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Basketball

Slovenia Hosted Luka Doncic’s First Game in Four Months. We Were There. 

No, it's not Mavericks basketball. But the 24-year-old superstar showcased a couple of things back home that might matter a whole lot in Dallas, too.
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Luka Doncic picked up right where he left off while playing for his national team. Yukihito Taguchi-USA TODAY Sports

Luka Doncic ended his nearly four-month-long hiatus from competitive basketball back where it all began: home in Slovenia, in front of a packed house at the Stožice Arena in Ljubljana. Although it was an exhibition, the game sold out months in advance. Fans expected a show in a game that was advertised as the “Telemach spectacle,” in honor of the national team’s main sponsor, and it didn’t take long for Doncic to deliver one.

With 3:55 left in the first quarter, Doncic began his trademark pick-and-roll dance at the top of the key, playing hide and seek with his defender, Panagiotis Kalaitzakis, who tried to chase him around a screen. With a sudden burst of speed, Doncic, looking as lean as he has ever been, drove to the basket, effortlessly brushing aside the 200-pound defender. As the Greek small forward tumbled under the hoop, Doncic stopped and stared at him for a second before finishing the play with a casual and-one over 7-foot-3 center Georgios Papagiannis (the 13th pick in the 2016 NBA draft), who attempted to cover up for his fallen teammate.

So, yes, he’s still Luka Doncic. That’s the takeaway. Slovenia fell 98-91 to a very aggressive, hot-shooting Greek team that, despite missing NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, displayed a fierce competitive spirit. This was far from the ease-in, feel-it-out type of exhibition game one might anticipate in the early stages of FIBA World Cup preparation.

But that highlight play, along with numerous other mesmerizing passes, made this night worth remembering. It was a rare opportunity for Slovenians accustomed to watching their newly appointed national team captain dazzle NBA defenders on TV (hello, Cam Johnson) get to see it up close on their home soil. And you can see that Doncic relishes performing in front of his home crowd. One of the costs of leaving Ljubljana for Madrid at age 13 was missing out on the chance to showcase his talents in front of his fellow countrymen. These August exhibition games have become an annual tradition, and for Doncic, they’re his chance to pay it back to the hundreds of thousands of Slovenians who spend sleepless nights watching him shine in a Mavericks uniform. 

This year the FIBA World Cup will be held in Asia, in locations including the Philippines, Japan, and Indonesia. That only added to the significance of Wednesday night. Plenty of diehard fans like my pal Miha (remember him?) have faithfully followed the national team all over Europe, but journeying to another continent poses a considerable challenge. For many in the crowd, this was their only opportunity to see Luka for a while. And it’s not just the fans who cherish the chance to see stars like Doncic, Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic in person. Greek coach Dimitrios Itoudis emphasized the significance of these exhibition games for the young generations of basketball players, too. Watching these superstars can be invaluable inspiration for the next wave of European basketball talents, many of whom aspire to leave for America in their teens just like Luka and Giannis did.

What should excite you, the Mavericks fan, is the fact that Doncic looks to be in great shape. In his first game after the longest break in his professional career, in a game-high 30 minutes he eased his way to a 21-point, 14-assist, 10-rebound triple-double, a remarkable feat that is much harder to achieve in the FIBA than in a NBA game (games are eight minutes shorter, and assists are tracked more conservatively). Now there was plenty of rust as well, as one would expect. Doncic struggled with his shot, going 2-of-8 from deep, and he faced some of his old demons at the free-throw line, finishing 9-of-17. 

But he produced, and he did so on a roster that is constructed very similarly to Dallas’. Like the Mavericks, Slovenia is a guard-heavy group, but it lacks size on the wing and a dominant big man to address its defensive and rebounding challenges. The coaching staff tried to adapt (with limited success) by playing a more aggressive on-ball defense with a lot of switching on the perimeter. But Slovenia compensated with an emphasis on transition and fast-break opportunities, something that should excite Dallas fans who have grown weary of watching the Mavericks play at a glacial pace. And, yes, Doncic quarterbacks most of this, channeling his inner Dak Prescott to dish out long-range, kick-ahead passes to set up teammates for dunks and layups. We’ll see if that trend persists stateside, but Jason Kidd undoubtedly would be delighted to see Doncic continue this style of play when he returns to Dallas with a revamped, younger, and more athletic roster around him.

If you’re eager to join us Slovenians to witness more Luka magic before the NBA season starts, plenty of opportunities are coming up. First, Slovenia and Greece will clash again on Friday in Athens. After that it’s another treat for the home crowd, as Doncic takes center stage in Ljubljana on August 8 against Montenegro. Then the team travels to Malaga, Spain, where it will face the home team on August 11, followed by an intriguing matchup against the U.S. and old friend in Jalen Brunson a day later. (All exhibition and World Cup games will be accessible in the United States through the FIBA World Cup Bundle.)

It may not satisfy your craving for Mavericks basketball; we’re still a couple of months away from that. But it will be a nice reminder that Dallas’ favorite Slovenian remains Slovenia’s favorite as well. And that, after his hoops hiatus, he’s still up to the same old tricks—along with some new ones, too.

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Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…
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