There was a funny moment midway through the third quarter of Wednesday night’s Mavericks road win in Houston, when Luka Dončić drove the paint off a nifty show-and-go move, slowed up in the lane, and lofted a smooth, high-arcing floater over the outstretched arm of Clint Capela, one of the NBA’s more athletic rim-protectors. It was a lovely move, and the shot looked very slick, but it missed the rim by a solid eight inches. Luckily, the refs bailed Dončić out with the softest of shooting fouls.
I’m leading with that because it was very funny and it drove the Rockets booth crazy, but also to get it out of the way, so that you can settle in and watch this video of Dončić doing extremely cool basketball things, mentally prepared for the fact that the very last thing you will see Dončić do is airball a layup.
What was so much fun about Dončić’s performance Wednesday night was the high degree of difficulty on each of his six made buckets. He opened the game with an insanely tough step-back three, buried in the corner with the shot clock expiring and with James Harden hounding him into a high-arcing fadeaway. Dončić must’ve liked the spot, because his second bucket was a virtual copy of the first, again with the shot clock sounding, this time over James Ennis. His third was a weird half-eurostep floater/fadeaway hybrid, over a closing defender, and his fourth involved dusting P.J. Tucker and then soaring in for a highlight dunk over a pair of recovering Rockets defenders. Dončić finished the half with an off-the-bounce 40-footer, to beat the halftime buzzer. His sixth and final bucket was a delightful wrong-foot, inside-hand, scoop layup after a nifty hesitation crossover to blow by Ennis in transition, plus the foul. So maybe you can forgive him for the stupid airball!
It’s exceedingly rare for an NBA lottery pick to be part of winning lineups while also shouldering a star’s workload. Dončić leads the Mavericks in minutes per game, and field goal attempts, and three-point attempts, and free throw attempts, and usage, and also more than 62 percent of his made buckets this season have been unassisted. He’s also 19 years old—with his workload so far this season, the Mavericks should be a pile of crap! Instead they’re above .500, and fifth in the Western Conference in point differential. Yes, it’s early, but that’s also part of why this is impressive—this is the part of Dončić’s career where he is presumably still figuring out exactly how he fits into this league, on this team, against these players, on this schedule, on this continent. This is precisely when the Mavericks are supposed to be losing.
Dončić is still a rookie, subject to the same growing pains as any other rookie. He hasn’t had fewer than three turnovers in any game this month, and the Mavericks are a little over three points per hundred possessions better with him off the floor than on. But they’re winning his minutes, which is important because he’s playing lots of them, and even if they weren’t he’s just fun as hell. Even his goofy failures are good television. Tune in.