Mavs hope rookie Don­cic can take reins from Now­itzki

Winnipeg Free Press - - SPORTS - SCHUYLER DIXON

DAL­LAS — Luka Don­cic is get­ting help from a va­ri­ety of an­gles as the teenager makes the tran­si­tion from Eu­ro­pean bas­ket­ball to the NBA with the Dal­las Mav­er­icks.

The Slove­nian rookie has his mom to keep things set­tled at home, 40-yearold fel­low Euro trans­plant Dirk Now­itzki to teach what it takes to be­come an NBA MVP, and young point guard Den­nis Smith Jr. to share the bur­den of ex­pec­ta­tions for lift­ing a fad­ing fran­chise.

Add it all up and there’s still plenty of work the 19-year-old faces on his own as a po­ten­tial in­ter­na­tional star in an in­creas­ingly global league.

“He’s one of the most high-pro­file guys to come through Europe,” said Mav­er­icks pres­i­dent of bas­ket­ball op­er­a­tions Don­nie Nel­son, who’s in a bet­ter po­si­tion than most to know. “There’s a real buzz, which means ab­so­lutely noth­ing when he gets to the NBA be­cause he starts from scratch.”

Now­itzki emerged from a rough rookie sea­son 20 years ago to be­come one of the NBA’s seven 30,000-point scor­ers. The Ger­man changed the game as a seven-footer who could shoot three-point­ers and was the cen­tre­piece for a fran­chise that made 12 straight play­off trips and won the ti­tle in 2011.

The Mav­er­icks have Don­cic be­cause those days are over, re­placed by con­sec­u­tive los­ing sea­sons and a pair of

top-10 picks. Dal­las got Smith at ninth over­all last year, then traded up two spots with At­lanta for Don­cic, the No. 3 pick, four months ago.

Now­itzki is about to set a record with his 21st sea­son with the same fran­chise, now a com­ple­men­tary piece who is likely to come off the bench for the first time since his rookie year. This fig­ures to be Don­cic’s only sea­son with the 13time all-star, 2007 MVP and 2011 Fi­nals MVP.

“I’m sure we’ll have some time on the road some­where to talk about some stuff that he can ex­pect,” Now­itzki said. “But at the end of the day, you got to go make your own ex­pe­ri­ences and go through some stuff to learn. His tran­si­tion should be a lot smoother than mine. He plays with a savvi­ness that I never had. I might not still have it.”

Don­cic left home at 13 to join the pro­fes­sional club Real Madrid. The 6-7 guard-for­ward capped that six years of ex­pe­ri­ence by win­ning Eu­roleague MVP and Fi­nal Four MVP hon­ours while help­ing Real Madrid win a cham­pi­onship just days be­fore he was drafted.

That’s where the con­ver­sa­tion about Don­cic’s readi­ness be­gins and he isn’t duck­ing the lofty hopes Dal­las has for him.

“When they say you’re go­ing to be good, I like to be chal­lenged,” said Don­cic, who turns 20 af­ter the all-star break. “When they say you’re not go­ing to be good, I say, ‘Let’s see.’ When I step on the court, I need to show it. No mat­ter the pick you are, you need to show it on the court.”

While Smith is a pure point guard, Don­cic pos­sesses many of those skills. One of the first things Nel­son said about Don­cic af­ter the draft was that he loves to pass. Head coach Rick Carlisle ap­pears set to start him at power for­ward, but says he can play ev­ery po­si­tion ex­cept cen­tre.

The first thing to watch with the Mav­er­icks try­ing to re­turn to rel­e­vance in the tough West­ern Con­fer­ence will be how Smith and Don­cic play off each other.

“I just think if one guy zigs, the other guy’s got to zag,” Carlisle said. “We were a team last year that drib­bled too much. Luka cer­tainly helps that be­cause he’s a guy that can play with or with­out the ball. And so we’re go­ing to en­ter a new sort of par­a­digm with our team on this.”

Smith at­tended Don­cic’s in­tro­duc­tory news con­fer­ence in June and liked what he saw in the first pre-sea­son game.

“I wouldn’t say it’s go­ing to be easy for him, but he’s go­ing to make an im­pact,” said Smith, who also started his ca­reer as a teenager. “He’s a smart player, very high IQ, and he just knows how to play the game.”

As for the Texas tran­si­tion, Don­cic is com­ing along fine. He’s al­ready at­tended two Dal­las Cow­boys games (“I’m re­ally be­com­ing a fan of that sport,” he said) and al­ready has a favourite steak­house.

Among the early pri­or­i­ties for Don­cic, flu­ent in four lan­guages, was find­ing a good Span­ish restau­rant. His favourite player is Le­Bron James, but the game cir­cled on his cal­en­dar isn’t the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers. That would be Mi­ami, since coun­try­man Goran Dragic plays for the Heat.

Don­cic and Dragic have been friends for some time and spent the sum­mer of 2017 to­gether as they helped their coun­try win the Eu­ro­pean cham­pi­onship and Don­cic was reg­u­larly pick­ing Dragic’s brain about the NBA. Dragic also got a glimpse of how Don­cic will han­dle the tran­si­tion.

“The one thing that I know is even when he had a bad game for our na­tional team, he’d still be smil­ing,” Dragic said. “He doesn’t get af­fected by it. A lot of teams thought he would crum­ble un­der the pres­sure, and he didn’t. Men­tally, he’s strong enough where he’ll al­ways sur­vive.”

Mav­er­icks guard Luka Don­cic will have plenty of help tran­si­tion­ing to the NBA.

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