CHARLOTTE — Before his first season in the NBA, a Dallas Mavericks teammate presented Luka Doncic with a Hello Kitty backpack. It wasn’t exactly a present to celebrate his arrival after being drafted third overall. The little kid’s bag was cute — with hearts all over — and young players such as Doncic are expected to be embarrassed by those sorts of things.
The trouble is, backpacks are for rookies. And Doncic isn’t your typical first-year player.
“He seems like he’s been in the league for seven or eight years,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks said, echoing the thoughts of many around the league. “I don’t look at him as a young player. He’s a legitimate NBA player that’s going to be a superstar in this league.”
He’s a teenager with a scruffy neck beard, which makes him look older than his 19 years. And his game is far more grown-up than that of his first-year peers. His imaginative playmaking and ability to allow the basics of the game to glow beautifully — he highlights a stacked roster for the All-Star Weekend’s Skills Challenge here Saturday night, and he’s in Friday’s Rising Stars game — have made Doncic the front-runner to be the rookie of the year.
Doncic’s rise — he’s averaging 20.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists, and he could be the first European winner of the rookie honor since Spain’s Pau Gasol in 2001-02 — sparked a question that might have seemed ludicrous a generation ago: Are young European players more prepared to excel in the NBA than their American peers?
“One thing about the European prospects: They are a little bit more fundamentally sound, better than we are,” said Shaquille O’Neal, the big-man icon and Hall of Famer who appears on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.” “Over there, they practice the basics. Over here, we rely a lot on our talents: jumping, shooting, running. Europeans have always been like that, and Doncic looks pretty good.”
While the Americans of his 2018 draft class grew up playing high school basketball and a loaded summertime schedule on the AAU circuit, Doncic, a native of Slovenia, received the bulk of his basketball education while playing professionally for three years in Europe. That background gave him what seems to be a significant head start.
With Real Madrid last season, Doncic was MVP of the EuroLeague, arguably the second-most-competitive professional league in the world, while Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, the players drafted ahead of him, completed their one and only season in college basketball.
“That’s the biggest difference when you think of rookies in America and rookies overseas,” said Wesley Matthews, a Mavericks teammate of Doncic’s for 44 games this season before being traded. “A lot of rookies in the States right now, they’re young. They’re 18, 19, 20, 21 . . . They’re not quite as seasoned as far as practice times and film sessions and all that kind of stuff. If you would’ve drafted me after my freshman year in college, all I would’ve known is high school, where I could’ve essentially done whatever I wanted to do because I was the best player.”
Matthews didn’t discount the benefits of AAU basketball, but Mavericks owner Mark Cuban railed against its culture during a December interview with a European outlet. According to Cuban, if Americans dropped their elite prospects in Slovenia, the NBA “would be a thousand times better."
Of course, not everyone around the NBA believes that Europeans can teach Americans a thing or two about the game.
“That doesn’t make any sense, because we went over there to teach them fundamentals,” said Kenny Smith, an analyst on “Inside The NBA.” “Twenty years ago, basketball was terrible in Europe. I used to play internationally. If we had a game [where the final margin was] under 10 points, everybody was shocked. But we went over, our coaches did clinics and showed them how to play basketball the right way, and they adopted it and they continued to do it. So I disagree with that.”
Memphis forward Jaren Jackson Jr., another 19-year-old rookie, cherished his time in AAU ball because it was the last time he was able to play for fun. Still, when discussing which prospect is more ready for the NBA — an American or a European — Jackson opts to pass on that battle.
“I don’t really know what they’re doing over there in Europe. They’re probably just passing a lot. They’re doing something right. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working,” he said. “I can’t really compare because I don’t know what they’re doing, but I had fun playing AAU. I don’t really look at it like it’s a negative. . . . I would just say, ‘Play more AAU games.’ They’re fun. I like them.”
Likewise, Doncic seems to be having a blast. He spent Friday afternoon smiling through practice for the evening’s Rising Stars game. When one of his sky-scraping three-pointers ripped the nylon or as he cheated in a shooting competition by starting before the coach yelled “Go!” Doncic looked like the biggest kid on the court.
And when asked about rookie hazing, Doncic rolled his eyes. He’s in Charlotte for All-Star Weekend; that Hello Kitty backpack remains somewhere in Dallas. And the sentiment that he’s just another rookie has been packed away as well.
“I always knew I was ready. I know a lot of people thought that I wasn’t ready because I was in Europe,” Doncic said. “I think Europe players are getting more and more recognized. . . . I think we’re proving that we can play in this league.”
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