LUKA DONCIC'S HELLO KITTY backpack has rarely been seen inside the American Airlines Center, the rules for Dallas Mavericks rookies notwithstanding.
Last season, Dennis Smith Jr. dragged a variety of his own kid-themed backpacks around to every arena, a harmless rookie rite of passage the Mavs share with many NBA teams. But why the relaxed rules for Doncic, who now carries his only on the road?
Shooting guard Wesley Matthews half-kiddingly accuses Barea of being "soft" on Doncic, saying the Puerto Rican guard goes easy on the rookie who spent the previous six years in Spain because "they speak Spanish and listen to Bad Bunny together and all that stuff."
But Barea figures Doncic has earned the special treatment due to his professional experience and production. "He's a different rookie," Barea says with a shrug. "He won't follow the rules to perfection, but he's cool about it."
The 6-foot-8 Doncic possesses a rare blend of size, skill and savvy, all essential elements in the Slovenian becoming the youngest Euroleague MVP ever while leading Real Madrid to a title as an 18-year-old last season. But it's the kid's combination of joy and confidence that awes his veteran teammates, who embrace the notion that Doncic has quickly become the (baby) face of the franchise.
"He was on a boat every day playing Fortnite, I think."Mavs owner Mark Cuban, on Luka Doncic's offseason
At this point, Doncic's biggest flaw might be his flair for the spectacular, a factor in him ranking in the league's top 10 in turnovers with 3.5 per game. He hunts highlights, particularly as a passer. It might drive Mavs coach Rick Carlisle crazy when Doncic attempts a high-speed, off-glass alley-oop in transition traffic, but Carlisle accepts that it's part of the deal.
"When you get a player with his kind of feel and creative ability, you've got to give him the latitude to be able to take advantage of his gifts, on the one hand," says Carlisle, who appreciates the "positive vibe" Doncic plays with and his confidence built through years of experience.
"But on the other hand, create enough structure for him to play well with the group."
He is "The Matador," the nickname coined by Mavs player development coach Mike Procopio as a nod to Doncic's showmanship and Spanish roots. That flair for the spectacular might lead to occasional frustration, but man, the 15-14 Mavs are having fun playing with Doncic after two long, miserable seasons in which the playoffs were a pipe dream.
"He's going to be who he is," Matthews says. "For better or worse, that's who he is. He's kind of got that [Manu] Ginobili about him. You live with some of the things because more often than not you're going to get something really good."
Nevertheless, Carlisle will call the occasional timeout just to bark at Doncic after a high-risk decision goes haywire. Case in point: The timeout Carlisle called early in the first quarter of Dallas' Nov. 24 win over the Boston Celtics, Doncic's first start at point guard with Smith sidelined due to a sore right wrist. Doncic dazzled in the first few minutes, dishing out three dimes to teammates for open 3-pointers and knocking down a trey himself. But then, he got greedy.
Doncic tried to thread the needle to Barnes in the paint, a pass the Celtics easily picked off. It led to a transition 3 on the other end and a timeout by Carlisle, who snapped at Doncic as the coach stormed onto the court. Doncic, as usual, didn't blink at the high-decibel criticism, briefly barking back without breaking stride on his way to the bench.
"Some players if you yell at them, they'll step back and be afraid. He's not afraid," says Mavs reserve center Salah Mejri, who was Doncic's Real Madrid teammate when the star was a fearless 15-year-old. "That's a good thing. He just keeps playing. He don't care. It's not that he doesn't care about winning or losing. He just doesn't care if people are yelling at him or telling him what to do. He thinks he knows what to do, and he's on top of his s---. Except he gets out of the play sometimes."
That's part of Doncic's personality: an on-court charisma that borders on cockiness.
"At the end of the day, it's just basketball," Doncic says. "I don't see much difference. Maybe the court is wider, the game is quicker, a lot of superstars, but at the end of the day, it's just basketball.
"I just want to enjoy playing basketball."
JUST HOW GOOD Doncic would be was the subject of significant debate among NBA personnel people. Skeptics didn't see much upside from such a polished prospect. And there were concerns about Doncic's relative lack of athleticism.
Then again, he had starred in the world's second-best league during the years that American prospects attend high school.
"At age 17 and 18, he was tearing Europe up, and that is not easy," says Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, who has two decades of experience as a player and coach in Italy. "You don't do that against men as a kid. I didn't know how good he'd be in the NBA, but whatever they were saying, he's the real deal."
The Mavs considered themselves fortunate that the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings passed on Doncic and that the Atlanta Hawks were willing to trade down. (A source told ESPN that Igor Kokoskov, the first-year Suns head coach who won the 2017 EuroBasket title with Slovenia, "loved" Doncic but had minimal input on who Phoenix chose with the No. 1 overall pick.) Dallas considered a top-five-protected pick a small price to pay to move up two spots to take Doncic.
"Perhaps there was an idea that there was a ceiling on him," Kings coach Dave Joerger said before Sunday's game against the Mavs. (It was a comment he clarified the next day, saying it was not intended as a shot at the Sacramento front office that chose to pick Marvin Bagley III over Doncic.) "I don't see it, unfortunately for us. But he's great for them and he's great for our league."
Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson never had any doubt. He told Carlisle early last season, when it was apparent that the Mavs were headed for a high lottery pick, that Doncic was by far the best player in the draft.
"Donnie Nelson was right about Luka Doncic," Carlisle says. "A lot of other people were not."
One high-ranking team executive projected Doncic to be similar to Hedo Turkoglu, a playmaking forward who struggled to defend and create his own shot. The perception in that case was that Doncic would be good enough to be a foundation piece on a contender but not a centerpiece. The reality: Doncic's numbers now (18.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game) compare favorably to the best season of Turkoglu's career.
The only NBA rookies to average an 18-6-4 line over the past four decades? Grant Hill, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. And it has never been done by a teenager. The only teen forwards to average at least 18 points per game are Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kevin Durant -- and they all had true shooting percentages significantly lower than Doncic's .558. Doncic has a chance to be the only teen other than Anthony to lead a playoff team in scoring -- and doing so with Dallas fighting for a spot in the loaded Western Conference.
"We were hopeful but realistic," Nelson says regarding Doncic's immediate impact. "You just don't know. When you look at what he did with Real Madrid, you hope that it's a quick transition. But most rookies, especially rookies coming from the other side of the pond, it takes at least a year. He's hit the ground running."
D'Antoni has seen enough to declare that Doncic will be "an All-Star at worst."
"He's only going to get better," says D'Antoni, whose Rockets have lost twice to the Mavs on nights Doncic dropped more than 20 points. "He's not in his man body yet, so Dallas has got to be really happy."
That body, which could be described as doughy, was the biggest knock on Doncic leading up to the draft. It's also the reason the Mavs felt Doncic had room for drastic improvement, figuring he could boost his quickness and mobility if he immersed himself in their strength and conditioning program, which isn't a priority in European basketball.
"Donnie Nelson was right about Luka Doncic. A lot of other people were not."Mavs coach Rick Carlisle
That hasn't happened yet. The Mavs told Doncic to rest over the summer after playing nonstop from September to June with the Slovenian national team and Real Madrid. He reported to Dallas a few weeks before training camp started, weighing several pounds more than his listed 228.
"He was on a boat every day playing Fortnite, I think," Mavs owner Mark Cuban says, referring to Doncic's summer vacation, which was spent on a yacht off the Croatian coast. Doncic has shed most, if not all, of that summer weight while shredding the NBA through the first third of the season. He still eats like a typical teenager despite the team encouraging him to be careful with his diet.
"It's OK to go to McDonald's, but you don't want to live there," Nelson says. "Those are the things that we're kind of working through, and it's a work in progress."
THE MATADOR WAS in his element on the night of Dec. 8.
The buzz in the American Airlines Center built with every shot the rookie hit during his one-man comeback against the Houston Rockets:
The open corner 3 to cut Dallas' deficit to five with 2 minutes, 49 seconds remaining -- his 10 bricks among his previous 13 shots that night totally irrelevant in the precocious teen's mind at that moment -- breathed hope into the building.
The 28-foot stepback Doncic swished over center Clint Capela's outstretched arm the next trip down the court.
Muscling PJ Tucker on a pick-and-roll the following possession, putting the rugged, grown-man defender on his hip until he got to his spot and created space to sink a game-tying floater, confirmed that something special was happening.
"He likes the moment," Barea says. "He likes the lights.
"He loves to play against the stars. He loves the game. He has fun with the game. He knows he's good."
In his mind, it was a matter of how he'd give the Mavs the lead when they got the ball again, not if he could. His coaches and teammates shared that confidence, putting the ball in the hands of the Rookie of the Year front-runner, and letting Doncic do his thing, with DeAndre Jordan setting a high screen and the other Mavs spacing the floor.
After the Rockets switched, Doncic sized up Capela and proceeded to make one of the league's most mobile big men look silly. A hard dribble to the right was convincing enough to get both of Capela's feet in the paint as Doncic slammed on the brakes and put it in reverse, showing the sudden deceleration and change of direction that prompts comparisons to reigning MVP James Harden. Even Harden could do nothing but watch as the most hyped Euro prospect ever swished a go-ahead stepback that is the signature moment so far of a sensational rookie season.
"I would have been shocked if it would have missed," says Harrison Barnes, who was pumping his right fist before Doncic even released the shot.
"He just doesn't play like a rookie in big situations," Dirk Nowitzki says.
As the crowd erupted, Doncic celebrated by strumming an air guitar as he jogged down the court with a crooked grin on his boyish face. He wasn't surprised by his personal 11-0 run, but he sure as heck was having a good time.
"He plays with that joy every single time he's on the court -- that ugly smile he's got," Matthews says, cracking a grin himself.
It's a confidence that amuses and awes his veteran teammate.
"He may shoot a 30-foot stepback and it may not go in; Coach: 'I don't want to see it anymore!'" Harris says. "And he may shoot six more. But that's just who he is. And he'll make 'em, whatever.
"But if Coach would have told me that at 20, 21? I'm throwing that shot in the garbage, I'm getting rid of it. Him? He shoots eight more. But that's what you've got to be to survive in this league, to be as good as he is.
"His swag -- that's a part of who he is. Unmatched for a 19-year-old kid. I've never seen anything like it."