Of all the ways to judge young players, Clippers coach Doc Rivers looks for one indicator in particular: the postgame greeting.
How do you know when a burgeoning star has earned his peers’ respect? When opponents go out of their way to say hello and share compliments after a game.
Thursday night at Staples Center, the Clippers lined up to meet Dallas rookie Luka Doncic after the Slovenian teenager scored 32 points and nearly led a Mavericks comeback in what became a 125-121 Clippers victory.
“You heard over and over again, ‘Man, you’re good; man, you’re good; man, you’re good,’” Rivers said.
Jerry West, a Hall of Fame player, executive and Clippers consultant, voiced his approval as he left the arena. Clippers guard Lou Williams, a teenager himself when he entered the NBA out of high school in 2005, called himself a “big fan” after seeing Doncic play for the first time.
Doncic is on pace to average at least 18 points, six rebounds and four assists a game, the first rookie to do that in 24 years. Just seven international players have averaged that stat line in NBA history at any point in their careers.
“That boy is a star, man,” Williams said. “I’m really impressed.”
Marquee NBA figures such as Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have echoed similar sentiments about the Clippers’ own international rookie, guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“When guys who you look up to at some point in your life notice your game and recognize you, it’s a good feeling,” he said.
Doncic played more than 80 games last season against professionals in Europe before arriving in the NBA, but Gilgeous-Alexander is enduring a long schedule for the first time. After playing 1,248 minutes at Kentucky as a freshman last season, he’s on pace to exceed that by the Clippers’ 45th game in mid-January, with three months of the NBA regular season left to go.
“He’s never done anything like this in his life,” Rivers said. “It’s a taxing process for a rookie and I understand that.”
A former point guard himself, Rivers is hard on Gilgeous-Alexander because he sees the rookie’s potential to be “really good.” He scored a career-high 24 points against Portland on Monday, but Rivers felt Gilgeous-Alexander hadn’t made his teammates better.
As Doncic went off Thursday, Gilgeous-Alexander was unable to find rhythm after early foul trouble and finished with four points, though his last jumper from a step inside the free-throw line cut Dallas’ lead to one point with six minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Clippers were outscored by 19 points during his minutes.
“Shai didn’t play great tonight, we’ve got to get him going again,” Rivers said.
Gilgeous-Alexander understood the learning curve awaiting him in the NBA and had prepared to meet it since he was a teenager playing in the Canadian national team system, where he absorbed NBA lessons dished out by Tristan Thompson, Corey Joseph and Kelly Olynyk. He cut candy and sweets out of his diet. On the road, he heeds the advice from Clippers nutritionists who point out the healthy options on each room-service menu.
“I try to eat more greens,” he said.
He’ll continue to get the green light from his teammates.
Unlike Dallas, which primarily runs its offense through Doncic, the Clippers don’t have a primary ballhandler. Yet as a starting guard, Gilgeous-Alexander brings the ball upcourt more often than Rivers ever would have predicted last summer.
“I thought he was good, but we’ve run end-of-game plays with Shai involved,” he said. “I wouldn’t have predicted that.”
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570, 1330.
Update: One day after Doc Rivers feared he’d torn a knee ligament after slipping and falling to the court against Dallas, a team spokesman said the coach is fine. … Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic, who is averaging 18.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists a game, is on pace to join elite company. Wilt Chamberlain — twice, in 1967 and 1968 — is the only forward or center in NBA history to average 18 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists for a season.