Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Doncic has arrived as the NBA’s next superstar


Doncic was as entertaining and effective as any player at Disney World, undeterred by the Clippers’ physical defense or the magnificent play of Leonard, who scored 33 points to close out the Mavericks. L.A. turned to tricks and harsh treatment to slow Doncic, cycling defenders on him, trapping him to force the ball out of his hands and beating him up when nothing else worked. Marcus Morris Sr., who faced accusations of dirty play after stepping on Doncic’s foot earlier in the series, was ejected in Game 6 for a hard foul to his head. Doncic popped up off the court hopping mad, seizing on one more piece of motivation during a series that featured heavy doses of trash talk from the benches.

Make no mistake, Doncic scared the Clippers before the Mavericks succumbed to the most familiar postseason narrative of all: Tested, veteran contender outlasts young, plucky upstart.

“We’re on the climb,” Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle said afterward. “We matched up with probably the most physical and talented team in the entire league. It was a difficult series, but it was the kind of experience we needed. There’s great optimism for the future.”

As the Mavericks prepare to get healthy and piece together a rotation around Doncic and 25-year-old center Kristaps Porzingis this summer, their franchise player wasted no time setting a high bar for himself. After averaging 31 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists against the Clippers in his playoff debut, Doncic, 21, had no interest in incremental progress or delayed gratification.

“My goal at the start of every season is to win a championship,” he said after finishing with 38 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the Game 6 loss. “There’s no other goal, so that’s going to be mine.”

Carlisle said that he expected Doncic, the 2019 rookie of the year and a 2020 most improved player finalist, to return for his third season “with something new to his game, the same way that Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and all those great players did every summer.”

There are plenty of areas for potential improvement, even though Doncic is already an elite scorer, passer and game-controller, and even though Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, called him “one of the best players I’ve ever played against.”

Doncic can start with a little more restraint. As one of the league’s most effervescent superstars, he generally thrives when the intensity ratchets up, when words are being exchanged and when he can play fast and loose. However, there are moments when his fire and emotions get the best of him, leading to risky passes, low-percentage shot attempts, arguments with officials and confrontations with lesser players.

“Terrible foul,” Doncic said when asked about Morris’s flagrant-2 and subsequent ejection. “What can I say? Two games in a row he did something like that. I really hoped the first one wasn’t on purpose, but looking back at the foul this game, you know what I think. I don’t want to deal with that kind of player.”

Unlike many NBA players his age, Doncic is already a sophisticated and respected professional thanks to his overseas seasoning. But he will learn soon enough that he will be spending his prime dealing with the Morrises of the world and learning to pick his battles as Jordan and LeBron James did before him.

Doncic, who is not blessed with extraordinary length, leaping ability or lateral quickness, must also strive to become an average defensive player. There’s no shame in the fact that Leonard took advantage of him on numerous occasions in Game 6. Still, a more balanced two-way impact is one of the few things standing between Doncic and inclusion alongside James, Antetokounmpo and James Harden on the list of perennial MVP candidates.

Continuing to settle in as Dallas’s dominant personality and chief communicator is another natural step. Forward Maxi Kleber said Doncic emerged as more of a vocal leader during his second season, in part because of what Carlisle calls his “irrepressible enthusiasm for the game.”

“He shows [leadership] on the court,” Kleber said. “He plays with a lot of heart. He’s not afraid of anything. When it comes to practice, he’s the guy staying in [late], playing one-on-one, trying to get better every day. He’s developing and talking more and more. That will be his role, and he knows that. Right now, he’s doing a lot leading by example.”

Doncic, like many superstars, believes his growth will derive from refining his strengths as much as addressing his weaknesses. He showed that during his second season, dramatically improving his finishing around the basket and upping his free throw rate.

Despite setting an NBA record for scoring in a postseason debut and ranking sixth in points per game this season, Doncic said he will spend his summer improving his efficiency. Thanks to a smooth stroke, a practiced feel for the step-back three-pointer and a willingness to pull up from well beyond the arc, he draws defensive attention almost as soon as he crosses midcourt.

Even so, Doncic shot just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc, trailing the likes of James (34.8), Leonard (37.8) and Harden (35.5). His percentage is well off the marks posted by elite shooters such as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.

“There’s a lot of things to improve on,” Doncic said. “You can’t just work on one thing. You’ve got to work on everything. But I’ll especially work on my shooting. That’s my key.”

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