First World Problems: Pumping the Luka Brakes

The Dallas Mavericks won the 2018 Draft which is saying a lot since there were a lot of really good players in that draft. Trae Young. DeAndre Ayton. Marvin Bagley. Jaren Jackson. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But the leap from good to great is the province of only one 2018 draft pick. His name is Luka Doncic.

Luka has the most points and rebounds of those drafted in his class. He was Rookie of the Year and is a lock for All-Star in his second season. The only other 2018 draft pick who has shot at playing in the Al-Star game is Trae Young. (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will get a few votes for the numbers he’s putting up but won’t make the team this year). Where Luka separates himself from his peers is that he is chilling with LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden in league MVP chatter.

Luka’s sophomore season isn’t twenty games in and he has been phenomenal. 30 points and 10 rebounds. An offensive rating of 120 and a defensive rating of 105. A 32.4 PER. (LeBron’s PER is 28.4 and Giannis PER is 32.2. James Harden’s PER is 30.8). Luka is dishing the ball to a tune of 7 apg and he leads the league in triple doubles. The Mavericks are the direct beneficiary.

They are 1st in offensive rating, 5th in scoring, and top-10 in field goal percentage. It’s mostly irrelevant that they beat an awful Warriors team by 45+ points. (They did the same to the Lakers two years ago). But they are hanging in there in the playoff lower seed scrum because of their gifted second year player.

There are negatives. The Mavs only have one impressive win so far. They went to Denver and beat the Nuggets, a tremendous accomplishment. They have had a soft schedule. 8 of the 11 teams they played have losing records and they lost to the Knicks twice. But Luka’s emergence and what Donnie Nelson Jr. does to build around him gives the Mavs the most optimism they’ve had since their championship year. Luka is only 20 years old but since he started professional basketball earlier than most Americans he’ll reach his prime sooner.

Winning the draft by gambling on a prospect who played outside the U.S. could have the Mavs doing the Golden State thing. Remember when Warriors owner Joe Lacob said “we are light years ahead of every organization” and the masses routinely laughed because championship teams break up over money, personality, or fatigue. They never last.

You don’t hear that kind of arrogance coming out of Mavs land. The most controversial chest thumping was when Mark Cuban said he loves load management. Other than that, they are taking the Luka thing in stride, not over expecting just in case, at some point in the season, Luka under delivers. They don’t want to burden him because what goes up does come down and when you fall, which all great players do, social media is out there ready to wreck you.

So the Mavs are being humble as they watch the nightly Luka show. He’s an amazing talent and perhaps ready, in a few years, to rip to shreds Dirk Nowitzki’s title: best European player to dominate the NBA.

Of course, crowning Luka at 20 is premature, just like crowning LeBron at 20 was premature. Luka needs more experience. He hasn’t been to the playoffs yet, nor has he faced that singular pressure when coaches devise their entire defense around you. He hasn’t had to suffer through the NBA dark days, in the playoffs and eliminated.

Luka is still new at this, he is a kid. The Mavs want to protect him which is admirable and says a lot about their organization.

But treading carefully with Luka also means using their time to build a team around him that fits his skill set. He’s a point forward. The Mavs are in need of playoff caliber shooting guards and a versatile big man that can handle Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid. While the Mavs have a playoff roster, they don’t have a championship roster. They need a legitimate number two, who, when Luka is doubled, can create off the dribble or pull up at the elbow.  They still need more athleticism on the wing.

That’s the future. The right now is about Luka getting his reps, city after city, and wowing the locals. The Mavs don’t want to boast or gloat to piss off the basketball gods. But Luka is next man up to dominate the league.