Luka Dončić took the NBA by storm in 2018, when the 19-year old Slovenian showed he already belongs with the big boys. Nowadays, he is one of the best players in the league and the potential future face of the NBA, dominating the game at his own pace, with a lot of skill and style. So it seems fitting that he is building his legacy in Dallas with the Mavericks, a franchise that had a European star for the 20 years before Dončić came over, the German legend Dirk Nowitzki.
Dončić had the chance to at last play one season with Dirk, as his rookie season was Dirk last season in the NBA. So Luka had a year to pick Dirk’s brain and learn from one of the best stars the NBA had for a long time. However, many fans, scouts, and analysts had their doubts about Luka having an impact in the NBA, with his athleticism and speed causing the concern if he could keep up. Dirk admitted he was one of those people, as he spoke with Bill Simmons on his podcast and talked about why he had doubts about Luka becoming a star in the NBA.
“Getting ready for that draft, I’ve only seen a few highlights from him, and I was like, oh, he looks big as a guard, I don’t know if he can keep up with the athleticism; he doesn’t look the fastest, he drove by these guys easy in the Euroleague, but the defenders here are sort of different. I didn’t really quite know; I thought he could be a really good skilled player, a big guard. I didn’t know that he was actually faster than he looked, and I didn’t know how good of a passer and shooter he was. So he surprised me at multiple levels.”Dirk Nowitzki, The Ringer
Dirk also described how Luka proved him wrong and eventually earned his respect. Dirk doubted Dončić was ready for the big moments, and decided to test it out the first chance he got.
“When he got here, I think he was playing something, euro-ball, and then he came to training camp, and you know before training camp usually me, the couple weeks before, guys play fives, work out together, we lift, we play five on five before camp even starts, and the first day I remember he was already super cool and giving the passes. I’m kind of giving him that look; I gotta test him a little bit, right? I fouled him pretty hard one time, and he’s on the free-throw line for the game. So I’m going over there; I’m like I got a little bit of something for this young guy. So I’m giving him a little bit of trash-talking; there’s no way you’re making these two free-throws, and he just smiled at me and didn’t say anything. And he knocked those two free-throws in, so I think he gained respect right away by his composure, by how mature he was as a 19,20-year old.”Dirk Nowitzki, The Ringer
The huge misconception a good part of the NBA world has was that Luka thrived off playing against bad and slow defense in Europe, while in reality, Luka himself said a couple of times how it is much easier to score in the NBA than in Europe. The wider floor and lighter approach to defense, emphasized by a quick and explosive offense, proved to be a perfect fit for a skillful guy like Luka, that also has that sneaky quickness you wouldn’t expect out of him. All in all, Luka managed to prove everybody wrong, even the great Dirk Nowitzki.