Most players, you can tell they’re locked in from a quick glance, seeing their grim expressions, eyes focused on the middle distance, jaws clenched a bit. It rarely seems all that natural. I remember Magic Johnson during one Finals appearance—I can’t remember if it was against the Celtics or Pistons—going out of his way to not smile. It’s like a sort of armor to get them through tough moments, big games.
But not Luka Doncic. You know he is absolutely about to rain down holy hell on the hardwood when he’s laughing and smiling and bouncing around with body language that says, in 72-point type, “Can you believe we get to play basketball for a living and that we are all so good at it?! What the heck?! This is awesome!”
I knew the Mavericks were winning on Wednesday night after one specific play. In the third quarter, after a Clippers turnover, Tim Hardaway Jr. brought the ball up the court in transition and then, nearing the basket, threw a lob to a player streaking up the right side—who turned out to be Luka. In most cases, Hardaway’s pass would have resulted in a dunk, maybe with a bit of rim-swinging to celebrate. Luka made an arguably more difficult finish, catching the ball one-handed and guiding it in off the backboard, but only because he couldn’t really jump high enough to do anything else.
He came back up the court laughing—at himself for not dunking, at Hardaway for throwing the pass like it had been Dwight Powell loping toward the hoop instead, at the entire sequence, at the entire game up to that point. Like, Isn’t basketball fun? You see players act tough, taunting, flexing, screaming. And Luka, sure, he does that, too. Yelling, “You’re too fucking small” at Pat Beverly, for example. It’s great. But more than anything, he plays the game with such joy, something you rarely see from other players and certainly not in such high-leverage situations.
That, to me, is maybe the main thing that sets him apart, makes him so hard to compare to other players. Even without taking the obvious glee he plays with into account, it’s difficult. There are aspects of Larry Bird and Magic and LeBron James and James Harden and Steph Curry (this one I think actually has the most overlapping parts in the Venn diagram), but none of them fit as snug as you might like.
He’s built like a power forward from the early 1960s, boxy and burly like Cliff Hagan, with the brain of Bobby Fischer, an analytical mind that tells him if he angles his body a few inches this way, then takes two dribbles that way, then turns his head a little bit back the other way, a defender 15 feet away will have moved just enough to free up a shooter on the wing. He has the combination of fearlessness and athletic ability that lets him take and make running one-footed three-pointers in tight games. It’s unbelievable to watch. I’d laugh if I were him, too, just because of how ridiculous it is, at times. I mean, come on.
Ridiculous: we were lucky enough to have Dirk Nowitzki in our lives for 21 seasons and then we have seamlessly moved on to a player who is like having Dirk and Steve Nash in the same body. What did we do to deserve that?