You don’t have to be European to appreciate Luka Doncic’s rookie season. The numbers say enough.
Selected third overall by Dallas in June’s NBA draft, the Slovenian teenager is one of 10 rookies in NBA history to average at least 18 points, six rebounds and four assists, a group that includes Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Grant Hill. All of those players were at least 20 as rookies; Doncic is 19.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said the Mavericks rookie, who sat out Sunday’s game with Los Angeles because of a strained right hip, “is going to be a great player in this league for a long time.”
The appreciations from Clippers starters Danilo Gallinari and Marcin Gortat run deeper. As former teenage professionals in Europe, they know the difficulty of Doncic's European accomplishments, and his seemingly instant ability to translate that success to the NBA.
“He’s definitely one of the biggest talents coming out of Europe since probably Manu Ginobili or the Gasol brothers,” said Gortat, a native of Poland who played professionally in Germany before joining the NBA in 2007. “He’s huge. He’s an incredible talent.
“Being the MVP of EuroLeague, it’s unbelievable. He also has that edge in him, that edge that he’s like ‘I don’t give a … I’m just going to do it.”
Gallinari began practicing in the top league of his native Italy at 14 and playing at 16. Doncic joined Real Madrid, in Europe's top league, at 13, and began playing with the first team at 16. Success came quickly. Gallinari watches little basketball in his free time but kept tabs as Doncic was selected the EuroLeague most valuable player, the youngest to win the honor, and led Real Madrid to a championship last season.
“An amazing career overseas because he was able to win everything in a couple of years,” Gallinari said. “At such a young age it’s just amazing."
Just as he took on a star’s role early with Real Madrid, Doncic has been given a heavy workload in his first NBA season. The Mavericks funnel much of their offense through the 6-foot-6 player who defies categorization as a point guard, wing or small forward.
Among rookies who have played more than 300 minutes, Doncic has the second-highest usage rate (24.9%) behind Atlanta’s Trae Young, and he has played the third-most minutes behind Young and Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton. Despite being the Clippers’ point guard for nearly one month, rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s usage rate ranks 10th, at 17.2%.
“He’s their man,” Rivers said. “You don’t see that very often for a rookie, not only just for the scoring point but also the facilitating point. He’s doing both, that’s impressive. But he’s also been playing against grown men for a long time so I think he’s a little used to it.”
The responsibility that comes with such a high profile is “not easy,” said Gallinari, who was 19 when he was selected by New York in the 2008 draft’s first round. He played 28 games during his first season because of injuries.
Also not easy, Gortat cautioned, is maintaining this level of play.
“Putting up the numbers he’s putting up in the first season is going to be, in my opinion, it’s going to be tough because what they expect every year? They expect progress,” Gortat said. “If he’s going to put up 18, 20 points per season average right now then next year they expect him to put up more.
“I think from a get-go he’s impressing people, but at the same time I think he’s putting himself in a very tough spot now.”
Doncic’s absence Sunday meant there was no duel with Gilgeous-Alexander, who has the third-highest assist percentage among rookies, behind Young and Doncic. Among rookies who have played in at least 10 games, Gilgeous-Alexander has the fifth-highest offensive rating and 13th-best defensive rating.