INSIDE STORY: Luka Doncic showing enormous potential

Andy West 08:16 01/03/2016
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  • Talent: Luka Doncic (L).

    Pablo Laso, head coach of Real Madrid’s basketball team, was furious. He was extraordinarily frustrated with how his team had defended their opposition’s previous possession and called a timeout to let his players know just how unhappy he was, venting most of his anger at one player in particular.

    Reigning Euroleague champions Madrid were playing a crucial road game against CSKA Moscow, another of the competition’s title contenders, and Laso had seen his team slip to a seven-point deficit midway through the second quarter.

    As Laso launched into a full-blown blast of the ‘hairdryer’ treatment, the player on the receiving end of his fury sat implacably, staring down hard at the floor, listening but not showing any reaction.

    Within seconds of the restart, however, he certainly did react by hitting a nerveless three-pointer. Then another. And then another, completing a run of nine points in two minutes to show coach Laso that his message had been received and understood.

    On the surface, there’s nothing particularly unusual about this – athletes regularly respond to a blast from their coach by upping their game in an “I’ll show you now” manner.

    But the notable aspect of this particular tale is the player in question, Luka Doncic, was only 16-years-old. 16-years-old, but trusted to play valuable minutes in a crucial game, still trusted despite prompting his coach into a bout of fury, and responding in the best possible manner.

    As far as seasoned European basketball observers are concerned, Doncic, who celebrated his 17th birthday yesterday, is a star in the making, and his three-point shooting cameo in Moscow in January was by no means the only time this season he has made people sit up and take notice. He also shone from the bench in a Euroleague victory over Strasbourg in December, registering seven assists in seven minutes on the court.

    And in a Spanish league meeting with Manresa four weeks ago he became the youngest player in the competition’s history to capture nine or more rebounds in one game. One impressive aspect of the stats outlined above is the variety of his contributions: in Moscow he scored points; against Strasbourg it was assists; at Manresa it was rebounds.

    Quite simply, he can already do everything. Joe Arlauckas, who won the European title with Real Madrid in 1995 and still lives in the city, has been closely following Doncic’s development and told Sport360 it didn’t take long for him to recognise how special the teenager is.

    “The first time I saw him was in the practice gym two or three years ago,” recalls Arlauckas, who divides his team between coaching youngsters and broadcasting. “I remember the first thing I noticed was the size of his feet…I was shocked how big they were for someone so young. But then I watched for him a few minutes, and it was: ‘Wow, he can really play.’”

    Arlauckas is particularly struck by Doncic’s maturity, both in terms of his playing abilities and his mental attitude, adding: “I’ve been really impressed with him this season, when he’s started to play with men rather than other kids in his age group.

    “Earlier in the season I watched him play in the Euroleague against Fenerbahce [one of the title favourites] and I was so impressed with his lack of intimidation. He plays with incredible poise. He’s not just a pure shooter, which is what you often find with young players – they want to be offensive players so they just try to score, and then learn the other skills later.

    “But if you really want to be a scorer in this game, you also have to know how to pass the ball. And Luka already possesses all the necessary traits and qualities, which is so unusual at his age. He already knows how to see other players moving without the ball, and you can’t teach that.”

    Doncic was born in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana and played his early basketball with local team Union Olimpija, making waves in April 2012 by inspiring his team’s victory in an international Under-13 tournament with 54 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the final against Lazio.

    A few months later he moved to the Spanish capital, where his reputation continued to grow. He succeeded in living up to the hype, leading Madrid to a series of junior tournament victories, collecting the MVP award as Los Blancos triumphed in last May’s Next Generation Tournament which is contested annually between the continent’s top youth teams.

    First-team coach Laso quickly decided to promote the teen prodigy to the senior roster rather than keeping him in the youth ranks or sending him away on loan, and although he has been used sparingly Doncic has taken to senior basketball with the minimum of fuss.

    In the long-term, his future almost certainly lies in the NBA, but the good news for Madrid and fans of the European game is NBA’s eligibility rules mean he should be staying in Europe for at least another two seasons.

    And although he seems destined to emulate players such as Ricky Rubio, Nikola Mirotic and Kristaps Porzingis by making the successful transition from the Spanish league to the NBA, Arlauckas cautions that it’s too early to take anything for granted.

    “I don’t want to put a negative twist on this, but we should be realistic,” says Arlauckas. “He’s still very young so we have to be careful and there are a lot of things which could throw him off course – money, contracts, fame, women…everything that comes with success at a young age.

    “If you handle it well, it can be the most amazing experience in the world. But people have to be aware that all the positives can also be negatives as well, and my biggest advice would be that he has to keep an even keel, an even base, just play the game and stay humble.”

    Despite that warning, Arlauckas is confident Doncic possesses the right temperament and support to maintain his current trajectory, pointing to the way he has been accepted by his team-mates at Madrid – who won a league, cup and European treble last season – as an example of his maturity.

    “He has earned the respect of the locker room which is a hard thing for any new player to do, never mind a 16-year-old,” adds Arlauckas. “You’ve got to play well and be a good team-mate on and off the court. But Luka obviously has the confidence of his team-mates and everyone around him, and they know exactly what his capabilities are because they see it every day in practice. And I’ve heard nothing but positive things about the people around him. I know his mum is still close to him and people say he’s got his head on straight.”

    For a player who has only spent half a season as a professional and made just a few dozen senior appearances, it’s clear there is still a long way to go and the danger that Doncic could become affected by burnout or off-court distractions is real.

    But as much as a 17-year-old can ever be touted as a future global superstar, this young man appears to be the real deal.

    “There are so many variables which will influence how his career might go,” concludes Arlauckas. “But if he stays the way he is now, he’s halfway there. He looks like he’s going to be incredible.”