One month after his Dallas Mavericks were eliminated by the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, Luka Dončić has not yet taken a day off. He is playing for the Slovenian national team, and he does not look like the same person who scored 28 points in that elimination game on May 26.
Slovenia played a friendly against Italy on Saturday. Dončić tallied 12 points, five assists, and seven rebounds in a 90-71 victory. He made many effortless highlights, but his performance was not the story of this game. The story is a picture in which Dončić looks like his diet has consisted of nothing but pure protein and he hasn’t stopped lifting weights for the last 30 days.
There are two major concerns with Dončić’s game. They are his defense and his offseason conditioning. Slovenia lost the bronze medal game in the Olympics on August 7, 2021, and Dončić still showed up to Mavericks training camp in late September out of shape. It took him about a month of regular season play to get into NBA basketball shape, and he even admitted in December that he needed to do better.
That picture of him on Saturday looks like he’s had the most successful month of offseason conditioning in the history of professional sports. However, that picture belongs in a promotional packet for a movie release. The light is hitting him perfectly as he heads to the bench after a stint on the court. If I worked in the Mavericks ticket office, that picture would be on everything I send out on all renewal information for season ticket holders, and in all of the emails I send to people who purchased single-game tickets to try and get them to buy larger packages.
While Dončić is clearly in better shape, he has not had enough time to make a Nikola Jokić-level slim down and add muscle definition. In other offseason pictures his face looks smaller and his arms are certainly more toned. He is much leaner than he was during the NBA season, but he’s not built like Peloton instructor instructor just yet.
However, not only is he leaner than he was during the season, as Slovenia gets ready for FIBA World Cup qualifier competition, he looks completely different than he did last year during the Olympics. He was far from out of shape then, leading Slovenia to within one Nicolas Batum block from playing against the United States in the gold medal game. Dončić was certainly nowhere near the 260 pounds that he was reported to show up to training camp weighing a month later, but his face looked much different then.
The 2022-23 season will be Dončić’s fifth in the NBA. He tasted playoff victory for the first time, and maybe that — and a little shame from early last season — is what he needs to take another major step forward as one of the best players in the league. His talent is undeniable, but as good as he is, in the NBA talent can only take a player to a certain point. Stephen Curry showed in this NBA postseason what a great conditioning program will do. He completely transformed his body from not being able to hold a basketball jersey on his shoulders, to using those shoulders to absorb contact and be able to hold his own on defense against bigger perimeter players. Curry can do all of that and is still able to bury 3-pointers late in games, late in the season, and later in his career.
It’s the step that all players have to take when they want to make the transition from great to all-time great. Dončić appears well on his way in June, let’s see what he looks like in September.