In the summer of 2018, the Dallas Mavericks drafted their superstar. After a year of creatively tanking, the franchise that Dirk Nowitzki built had found another European generational talent. Luka Doncic, a Slovenian teenager, had played professionally for Real Madrid since 2015. By 2018? He was the best player outside of the United States. Doncic was awarded the EuroLeague MVP, EuroScar Player of the Year, was the Eurobasket MVP as Slovenia won the tournament in 2017, and was awarded an honorary spot on the Real Madrid Football Club. He was an international sensation.
As an NBA player, Doncic has been a three-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, and will likely be on an All-NBA team for a third time this summer. As the season wound down, Doncic climbed up MVP favorite lists and the Mavericks rose to the four-seed in the NBA’s Western Conference. Dallas broke the 50-win barrier for the first time since 2015.
At just 23-years-old, Doncic was playing his best basketball. Was.
In the waning moments of the third quarter, after the Mavericks’ seed was locked up and San Antonio was solidly in the NBA Play-In, Luka attacked the left elbow. He rose up through a double-team to kick the ball to Reggie Bullock. As the ball went around the perimeter, eyes focused on a hobbling Doncic heading towards the sideline.
While Luka will miss game one, his outlook on the series as a whole is still to be determined, his status as a sidelined star feels weirdly predetermined.
Before entering the NBA, Luka Doncic was widely considered the top player outside of the Association. He played in the highest men’s league in Spain, as well as in Euroleague, at just 15 years old.
But that also means he began putting wear and tear on his body,, like a professional, at just 15 years old.
Before playing as much as a preseason game in America, Doncic had played in 174 professional contests. Three of those games came in the 2014-15 season. Thus, the other 171 games? They fit into a three-year window. That’s an average of 57 games a year against professional competition. And in 2017? You can add in another 11 games, with heavy minutes and usage, in Eurobasket.
Much is made of Luka’s scoring output doubling in his final year abroad, but the root cause of that? Real’s star, Sergio Lull, tore his ACL. Doncic’s usage increased to fill the gaps. He was a perfunctory star for Europe’s top team, much like his role in the NBA.
That’s not to say high school basketball and the AAU circuit aren’t a grind, but they’re not the same kind of work. Doncic has been a pro since he was 15, and his body has been through pro workouts for eight seasons.
A contrarian would add that he was also under the supervision of professionals. He had professional trainers, access to professional nutrition, etc. But games in Liga ACB are all over the country.
Doncic playing at a professional level at 15 years old shouldn’t be held against him. But when looking at his career, it will also impact the length of his time in the NBA. It will shape how long his “prime” lasts. And, it will.
Arvidas Sabonis arrived in the NBA in 1995, after the fall of the Soviet Union and just before his 31st birthday. Sabonis had played nine years professionally, and that is noticeably more than Doncic did before coming to the states. But Sabonis’ career offers insight as to cautions to take with the Slovenian star.
Sabonis was a giant. At 7’3” 280 lbs., and with training precautions of the 90s, it’s very likely he would have only been able to get to 25 minutes per game had he spent his whole career in the states. But he spent all but one season playing less than 30 minutes a game. In his 213 games before coming to the US? He averaged over 33 minutes as the focal point of the Soviet, Lithuanian, Forum Valladolid, and Real Madrid teams. Sabonis was a force as a scorer, rebounder, and rim protector.
But once he got to the states? He was past his prime, and the end was near. Obviously, he showed up at 31, whereas Doncic showed up at 19. That’s a major difference. But the wear and tear of international basketball from age 22 to 30 impacted his career a lot like playing in the NBA would have.
If Doncic spent three full seasons (and a part of another), in the professional ranks, the wear and tear on his body presently is more like a player in his seventh season than his fourth. Sure, he’s 22 years old. That’s the age of an average college senior. But he’s played so many more high-level basketball games. If he entered the NBA at 19 and played seven seasons, he’d be a 26-year-old vet with multiple Olympics and a few playoffs runs under his belt.
For instance, Kevon Looney has played roughly 400 NBA games and is 26 years old. He’s had hip injuries, a collarbone fracture, knee soreness, a tweaked ankle, and a bruised chest plate… and he’s considered the Warriors’ iron man.
As weird as it is to see, Luka Doncic probably needs to be put on some sort of veteran-level load management. In a year where just logged 65 games, Luka’s body failed him yet again down the stretch. Hopefully, he returns during the first round, but as he misses two consecutive home games to start the post-season the Mavs find themselves in a hole even though they earned home-court advantage
As the NBA continues to look abroad for talent, much ado has been made over the international game. Mark Cuban, upon drafting Doncic, argued other countries had better processes. All three MVP candidates are international players. But in looking, the level and amount of basketball need to be taken into account.
Nikola Jokic played just 38 international games in Turkey before coming to the NBA. Rookie Alperen Sengun was the Turkish MVP at 18, but he played just a 29-game season. Giannis Antetokounmpo? He played 29. Joel Embiid is from Cameroon, but played high school basketball in Florida and spent a year at the University of Kansas. His wear and tear pre-NBA was more traditional.
The gravity of the international professional game is noteworthy, and it has clearly led to Luka being banged up. Should it be a deterrent? Absolutely not. Luka Doncic is a face-of-the-NBA caliber player. He instantly improved a floundering franchise, and at just 22 years old he’s the present -as well as the future- of the league.
But that doesn’t mean this injury wasn’t somewhat predictable. Lower body muscle pulls come with time on task. The grind of a professional basketball season makes them nearly inevitable, and the hope is they’re as minor as a calf strain here or a rolled ankle there.
Here’s to seeing Luka Doncic back healthy, soon. And here’s to Dallas being smart about giving him the longest, most successful career he can have. And teams drafting internationally need to weigh that as well.