By the last seconds of the third quarter of the Mavericks’ comeback win over the Clippers in Game 4 of their first-round series last Sunday, Luka Doncic was the only relevant topic. He had started the game on an ankle he’d barely been able to stand on some 40 hours prior, led the Mavs back from an early 21-point deficit, and turned the absence of Kristaps Porzingis from serious worry to subplot to afterthought. When Doncic drove, spun back over his right shoulder, and skied a fadeaway over the huge and narratively convenient hand of Kawhi Leonard—the bucket put the Mavs up 7 and advanced Doncic on the way to an eventual 43-17-13 line—the ABC announcers applied themselves to unpacking what exactly we were all watching. Jeff Van Gundy discussed fundamentals, Mark Jackson heart. “This isn’t new to him,” Jackson said. “You can’t rattle this guy.” At the other end of the court, a Clippers shot caromed up over the backboard. Doncic, rendered moments before as a tough-as-nails Student Of The Game, bounced the ball off his forehead a couple times before collecting it for the throw-in.
The booth’s attempt at summing up wasn’t wrong, just incomplete. The trouble with trying to explain Doncic is the same as the trouble with playing against him: cutting against the grain of expectation is his whole deal. Game Four ended with a big-beat starmaking moment, Doncic padding into the stepback three that tied the series and sent the NBA’s branding arm into involuntary spasm. But if it would end up being his most remembered sequence from these playoffs—Porzingis’ injury started mattering, the Clippers turned impenetrable, and the last two games went tidily to L.A.— it is not quite a representative one. Doncic deals in precursors, not crescendos; his style of play can be understood as a series of somehow anticipatory countermeasures. He wrong-foots even the way we talk about basketball.
We like to seek out clues about the spirit of an athlete in the way they look and move. Doncic offers a little to work with, there; the rounded jawline and sort of slippered gait suggest, accurately enough, that he doesn’t make his living above the rim or flitting side-to-side around the three-point line. But he’s missing certain attributes that might make things easier in the telling-description department. His eyes aren’t unusually large, for example. His hands don’t seem especially surgical or conductor-ish or anything. He doesn’t have a tattoo of a protractor.
Even if he did, the standard cataloging of Doncic’s various knacks and their on-court application would miss the point. It is true that he is a remarkable passer, a thorough negotiator of space, an adept at gauging tempo and angle. The broad strokes of his biography encourage reading him as well-schooled. Doncic was born in Slovenia and spent his teenage years running things for Real Madrid; the hoops myth-making machine auto-fills the rest with allusions to a diagrammatic, Euro-flavored approach. He throws a bounce pass in tight quarters, and the word cerebral echoes.
His central gift, though, is harder to isolate: an awareness so total it makes specific actions seem almost arbitrary. It’s not so much that, watching Doncic play, you understand everything he can do. It’s that you start to see how much there is to do at any given moment. By themselves, the plays are cool. He lowers a shoulder enough to introduce the concept of leverage, takes a dribble that seems culled from a book of chess openings, and then it’s a half-speed layup, or some waist-high underhanded toss, or a crosscourt pass smuggled like a coded message through layers of defense. But considered together, they seem to reorient the sport in a way that foregrounds the pursuit of opportunity instead of the avoidance of trouble. There are many more places defenders aren’t than places defenders are—what’s so hard about all this?
The upshot is that one of basketball’s most dependable young superstars—the dude averaged just about 29, 9, and 9 this season—is maybe its least predictable player. There’s a play that has stuck in my mind since that Sunday, from the second quarter, when the Mavs still trailed by double-digits. Doncic gathered a defensive rebound with JaMychal Green behind him, turned to dribble upcourt, and, for the full length of the floor, kept Green pinned to his ass. Green tried to edge past this way and that; Doncic steered into his path. It was goofy but effective, producing a numbers advantage. Doncic eventually sent the ball to Seth Curry, who pinged it along to Trey Burke for a corner three.
I noticed, sometime in the second half, that I had spent the time since that play marking the positions of players during missed shots. I realized I was hoping to see it again—but, of course, I didn’t. Doncic’s charm is tied to a minor frustration; he doesn’t care about the value, strategic or entertainment, of repetition. A Leonard fadeaway promises another just like it, but there is something to most Doncic plays that you might not see again, even from him, for a long time.
As assets go, unpredictability is a tricky one. This series, and Doncic’s second season, wrapped up as they had to. The Clippers were the better team, and their better-ness was derived in large part from their possessing qualities Doncic doesn’t. They have three scorers who can get buckets with minimal fuss, and they are stuffed with athletes who go over and through most anyone in front of them. In the press, Doncic was given the up-and-comer’s sending-off. He’s a sure-thing superstar, the thinking goes, and the only question is how Dallas maneuvers to better complement him. Still, there’s something off—experientially, if not analytically—about hazarding a forecast for Doncic. The kindest and most accurate thing I can say about him is that I’m excited to watch him again, and I don’t yet know exactly why.