Twenty years ago on Feb. 28, a future NBA star was born. Dallas Mavericks’ rookie sensation Luka Doncic is no longer a teenager as he celebrates his birthday Thursday.
On his last night as a teenager, Luka Doncic teamed with a player twice his age, Dirk Nowitzki, to help the Mavericks break a five-game losing streak Wednesday night at American Airlines Center.
And after the 110-101 victory over Indiana, less than two hours before turning 20, Doncic shrugged off reporters’ repeated suggestions that the milestone was significant. “Nah,” he said when asked if he’ll feel different. “Same thing.”
On this night, Doncic (26 points), Jalen Brunson (24) and Tim Hardway Jr. (20) the way as all five Mavericks starters scored in double-figures, including 40-year-old Nowitzki (11 points), who started for the third straight game and first time at home this season.
Doncic, who also had 10 rebounds and seven assists Wednesday, had no interest in summing up his four-month teenage NBA career, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle didn’t hesitate.
“One word: Phenomenal,” Carlisle said. “It’s been quite an adventure with him and everything that has gone on, the amount of excitement and enthusiasm, interest that he’s generated and yet he’s not looking for attention. “His sort of place of sanctuary is the court. That’s where he’s comfortable; loves to play.”
Before the game, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban mused that finally was “losing his teenage-inity,” with the owner adding that his biggest pre-20 accomplishment was acing graduate-school business classes into which he sneaked at Indiana University. “But I didn’t have four triple-doubles,” Cuban said.
There have been many outstanding rookie seasons during the NBA’s 72-year history, but, statistically speaking, Doncic’s teenage and rookie feats have placed him in historic company.
If he maintains or improves his current averages of 20.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists, he will join Oscar Robertson (1960-61) as the only rookies to average at least 20 points, 7 rebounds and five assists.
Doncic has four of the five NBA triple-doubles ever recorded by a teenager. The other was by Philadelphia’s Markelle Fultz. Doncic also is the only teen to record two games of at least 35 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
And when Doncic in January had four straight games of at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists, he became the first rookie to do so since Michael Jordan in 1984-85. Rare air, indeed, but that isn’t how Doncic sees it. “Like I always say, I’ve probably answered this question a hundred times: But I will say I knew I could play here,” he said. “I knew what I can do. Honestly I didn’t expect that much that I can do, but it’s turning (out) great so I just have to keep working.”
With 21 games remaining, the Mavericks already have three more victories than last season’s 24-58 team mustered all season. In terms of win-loss impact, though, Doncic’s first year will fall well short of other rookie-led single-season turnarounds.
The 1997-98 Spurs with rookie Tim Duncan registered a 36-victory improvement. Of course, it helped that he was paired with a fellow named David Robinson, who played only six games the previous season due to back and foot injuries.
The 1989-90 Spurs, in Robinson’s first season, improved by 35 wins, but Robinson had plenty of help in fellow rookie Sean Elliott and veteran addition Terry Cummings.
The 1979-80 Celtics improved by 32 victories in Larry Bird’s rookie year, and the 1969-70 Bucks improved by 29 victories behind rookie Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Of more recent vintage, perhaps the closest comparison that can be made to the Mavericks of this season is the 2003-04 Cleveland team, behind James, who improved from 17 victories to 35.
“It’s too early for that (comparison),” Cuban said. “We just got rid of 80-percent of our starting lineup (before the trade deadline)… We’re still figuring out how we’re going to play everybody.”