Dirk Nowitzki recalls the moment he immediately gained respect for Luka Doncic

By , Audacy Sports

There have been several moments throughout the still-young career of Luka Doncic where he gained the deserved respect of peers from around the league. It may have happened really early for some, as was the case with my Doncic-watching experience. I'll never forget the shot where I realized that, holy sh--, this dude is for real. On December 23, 2018, some of the magic that we've become quite accustomed to seeing was put on display in a big moment that introduced his star power to a large audience — head to around the 2:00 mark in the video below.

It's not like he was an unknown entity before that game, however. For one, he was the third overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and no one who is selected so highly is a complete mystery. And it's not like he wasn't playing well prior to that shot, as if that was his first coming-out party. Over his first 20 games, he averaged 18.5 points to go along with 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, recording his first 30-point outing in just career game No. 7 and his first double-double a week later in game No. 16. For what it's worth — which is probably nothing more than my amusement — here's the group of players who started out their career with averages of 18-6-4 over their first 20 games.

Query Results Table
Rk Player Games Span Start Span End TRB AST PTS List
1Oscar Robertson*201960-10-191960-11-239.87.826.6List of Games
2Sidney Wicks201971-10-151971-11-269.74.424.4List of Games
3Alvan Adams201975-10-251975-12-1110.46.219.0List of Games
4Larry Bird*201979-10-121979-11-289.94.719.6List of Games
5Magic Johnson*201979-10-121979-11- of Games
6Ben Simmons202017-10-182017-11-309.47.218.6List of Games
7Luka Dončić202018-10-172018-11-306.54.318.5List of Games
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 5/19/2021.

But the buzzer-beating, physics-defying magic that he's known for now was really established, at least in my own experience, in that December 23 showing against Portland. For Dirk Nowitzki, who was in his last season with the Mavericks at the time and was actually inactive for that Mavericks-Blazers game, the respect he had for Doncic was gained much, much earlier. It probably helped that he didn't really know much about the then-rookie in the first place, as the future Hall of Famer and 14-time All-Star explained to Bill Simmons on his podcast.

"I don't watch much EuroLeague and stuff so getting ready for that draft I had only seen a few highlights from him, and I'm like, 'oh, he looks big as a guard. I don't know if he can keep up with athleticism, he doesn't look the fastest.' " Nowitzki recalled. "He drove by these guys easy in EuroLeague but I'm like, the defenders here are sort of different so I didn't really know. I thought he could be a really good skill player and big guard.

"I didn't know that he was actually faster than he looked, and I didn't know how good of a passer and shooter he was. So he surprised me on multiple levels... and then he came for training camp. And before training camp [we] usually meet a couple weeks before, guys play fives, workout together, we lift, play five-on-five before camp even starts. And the first day he plays a little bit and I remember he was already, like, super cool and [I'm] kind of giving him a look. I'm like, I gotta test him a little bit, right?

"So I fouled him pretty hard one time and then he's at the free throw line... and I'm like I've got a little something for this young guy. So I'm giving him a little trash talk and I was like, 'there's no way you're making these two free throws,' and he just smiled at me, didn't say anything, and he knocked those two free throws in. So I think he gained [my] respect right away by his composure, by how mature he was as a 19-20 year old, how he sees the floor, how he reads the pick-and-roll situations. I mean, he's so far ahead of his time already and ahead of his age that it's actually really scary."

It is scary. It feels like Doncic has been a top-tier talent in the league for quite some time, so much so that it's hard to remember that he's only 22 years old and is already putting up LeBron-esque numbers in just his first few seasons. There's a small list of players who have averaged at least 25 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists over their first three years in the NBA. Actually, it's a really short list, featuring just two members who are both in that group we went over earlier: it's Oscar Robertson and Luka Doncic. And that's not the only prestigious club that he's a part of, as he continues to blow away records and milestones in seemingly every game he plays.

What makes him so hard to stop? Along with the qualities Nowitzki explained above, he also mentioned how his deceptive speed and strength make him a mismatch nightmare.

"The thing with Luka everybody knows now is his skill set, but he's so good with the ball, with the dribble, that he can get to spots. And what people don't realize [is] how fast he's switching directions," Nowitzki said. "I don't think it's necessarily [that] his end speed, his full speed, is super fast, but the way he's super shifty, like he can push back super quick, accelerate again... he's super quick at changing directions, that's one thing.

"And then people don't realize how big and strong he is. He's a legit 6-8, 6-9, so once he has a defender who's a little smaller than him on the shoulder, he's going to get to the basket. He's just going to will and will and push him in. He's a legit 250 and I don't even know how much he weighs these days, but he's [got] super strong legs... and once he has a little bit of an edge on you he's getting to the spots. And then he's tall enough, he's got the step-back game, he's got the floater game, he can pass with the best of them.

"So he's a full package, at 21-22 years old. It's actually scary."

The Mavericks are hoping that he's scary enough to overcome the No. 3 Los Angeles Clippers in a rematch from last year's postseason, a series in which Doncic averaged 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists in typical Luka fashion. Game 1 is set for Saturday, May 22 at 4:30 p.m. ET.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: (Jerome Miron/USA Today)