It may not be his final challenge in Europe but the 2018 Euroleague Final Four leaves Luka Doncic with his last chance to leave a lasting impression on the continent before he crosses the Atlantic, writes Emmet Ryan
It was the injury that changed everything about Luka Doncic’s season. While Doncic was off preparing for EuroBasket 2017 with his Slovenia team mates, a journey that would end in the most extraordinary triumph, his running buddy Sergio Llull got hurt.
It was bad, not season-ending but enough to change the shape of the season for both men. Llull has a range of roles with Doncic. He’s a mentor yet also knows to defer to the youngster. He’s the guy will to drive and inspire or get the kick in the backside he needs from the kid. Him and Doncic was meant to be the back-court partnership to watch this season, with both comfortably switching between the 1 and 2 spots to befuddle opponents at their leisure. When Real wanted to go with three guards, here would be a side with all the points of attack required to deliver.
Then Llull got hurt and his EuroBasket was done before Spain had even really started their prep. Real Madrid had to find someone to take his minutes but the options were sub-optimal. Facundo Campazzo is as pure a 1 as it gets and, while clearly capable of playing at Euroleague level, is no Llull. Chasson Randle was brought in and really just wasn’t up to the task.
Instead the weight fell on the shoulders of Doncic. He went from wanting to prove he was a leader to needing to be one just to get Real through the day. It was a big weight and one he took on willingly.
There have unquestionably been times this season where Doncic has looked vulnerable. For all the plaudits he received in surviving the physical play of Panathinaikos in the playoffs, he still took a hell of a beating that forced him to go outside of what makes him such an attractive option.
Still, we saw the improvements. Going into the summer, his defence was seen as just a big a question as his athleticism. Defensively the questions are simply gone now and one season of bulking up the NBA way looks like all he needs to really address the athleticism concerns.
This year he put up good numbers, the type to more than attract interest, but this season hasn’t been about the numbers or even the highlight reel plays where he clearly took over the role of Llull in ensuring Real delivered enough for social media’s appetite.
This season was about pressure. This corner has harked back to last May in Istanbul a lot since EuroBasket and with good cause. The season, from that title run through to the appearance in the Final Four, has been one where he has banished the doubt within.
He’s always been a confidence player but now Luka Doncic is a confident player. He knows that there will be times when he has to do absolutely everything but he is much smarter at working out when to take on the grimier jobs and let Jaycee Carroll or Gustavo Ayon go and ruin somebody’s day.
That’s what we are seeing from the wunderkind in the 2017/18 season. Doncic the man is one who can live with having an off night while finding a way to keep drawing the pressure so somebody else can hurt the opponent.
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Even in the dull details, like his ratio of fouls drawn to fouls given up, you see the workrate. For every foul committed by Doncic, he drew almost four more. That ratio will be hard to carry over to the NBA, particularly as rookies don’t exactly thrive at getting calls in the association, but it’s still a reliable sign of how his basketball brain has evolved.
When Doncic won the 2015 ANGT with Madrid’s junior side, he was the main man but he didn’t have to run the team. Less than three years later, he is the guy and he’s also the one in charge.
Recording a first career triple double as a pro less than two weeks before his likely final appearance in the Final Four is a sign that he’s thinking about the run-in. Between this weekend in Belgrade and the ACB Playoffs, he knows his time working on this continent is running short.
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Having left home in his early teens to join Los Blancos, once more he’s about to leave a place he considers home for a new adventure. For all the talk of the maturity in his game and how he has developed, this is still a 19 year old about to move across the world where he’s going to be getting all kinds of attention. That’s nothing to sniff at in terms of challenges.
That future task, the next labour, puts Belgrade into context. All he has to do there is win a pair of basketball games. If he does that, his trophy cabinet at European level is complete. He goes out with every gong he could want before hearing his name called at the NBA draft.
This brings with it some relaxation for Doncic. The job is clear now and it’s not about the clock. His team mates trust him, the man he sees when he turns his head trusts him, and most importantly he knows to trust himself. That’s what he is bringing to Belgrade.
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