Ahead of Thursday’s semi final clash between Spain and Slovenia, one man is dominating the headlines. He’s a prospective first overall NBA draft pick next summer but right now Luka Doncic only cares about carrying his homeland to unthinkable glory. Emmet Ryan on the challenge ahead for Europe’s wunderkind
One sequence. That’s all it took. A foul drawn from Kristaps Porzingis. A block on Janis Timma. Back up the other end for a jumper over Porzings. Whatever ghosts still haunted Luka Doncic from his previous trip to this arena were gone and he was here to play.
In May Doncic was the centre of attention on the eve of the Euroleague Final Four. People asked him if he wished he was draft eligible in 2017, if he was thinking about the NBA. He didn’t care, his focus was on bringing a championship back to Real Madrid. That focus however didn’t pay off. On a stuttery weekend Doncic drew a blank from the field across two games. First in the semi final to eventual champions Fenerbahce and then in the third place game against CSKA Moscow. That loss to Fener might has well have been the end of the season for Real. They stumbled into the finals of the ACB in Spain only to get deservedly taken down by a far more lively Valencia side. The spark that had ignited Doncic and Real’s season had disappeared in the Sinan Erdem Dome.
Doncic didn’t have to play for his homeland. A Spanish passport was there if he wanted it and the allure is tough to turn down. He’d immediately be part of the best national programme in Europe, the second best in the world, and his contract in Madrid would almost certainly have been sweetened. Doncic didn’t need it. He loved Madrid but he is Slovenian. The chance to play alongside a man he looked up to as a child and lead his homeland was too great to ignore.
The Ukraine game was easy. That wasn’t the redemption game, the one to shatter the doubts, but he had a dazzling display anyway. Latvia would provide the real test back where he had floundered in May. Here he stood alongside Goran Dragic, 31 and in his last tournament wearing a national team jersey. For a young Doncic, Goran would have been the man with Dragic turning pro before Doncic even started school. Now, he was the one a new group of youngsters wanted to emulate but he had a job to do.
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While Goran finally got his medal shot in his last go round at EuroBasket, Doncic earned his at the first time of asking. He doesn’t just want a medal, he wants the championship but to get it he needs to get past the biggest dog in the yard.
Spain just have so much. Pau and Marc Gasol, between them a pair of NBA championships and a NBA defensive MVP. Ricky Rubio, an established starting guard in the association and a defensive beast, the Hernangomez brothers, Sergio Rodriguez, and so much more. The one thing this side lacks, oddly, is a single player from Doncic’s club. Real Madrid normally provided a hefty part of any Spain roster but not this time. Instead its Doncic and Anthony Randolph, naturalised as a Slovenia this summer, representing Los Blancos on Thursday
The test is big but that’s what the kid needs. There may never be another point in his career where, on paper, the team he plays for is as clearly outmatched as Thursday. There are better players in the NBA but, when he gets there, in the NBA he’ll have some of that grade of talent working with him. In this game it’s Dragic and Randolph plus a bunch of guys who don’t even make Euroleague or, often, Eurocup rosters.
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What Slovenia has in its favour is speed. This team can run with Chacho. Size is going to be a problem. This team is going to need something else to win this game and right now that something is Doncic. He can run but more importantly he can stop. With a single head fake he can send multiple defenders the wrong way. Energy only gets you so far, plenty of teams have tried to use hustle to beat Spain only to pause for a moment and fall swiftly.
Doncic doesn’t need to run all the time. It’s his ability to slow a possession down out of nowhere before turning on the gas that puts him on another level. Some of this is frankly old man ball, the veteran mind in a young body bringing out the best of both. The running joke in Europe is that we keep having to remind ourselves that he’s 18 and not a six year vet with multiple All Star appearances in the NBA.
He still has those moments of youthful excess on the floor. Against Latvia he started poorly, albeit only in the games earliest stages. Making a couple of moves where he forced things too much because he felt he had to. That’s where Dragic proved so crucial. A calming veteran presence on his shoulder, a man he looks up to, to steady him and let Luka be Luka.
The bomb from deep came as the shot clock buzzer ran out. Then another big score. Slovenia were rolling but Latvia had another run in them. Dragic, feeling the fatigue after fighting so long, didn’t think twice about trusting Doncic to take over. The kid had proved he was a man on this stage and he didn’t disappoint. Doncic went into closeout mode and Latvia had no answer. The furious scoring surge of Kristaps Porzingis had been stopped. Doncic and Dragic were getting their date with Spain.
Thursday will almost surely mean defeat. Spain may not have delivered signature performances against Turkey or Germany but they didn’t need to. When Spain hit the medal rounds they flick the switch and bring it to another level. That’s what has brought them three of the last four titles in this competition, their lone failure coming in overtime to a Tony Parker inspired France in the semi finals in 2013.
Now, they have seen what Doncic and Dragic can do. Even in defeat, there will still be one more shot at a medal, but Doncic wants to bring the ultimate glory home. Nobody saw Slovenia as title contenders before this tournament and they were only seen as a dark horse to make the medal rounds. Now Luka is making his people and everyone else in Europe believe that the Dragon will roar all the way to the end.
Spain vs Slovenia is a 21.30 local time on Thursday/20.30 CET/19.30 UK& Ireland/14.30 EST/11.30 PST
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