For nearly two decades, Dirk Nowitzki kept the Dallas Mavericks afloat. At minimum, they were a relevant team in the Western Conference, consistently pumping out 48+ wins and playoff berths. On the high end, the Mavericks were contenders that threw opponents for a loop thanks to the excellence of Nowitzki.
Dirk’s scoring prowess and unorthodox style caused problems for whoever they faced. Those big enough to body up Dirk couldn’t move with him; leaner defenders couldn’t keep him off his spots; the smaller, athletic forwards couldn’t dream of contesting his beautiful jumper.
Dirk aged like fine wine, enhancing his craft as his foot speed drifted away. He propped up bad lineups just as faithfully as he propped up his leg on his patented fadeaway. But even the greats break down sooner or later; that steep decline has pushed the Mavericks back into square one.
Last week, the Mavericks attempted to find someone to take the torch from Dirk. They may just have their man in Luka Doncic, one of the most accomplished prospects in league history — certainly the most accomplished international prospect. At only 19, Doncic has already won multiple titles and “best player” awards. He’s been playing up in competition for years and hasn’t faltered yet. If there’s a prospect equipped to take the reins from a future Hall-of-Famer, it’s Luka Doncic.
What Luka Doncic brings to the table
To be frank, there isn’t much Doncic can’t do.
He’s the best passer in this year’s draft by a solid margin. He’s a willing dime-thrower in transition, with a keen ability to move defenders with his eyes before firing the ball the other way. Defenders never know what Doncic is going to do — heck, Doncic never knows what he’s going to do. The shot gets missed here, but how do you account for this?
Doncic didn't get an assist on this, but I love the no-look fastbreak pass to the corner shooter. Printezis has seen it all, but he was pirouetting pic.twitter.com/mHcPltFmfG
— Austin Green (@LosCrossovers) February 10, 2018
In the half court, Doncic picks teams apart with a Harden-esque feel. What he lacks in off-the-bounce explosion, he makes up for in vision and savvy. His ability to decelerate keeps opposing defenders on their heels, while his slick handle — headlined by a filthy left-to-right crossover — finishes the job. His unpredictability creates opportunities for himself and for others.
Beautiful pick & roll between Doncic and Vidmar here. Excellent patience, hesitation by Doncic, then finds Vidmar w/the accurate bounce pass pic.twitter.com/95gOaCz0Mo
— NBADraftProspects (@draftprosnba) September 14, 2017
Watch how abruptly he stops. Then, he makes a point to go wide on the drive to lengthen the path his defender has to take to recover, which in turn forces the big defender to step up in containment. Once the big steps up, the window for the pocket pass is there and Doncic delivers it with juuust the right mixture of zip and touch.
Room to grow
Luka Doncic is not a bad athlete, but he’s not a premier one. That creeps into his game as a scorer. He can still get to his spots offensively, but he isn’t able to flat-out dust people off the bounce. The way he changes pace and his understanding of angles allows him to do pretty well for himself, though.
It may not always look pretty, but watching Luka Doncic score in a variety of ways against Kristaps Porzingis switches at the European Championships should instill some confidence that he can improve as a shot-creator as his body/conditioning gets better. pic.twitter.com/Dz7aTZQEbF
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) May 22, 2018
Still, he’s entering a new world in terms of the wing defenders he’ll see in the NBA. He was a solid shot-creator overseas, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him struggle to create separation early on in his career. Adding strength should help him absorb some of those bumps on the perimeter and finish through contact when he snakes his way to the rim.
Where the “meh” athleticism may hurt him, at least early on, is defensively. He generally knows where to be and he’s able to see plays develop early much like he does offensively. All signs point to him becoming at least a competent team defender who can hang with mid-tier wings. Until he adds strength, I’d worry about him defending 4s off switches and it’s unlikely he’ll ever move well enough laterally to hang with smaller guards.
Fire and Ice
Dallas started their youth movement with the drafting of Dennis Smith Jr. last season. Smith Jr averaged 15.2 points, 5.2 assists, and a steal in 69 starts, good enough to earn Second Team All-Rookie honors. The dynamic guard out of N.C State wowed fans with aggressive forays to the rim, finishing over and through helpless defenders. He still has a ways to go — occasional tunnel vision and adventurous shot selection made him one of the least efficient guards in the league — but the foundation for an explosive player is there.
While Smith Jr. is fire, new draftee Doncic is ice. The smooth Slovenian plays a more grounded game, manipulating defenders with a poise beyond his years. There’s an intriguing on-court fit between the two. Smith Jr., with his first step, can puncture defenses and stress enemy backlines in a way Doncic can’t right now. Doncic, on the other hand, can move chess pieces around in a way Smith can’t. Their contrasting styles should make things easier for one another.
Slot some plus-shooters around Smith Jr. and Doncic, and Dallas has the foundation of a versatile offensive attack. The wizardry of Rick Carlisle should accentuate their strengths as they grow. The defense should be terrible in the short-term; we’ve gone over Doncic’s shortcomings, while Smith Jr. is very much in the Russell Westbrook mold: he’s active, and scowls very aggressively as his man flaunts to the rim. Dallas desperately needs a rim protector, a major reason why they’re expected to go hard after Clint Capela in free agency.
For now, the building blocks for a post-Dirk era are firmly in place. It’s now up to management to cultivate those talents and surround them with the pieces they need.