By The Capital Sports Report Staff
He has been compared to a combination of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson; he’s the reigning Rookie of the Year; and he’s leading the post-Dirk Nowitzki era at the Dallas Mavericks – all before his 22nd birthday.
There is no denying the hype and excitement that surrounds Luka Dončić, and so far in the Slovenian’s short NBA career, that hype has been more than justified.
After dominating the European basketball scene as a teenager with Real Madrid, no one doubted that Doncic would be able to make the step up to the NBA when he was selected third overall in the 2018 draft, moving to the Mavs after an agreement was made with the Atlanta Hawks.
Upon signing Dončić, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle described the Slovenian as a “franchise foundation piece”, offering a strong suggestion that the team’s next generation would be placed on Dončić’s shoulders.
That premonition has so far proved accurate. During his rookie season, Dončić became the youngest player in NBA history to record three triple-doubles and was only the fifth rookie to average 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Upon receiving his Rookie of the Year award, Dončić became only the second European after Pau Gasol to earn the accolade.
His immediate impact as a rookie proved a sign of things to come as Dončić has taken his game to new heights in his sophomore year. Remarkably, in just his second season, he broke Jason Kid’s franchise triple-double record when he claimed his 22nd, while also becoming the youngest European to start an All-Star game.
Dončić’s individual brilliance has translated to improved fortunes for the Mavericks as the Slovenian – with support from Tim Hardaway Jr and Kristaps Porziņģis – led the team into this season’s playoffs after a three-year absence and nine-years after their only NBA Finals triumph.
And it is in the playoffs where Dončić faces the next challenge of his burgeoning NBA career. After nearly four months in lock down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA returned at the end of July among new surroundings.
The 22 teams that have either secured a playoff place or remain in contention will complete the remaining regular season games before the playoffs get underway on August 17. All games will be played within a secure “bubble” at the Walt Disney Complex in Orlando, Florida.
As things stand, Dončić faces a daunting task in his first playoff campaign. With the Mavericks currently 7th in the Western Conference standings, they would face the Los Angeles Clippers, who according to the latest NBA betting odds in BetAmerica, are among the top-3 favorites to win the NBA Finals.
With five regular season games remaining, Dallas is 2.0 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the sixth spot in the standings. The team is also 2.5 games behind the Houston Rockets for the fifth spot in the standings.
A drop down to eighth appears unlikely, with the Mavs holding an 8-game lead over Memphis Grizzlies.
Dončić himself is targeting a climb up the conference rankings and has called on his team to win its remaining games to give themselves the best seeding possible for the playoffs.
“We can get higher than we are,” Dončić said. “We can get up to the 4 spot, and we’re looking forward to that, so we want to win all the games.”
To achieve a coveted place in the Western Conference’s Top 4, much will depend on the form of Dončić and how quickly he is able to adapt to the strange new surroundings.
The early signs, based on the scrimmages, have been encouraging. Dončić dropped 14 points as the Mavs secured a 108-104 win over the championship-favorites LA Lakers, before sinking 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists in the 111-118 defeat to Indian Pacers.
He then rounded off his ‘pre-season’ with 23 points in the 118-115 overtime win against Philadelphia 76ers.
Since the season restarted, the Mavericks played three games in their NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida. The team has lost two of their three games in the bubble with their win coming in overtime on Tuesday night in a 114-110 win over the Sacramento Kings.
Dallas lost their first two games with a 153-149 loss in overtime to the Houston Rockets on July 31st. Then, on August 2nd, the Phoenix Suns defeated the Mavericks 117-115.
Given the strength in depth of the Clippers – led by All-Star pair Kawhi Leonard and Paul George – Dallas’ hopes of going deep in the playoffs will likely depend on how strong the team finishes the regular season.
It therefore means that Dončić will have to prove once again why he is considered one of the brightest young stars of the NBA by leading his team up the Western Conference standings in the last few games.
It will no doubt be a challenge the Slovenian will embrace.
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