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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic is getting help from a variety of angles as the teenager makes the transition from European basketball to the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks.
The Slovenian rookie has mom to keep things settled at home, 40-year-old fellow Euro transplant Dirk Nowitzki to teach what it takes to become an NBA MVP and young point guard Dennis Smith Jr. to share the burden of expectations for lifting a fading franchise.
Add it all up and there’s still plenty of work the 19-year-old faces on his own as a potential international star in an increasingly global league.
“He’s one of the most high-profile guys to come through Europe,” said Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, in a better position than most to know. “There’s a real buzz, which means absolutely nothing when he gets to the NBA because he starts from scratch.”
Nowitzki emerged from a rough rookie season 20 years ago to become one of the NBA’s seven 30,000-point scorers. The German changed the game as a 7-footer who could shoot 3-pointers and was the centerpiece for a franchise that made 12 straight playoff trips and won the title in 2011.
The Mavericks have Doncic because those days are over, replaced by consecutive losing seasons and a pair of top 10 picks. Dallas got Smith at ninth overall last year, then traded up two spots with Atlanta for Doncic, the No. 3 overall pick, four months ago.
Nowitzki is about to set a record with his 21st season with the same franchise, now a complementary piece that is likely to come off the bench for the first time since his rookie year. This figures to be Doncic’s only season with the 13-time All-Star, 2007 MVP and 2011 Finals MVP.
“I’m sure we’ll have some time on the road somewhere to talk about some stuff that he can expect,” Nowitzki said. “But at the end of the day, you got to go make your own experiences and go through some stuff to learn. His transition should be a lot smoother than mine. He plays with a savviness that I never had. I might not still have it.”
Doncic left home at 13 to join the professional club Real Madrid. The 6-7 guard-forward capped that six years of experience by winning Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP honors while helping Real Madrid win a championship just days before he was drafted.
That’s where the conversation about Doncic’s readiness begins, and he isn’t ducking the lofty hopes Dallas has for him.
“When they say you’re going to be good, I like to be challenged,” said Doncic, who turns 20 after the All-Star break. “When they say you’re not going to be good, I say ‘Let’s see.’ When I step on the court, I need to show it. No matter the pick you are, you need to show it on the court.”
While Smith is a pure point guard, Doncic possesses many of those skills. One of the first things Nelson said about Doncic after the draft was that he loves to pass. Coach Rick Carlisle appears set to start him at power forward, but says he can play every position except center.
The first thing to watch with the Mavericks trying to return to relevance in the tough Western Conference will be how Smith and Doncic play off each other.
“I just think if one guy zigs, the other guy’s got to zag,” Carlisle said. “We were a team last year that dribbled too much. Luka certainly helps that because he’s a guy that can play with or without the ball. And so we’re going to enter a new sort of paradigm with our team on this.”
Smith attended Doncic’s introductory news conference in June and liked what he saw in the first preseason game.
“I wouldn’t say it’s going to be easy for him, but he’s going to make an impact,” said Smith, who also started his career as a teenager. “He’s a smart player, very high IQ, and he just knows how to play the game.”
As for the Texas transition, Doncic is coming along fine. He’s already attended two Dallas Cowboys games (“I’m really becoming a fan of that sport,” he said) and already has a favorite steakhouse.
Among the early priorities for Doncic, fluent in four languages, was finding a good Spanish restaurant. His favorite player is LeBron James, but the game circled on his calendar isn’t the Lakers. That would be Miami, since countryman Goran Dragic plays for the Heat.
Doncic and Dragic have been friends for some time and spent the summer of 2017 together as they helped their country win the European championship and Doncic was regularly picking Dragic’s brain about the NBA. Dragic also got a glimpse of how Doncic will handle the transition.
“The one thing that I know is even when he had a bad game for our national team, he’d still be smiling,” Dragic said. “He doesn’t get affected by it. A lot of teams thought he would crumble under the pressure, and he didn’t. Mentally, he’s strong enough where he’ll always survive.”
Although significantly shorter than Nowitzki, Doncic is bulkier, which could help with the “rag doll” effect that Nelson described with the way a certain lanky German was manhandled two decades ago. Smith held his own pretty well as a rookie.
“When you have a young guy like Dennis that just went through that, to have a person of Luka’s age as well as a guy like Dirk that has seen and done it all in basketball, you get both perspectives,” Nelson said. “And both are extremely valuable. It’s not lost on Luka how unique of an opportunity he has to play with one of the all-time greats in his golden years.”
It’s not lost on the Mavericks what they hope Doncic becomes.