Luka Doncic Is Scoring More and Playing When He Doesn’t Have To

LOS ANGELES — Jared Dudley, an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks, put together a pickup game earlier this month when his team had an official day off.

He invited players who usually don’t see much time on the floor, including Jaden Hardy, Theo Pinson and Frank Ntilikina, as well as A.J. Lawson, who had been on the team for less than a month. The goal was to get them a few extra minutes to play, and to let Dudley and other coaches help them build up the informal dynamics of working together.

As Dudley organized the game, Luka Doncic noticed. “I want to play,” he said.

Dudley was stunned because, in his experience, star players rarely add on to their workload in this way.

He wondered if it was a good idea because Doncic had played 43 minutes (and scored 43 points) the previous night in a loss to the Clippers. But the team’s medical staff approved, so he let Doncic play.

“Just loves to hoop,” Dudley said.

Doncic’s passion has shown in the games that count, too.

It had been clear since Doncic was drafted into the N.B.A. in 2018 that he was a special player. But five seasons in, he seems to have taken a superstar leap. Entering Friday, Doncic led the league with 33.7 points per game and was fifth in assists per game with 8.8. By his own evaluation, he came into the season more prepared than he has in seasons past, perhaps motivated by losing to Golden State in the Western Conference finals last season.

“Until you win the championship, I think it always has to push you,” Doncic said. “And it will for me for sure.”

On Jan. 11, when Doncic insisted on playing in the unnecessary pickup game in Los Angeles, he was in the midst of an astounding stretch of basketball.

The next day he scored 35 points against the Lakers, which put his average over a 10-game stretch to 40.2 points. During that span, he scored 60 points against the Knicks, put up 51 against the San Antonio Spurs and had 50 against the Houston Rockets.

Doncic scored 51 against the Spurs in a Dec. 31 game.Credit…Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Against the Knicks, Doncic also had 21 rebounds and 10 assists, making him the first player in N.B.A. history to have 60 points, 20 rebounds and 10 assists in a game.

“The history of the game is written by the players, and it was written again tonight,” Mavericks Coach Jason Kidd said after the Knicks game. “For a player, Luka, doing something that’s never been done before, it’s hard to do.”

Kidd added: “Elgin Baylor, Wilt, he was in that class, and then he separated himself and made his own class.”

The Mavericks needed every bit of his performance. They won that game by only 5 points in overtime. Doncic scored 18 in the fourth quarter, adding 7 in overtime, which outscored the Knicks entirely.

“This kid doesn’t quit,” Kidd said.

Doncic passed 50 points in a game for the first time last season, when he had a 51-point effort against the Clippers in February.

This season, the Mavericks need him to score more. They lost the reliable scorer Jalen Brunson in free agency when he signed with the Knicks, and have had to weather injuries to other key players.

Doncic also spent the summer playing with the Slovenian national team, then returned to Dallas prepared to take a big step.

“I was way more ready than last year at the start, so that was really the most important thing,” Doncic said.

Dudley saw that in numerous ways. Doncic was in better shape. He was more aggressive in early games. He leads the league in first-quarter scoring, averaging 11.4 points during that period.

“He plays the whole first quarter now because we can play him at a higher rate,” Dudley said. “We believe defensively he can keep up with that. And shooting at such a high percentage. I think as confidence grows, he knows what he is as a player, he knows no one can stop him.”

Dudley, who played the final stretch of his N.B.A. career with LeBron James on the Lakers, sometimes uses James as an example for Doncic. He knows Doncic will respect learning about James, because he was one of Doncic’s favorite players growing up. James and Doncic traded jerseys during Doncic’s rookie year, and Doncic has that jersey hanging in his house in Dallas.

The maturity he shows in his play makes it sometimes jarring in moments when that lapses.

“He’s way wiser than his age; he acts like he’s been here before,” Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith, 29, said. “But, you know, sometimes you forget he’s only 23 years old. You forget until he does something crazy like kick the ball all the way up into the stands. Then you’re like, OK, all right. He’s 23.”

Doncic and Dorian Finney-Smith have bonded over pickup games.Credit…LM Otero/Associated Press

To be fair, Doncic hasn’t been fined for kicking the ball into the stands since 2019. But he does have a quick temper on the court. He has been assessed 10 technical fouls this season, though one was rescinded.

“Off the court, I’m not an angry person,” Doncic said with a smile.

Finney-Smith has seen that up close.

They became friends even though they came from very different places and started their N.B.A. careers in very different ways. Finney-Smith grew up in Portsmouth, Va., and joined the Mavericks as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Two years later, the Mavericks drafted Doncic, who had played professional basketball in Europe since he was 16, with the No. 3 overall pick.

That off-season, Finney-Smith and Doncic spent a lot of time together and bonded over pickup games.

“We worked out with each other a whole week straight, even on the weekends, and played ones all night, all day,” Finney-Smith said. “Played full court one-on-one.”

Then, as now, Doncic just loved to hoop.

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