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PORTLAND, Ore. — After practices, Luka Doncic works on shots just like the one he hit as time expired Sunday night to send the Dallas Mavericks to overtime against the Portland Trail Blazers. The sort of falling-out-of-bounds prayer of a three-pointer that’s lab-designed to be included in a future “Where Amazing Happens” commercial.
Doncic practices those shots precisely for situations like this one—down three points, on the road, six-tenths of a second remaining, no timeouts left.
“A lot of people think that’s a joke, but it’s not,” Doncic said after the game, which Dallas lost 121-118. “Sometimes you need those shots.”
The NBA world is just getting to know Doncic, the 19-year-old Slovenian phenom who is living up to his massive predraft hype, dazzling fans nightly with tricky passes and James Harden-esque stepback contested threes. But already, he’s developed a reputation as a big-game performer. No one in the Moda Center was surprised this one went down, even with Maurice Harkless draped all over him.
“Something just told me, when he threw it up in the air, ‘Man, that s–t going in,'” Damian Lillard said.
Lillard would know. Like Doncic, he came into the NBA as a rookie and immediately played like a seasoned veteran. Nothing rattled him then, and his resume of stepping up in big moments has only grown. Doncic entered the NBA having played for Real Madrid since the age of 14, winning EuroLeague MVP as a teenager, dominating grown men in the second-best professional league in the world.
It’s rare for rookies to pick up the speed of the NBA game this quickly, and it’s even rarer for them to look and act like they belong after less than half a season in the league.
“I just remember my rookie year, it got to the point where every time I was in one of those situations, it was like, this is supposed to happen,” Lillard said. “I was just making those kinds of shots. He’s been having a lot of moments so far this season. As soon as I see him put the ball up in the air, I know, ‘He’s gonna make this. We’re gonna have to win it in overtime.’ He’s a really, really, really good player. Not just for a rookie.”
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Doncic’s teammates are already used to this. They’ve seen him perfect his late-game heroics after practices, so it’s no surprise when it manifests itself in a game. These are the moments he’s relished for his entire career, and that energy has become contagious for the Mavericks.
“He’s a gamer,” Mavs guard J.J. Barea told Bleacher Report. “When the lights are on, he loves to play against the best competition possible. He’s not scared of the moment. He’s enjoying every moment of it.”
The timing of Doncic’s arrival in Dallas is as close to ideal as can be for a Mavericks team in transition. With Dirk Nowitzki in what is almost certain to be the final season of a 21-year Hall of Fame career and no other bankable stars on the roster, Doncic is poised to immediately take over as the face of basketball in Dallas.
The Mavs were highly motivated to get Doncic from the beginning. It’s why they tanked last season so openly that owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 by the NBA for publicly acknowledging what they were doing. It’s why they were so willing to give up a future first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks to move up two spots in the 2018 draft.
They knew Doncic was their franchise’s future, and even they didn’t think his seemingly limitless potential would realize itself this quickly.
“We knew he was good,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said before the game. “How good, how fast, nobody knew. [Mavs general manager] Donnie Nelson had a very good grasp on the situation. He’s felt for well over a year that he was the best player in that draft class last year. We’ve been in rebuilding mode, so we’ve been looking very closely at draft prospects during the season for the last two years—much more than I ever have. We’re very pleased to have drafted him.”
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Doncic’s knack for making big shots is only part of his star appeal. He’s also a high-IQ playmaker who knows how to take advantage of his size to create mismatches with opposing point guards. That part has come with some growing pains, as Doncic is eighth among guards with 3.4 turnovers per game. But more often than not, his flashy style has been a help for a surprising Dallas team.
“It’s very obvious that he’s been playing professionally,” Lillard said. “I’m sometimes on the weak side and seeing him coming off of a pick-and-roll, and he’s seeing everything. He’s making the right plays, and he’s manipulating situations to get what he wants out of the play. You don’t really see that from a rookie.
“He’s got real game. He’s a real pro.”
Unlike most kids his age, Doncic has been a pro since many of his peers were in middle school. The NBA is a jump for him, but it’s not a massive one. And he’s fully prepared to embrace it.
“I think you have to be born with that stuff,” Barea said. “He’s one of those guys who’s born with it.”