TOKYO – One of his playing positions is small forward, but Slovenian basketball star Luka Doncic is carrying not just his team but the hopes of two million countrymen on his shoulders at the Olympics.
On Thursday (July 29), the 22-year-old he led his team to a 116-81 Group C win over hosts Japan, putting them on the brink of a quarter-final appearance in their maiden Olympic campaign.
The top two teams from each group and two best third-placed nations make it to the last eight.
The Dallas Mavericks player and two-time National Basketball Association All-Star scored 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. And this was average by his high standards.
On Monday, he tallied 48 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in the 118-100 win over 2004 champions Argentina for the second-highest points scored at the Olympics, leaving the losing coach Sergio Hernandez purring: “He is the best player in the world.”
Doncic grew up in a basketball family. His father Sasa played professionally in France, Serbia and Slovenia, while his godfather Rasho Nesterovic also played in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors.
He was a ball boy in the American Basketball Association League in which his father played, and at times would take part in dribbling exhibitions at half-time.
But now, after coming through Real Madrid, with whom he won three Spanish titles and the EuroLeague in four seasons from 2014 to 2018, Doncic is now the main show.
Filling out at 2.01m and 104kg, he also helped his country win their maiden European title in the most recent edition in 2017, when he made the All-tournament team.
In 2018, he was selected with the third overall pick by Atlanta Hawks and traded to the Mavericks. He made an instant impact to be named 2019 NBA Rookie of the Year and is the first player aged 21 or younger in NBA history to make over 20 career triple-doubles.
LA Clippers Doc Rivers commented he possesses a mix of Larry Bird’s passing ability, LeBron James’s vision and James Harden’s stepback treys.
Singapore Slingers general manager Michael Johnson, who played more than 40 times for Australia in the 1980s, noted his versatility and said: “He handles and passes the ball like a point guard, he has great shooting range, and his size and strength make him a nightmare to guard.”
Doncic’s team-mates are more than happy to defer to him, but Zoran Dragic added he is no prima donna.
The shooting guard, who scored 24 points against Japan, said in the post-match press conference: “He is such an awesome guy and so easy to play with. My brother (former Slovenia international Goran) and I played with his father too when Luka was six or seven, and now he is one of the best in the world… I am very happy to play with him.
“He is an unbelievable talent… he brings everything. He is our main guy, we let him do whatever he wants, and the others try to support him. We have good chemistry… we are very successful like this and we will keep going like this.”
Doncic’s rise to stardom inevitably leads to more scrutiny and Instagram stories posted and later removed by Spanish women’s basketballer Cristina Ouvina showed Doncic and his team-mates celebrated their win over Argentina with alcohol poker and shisha, as several gathered in a room without wearing masks or social distancing.
But Slovenia coach Aleksander Sekulic waved off concerns at the press conference and preferred to focus on what they are capable of doing on court.
He said: “We are packed with talent. We have the best player in the world and still play as a team.”
Since gaining independence in 1991, Slovenia has seven Olympic gold medals but never in a team sport, and Doncic’s patriotism showed when asked if an Olympic gold or NBA championship would mean more to him.
“I’d say gold medal with Slovenia,” he replied. “But I wouldn’t mind both.”
Even though the Americans have won 15 out of the 19 men’s basketball gold medals since Berlin 1936, they are far from invincible at these Games, where they have already lost to France on Sunday.
Slovenia and Doncic will find out where their credentials lie when they take on Pot 1 side Spain on Sunday, and Johnson said: “This is the most open it’s been in several editions, and USA, France, Australia, Slovenia and Spain look like medal contenders at this early stage.
“Doncic has looked very good and up for it so he could be a crucial factor for Slovenia.
“The quarter-final match-ups will be interesting and will decide their fate. Assuming the Americans get past Czech Republic, they are likely to finish second in pool play and could meet one of the group winners. The quarter-final match-ups will be interesting and could decide some teams’ fate.”