a captain, but because he wants to be protected. It does not always work and some of the referees might not like it. During the game, I saw he had two referees against him after some nasty fouls. Despite talking to them calmly, even scientifically, it was clear they were not on his side.
Dončić’s communications during the game are very selective. He rarely says anything to his teammates, but he does have an open and permanent dialogue with the coach. There is this funny ritual Dončić has: whenever there are free throws for his team, he walks away from it, towards the defending basket, looking up in the sky as if seeking more concentration. It’s bizarre and is one of the few moments throughout the game it would be great to talk to him. There is no doubt that Dončić is a phenomenon, but the impression is that sometimes he hasn’t understood it. It all came so fast, and yet I never saw so much maturity at the age of 20. Not only does he see everything on the court, but he also moves and changes the offensive part of the game as he desires.
Defense, of course, is a different aspect of the game, where individuality counts less. So, as far as the fear that Dončić’s wings might break, that he might be too fragile to sustain the challenge of the NBA’s athleticism, there is no reason to worry. The hope is that the Mavericks will manage to create a better team around him and keep this young talent inspired and motivated. The Mavericks already bought another talent, the currently injured Kristaps Porzingis. With him, and perhaps another two players, the Mavericks may become the team to beat. If this does not happen, there is another possibility for Dončić. He might become like Carmelo Anthony, one of the most talented players who never won a championship but still earned a mountain of money, playing only for himself. I do hope Luka Dončić will not go that way, but this no longer depends on him, as he is now part of the biggest money-making machinery in the world.