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From Ljubljana to Tokyo, by way of Texas, 22-year-old Luka Doncic has made his name as the basketball player to watch at the Olympics. If he keeps it up, he could end France’s streak — and give Slovenia’s underdog team a chance at the gold.
That unbroken record includes four wins in Tokyo, bringing Doncic and his team to the semifinals. All eyes will be on the 22-year-old during what promises to be a thrilling game against France on Thursday.
From the qualifiers to the quarterfinals, Doncic has yet to miss a beat. In Slovenia’s first-ever Olympic basketball game, against Argentina, he scored 48 points, bringing the team to a 118-100 victory. That made him the second-highest-scoring player ever for an Olympic game (tied with Eddie Palubinksas), behind the 55 points scored by Oscar Schmidt in 1988.
On Tuesday, during the quarterfinal match against Germany, Doncic again dominated the court with 20 points, eight rebounds and 11 passes, for the win, 94-70.
‘I was just born to play basketball’
At just 22, Doncic is already considered one of the best basketball players in the world and one of the stars of the Tokyo Games. He’s perfectly comfortable with the label.
“I like being a star of the Games,” he told the site Eurohoops in late July. “I feel good to be one of the stars, if I am.”
It doesn’t hurt that he was raised into the sport, shooting hoops about as soon as he could walk. His father, Sasa Doncic, was making his rounds on the Slovenian pro basketball circuit at the time, and brought Luka to his games.
“I remember he stayed under the hoop,” Goran Dragic, his father’s former teammate and current NBA player, told Reverse magazine. “Even at that age, you could tell he had a good feel for the game, like his father. When we came back from the locker rooms at half-time, he was always there shooting hoops. I’ve never forgotten that.”
It didn’t take Doncic long to graduate from the youth leagues. At just 13, he accepted an invitation from iconic sports club Real Madrid to move to Spain and begin training for their senior team. Three years later, he became the club’s youngest player to compete in the Liga ACB, Spain’s top professional league. He racked up titles in Spain, becoming three-time Liga champion and two-time winner of the King’s Cup, as well as internationally: at barely nineteen, he led Real Madrid to victory in the Euroleague, claiming the title of MVP along the way.
“I think it’s a gift,” he told Euroleague.net in 2017. “I was just born to play basketball.”
A flying start in the NBA
Doncic’s talents could no longer be confined to Europe alone. Weeks after his Euroleague win, he was selected as third overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, signing with the Atlanta Hawks before being traded to the Dallas Mavericks. His arrival on US shores did nothing to slow his rise — on the contrary, he was named rookie of the year after his first season, becoming the second European player to claim the title after Spaniard Pau Gasol.
Doncic has kept up his run with the Mavericks, taking Dirk Nowitzki’s place as fan favourite since the German legend retired from competition in 2019. Last season, he helped carry the team to the playoffs, where Dallas faced off against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, for the second year in a row. The Mavericks didn’t make it to the finals, after LA knocked them out in the last game, but Doncic made his presence felt, averaging an impressive 35.7 points, 10.3 passes and 7.9 rebounds per game.
His standing in the team is such that Dallas County declared July 6, 2021 “Luka Doncic Day”. He is said to have been offered $200 million for a five-year contract renewal with the Mavericks, which would be the highest ever salary for a player coming out of his rookie term.
For now, Doncic is focusing on the Olympics. Slovenian coach Aleksandar Sekulic knows he can count on the incredible motivation of his team leader.
“When you have Luka, it’s easy. Everything’s easy. He’s not coming here to show off,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “He’s coming here to help the team, first of all. He came here to have [fun] on the court, to have fun with the guys on the court, and you’re here to use him as much as possible, to use his — let’s say — magic.”
France is on notice. They know they will have to do everything to beat him in the semi-final — though French forward Nicolas Batum emphasises that it’s more than one player he’s worried about.
“They are the reigning European champion for a reason. Luka is 17-0 with the national team. He is a great player, one of the best in the world, but they are a great team,” Batum told the AP. “Of course we have to stay focused on him, but we can’t disrespect the other guys.”
“You can’t let Luka Doncic score 50 points,” French coach Vincent Collet added. “Against Spain, they were eight or nine points behind and they came back without him. It shows that this is a great team, with a fantastic leader.”
With the final looming, basketball fans around the world are waiting to see whether the Slovenian phenomenon could bring his team an upset win in their Olympic basketball debut. If Doncic keeps up his current track record, Slovenia will face either Australia or the US in the final, leaving open the possibility that he could find himself head to head with some of his top NBA colleagues.
Asked during a press conference last month whether he would rather have an NBA title or an Olympic medal, Doncic said he would choose the gold.
“You play for your country, and that’s [really] something, but I wouldn’t mind both,” he added, with a grin.
This article was adapted from the original in French.