Have we really done four of these? Four complete revolutions around the sun with the most precocious Dallas Maverick of all time?
The calendar doesn’t add up. On the one hand, the pace of Luka Doncic’s development has been so rapid, so breakneck, that perhaps two would be more appropriate. He was the league’s best rookie as a 19-year-old, and then he promptly graduated to a first-team All-NBA selection, treating a marathon’s worth of development like a casual morning jog. Watching the joy he radiates in his celebrations, his testiness with referees, the admittedly fickle discipline in his conditioning makes it easy to talk yourself into him being 21: still charmingly unrefined, still mostly unrestrained by the American sports machine.
Yet it feels longer than that, too, and not only because he squeezed most players’ best-case career accolades into his opening act. Ever since Dirk Nowitzki retired, we have fixated on him and mostly him alone as this team’s reference point. Aside from the ups and downs of the abridged Kristaps Porzingis era, to follow the Mavericks is to follow Luka, to crest on his highs and white knuckle through his periodic—and, it should be said, fleeting—lows. His supporting cast is exactly that: supporting—designed to lift him up, not shoulder an equal share of the weight. We’ve seen it in the playoffs, and since Porzingis’ departure, we’re now seeing it in the regular season, too. Every now and again he looks weary, almost exhausted, the hardest-worked 23-year-old in all the NBA.
One way or the other, the timeline seemingly won’t align with reality, which tracks for someone whose game rejects the accepted laws of basketball on a nightly basis. Little of what Luka Doncic does on the floor makes sense in its place and time because claiming an understanding of it implies recognition of every component of his game, and no player has ever seen basketball in quite this way. I suspect that will remain the case even when he’s 33, and 43, and 53.
In so many other walks of life, turning 23 overlaps with the first furtive steps into post-college adulthood, the initial branching off what heretofore had been a preordained path rooted in education and onto wherever professionalism leads. Doncic’s first brush with that happened a decade ago, when he signed with Real Madrid as a 13-year-old. If anything in his life overlaps with the typical 23-year-old experience, it will be in these Mavericks becoming more dependent on him than ever. Until—unless—Dallas acquires another superstar, this new, post-Porzingis reality will be his greatest showcase yet.
23-year-old Luka Doncic has stumbled into a new level of independence, and he will press against its limits: growing and struggling, learning and failing. And we will spend the next 365 days as we have the previous: transfixed by the many things this prodigy does and tantalized by what he might do once he’s fully realized. Brilliant and singular though he may be, Doncic is not yet who he will become. That’s his birthday gift to Dallas.