DALLAS — Luka Doncic says he can handle the minutes, the workload and expectations, but he has a decision to make whether he wants to be a LeBron, or a Dirk.
Neither is the wrong answer, but that preposterous possibility is plausible.
If Luka wants, he can be a Dirk and live the “quiet” NBA superstar existence and be beloved, and respected, by all. Or, he can go all-in and be the biggest name in a global sport, like LeBron.
Luka has the name, the game, the looks. He needs some hardware, but it’s all there.
Imagine how good he will be when he knows what he’s doing, and shows the same flair off the floor as he does on it. Luka has David Beckham-type potential.
Luka will need to decide if all of this is worth the trouble to be LeBron, because it’s easier to be Dirk than The King.
When I asked him if he was used to all of the attention and responsibility that comes with this type of success he is having, he said, “Yeah. It’s a part of the job, you know? You get used to it.”
He said the attention he receives now is similar to when he played in Madrid. No, I don’t believe him, either.
Then I asked him if he wants all of the attention.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.”
Stands to reason he’s not sure yet. He’s 20.
In his time with the Mavs, Doncic has been reluctant to be much of anything other than a basketball player. Any comparison to great NBA players makes him uncomfortable. He wants no part of that.
At least in his dealings with the media, he has been shy, reserved, respectful.
His answers are not particularly insightful, but he’s professional. The general public has seen little of his personality. On the court, the only flashes of pure frustration that we’ve seen — those ripped jersey episodes — are directed at his own failures. And even those feel muted. Other than signing with Nike’s Air Jordan line, Luka has virtually no visibility off the floor.
The Mavs are besieged with Luka requests daily, far more than the number they had for Dirk.
Those within the Mavs organization all say the same thing — Luka is a good guy, and he wants to say yes. He wants to say yes to the Make-A-Wish requests. He goes out of his way to sign autographs, rather than hide behind an escort, or take the back door out.
I asked a few members of the European media, who have covered him for a while, if he was the same way back in Europe. The answer is yes; this is who he is. Quiet. Polite. Respectful. His answers in Spanish are sometimes better than his answers in English, or his native Slovenian.
He’s still figuring this all out, and he has to be given the space to do it. The Mavs have encouraged, but not pushed, him. He has three good guys to give him the necessary space in owners Mark Cuban, GM Donnie Nelson and coach Rick Carlisle.
“He’s a great young player and he’s learning all the time,” Carlisle said. “And that’s one of the things I love about him.”
Don’t forget that before Dirk became one of the best players in NBA history, he was reluctant to be what he became. He wanted to be an NBA All-Star, but not Der Mann.
Dirk originally aspired to be Scottie Pippen rather than Michael Jordan. It was not in Dirk’s personality to be the focus of a team, until he finally accepted the role.
We forget that there was a time, when as a younger player, Dirk was not the outgoing, gregarious, funny guy he was in the second half of his career. He was respectful, quiet, and he was known to duck a media session or two.
In his second year, DFW’s favorite Slovenian finished second only to LeBron James in NBA All-Star voting. Bron had 6.2 million votes; Luka’s 6.1 million votes pushed him just ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 5.9 million.
According to marketing platform Opendorse, Doncic has added 1.8 million followers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram just since the start of the season. Luke Doncic trails only LeBron, Steph Curry and Giannis in that category.
LeBron has been called the King since he was in high school, but he didn’t tap the power of his crown until later in his career. Now he is an international brand, and a media mogul.
LeBron never ducks an interview, will answer any question, and unlike global brand names such as Jordan or Tiger, he has consistently embraced talking about social issues. LeBron has tremendous power and influence, and he is unafraid of it.
On this path is more money, prestige, power, fame, and headaches.
Dirk grew, matured and evolved, but at heart he remained a small-towner who preferred a quieter path. He was candid, didn’t know how to lie, and he became a beloved figure for his humility, self-deprecating sense of humor, and loyalty.
Luka’s game is so good that all of the preposterous is available. He’s 20, makes triple-doubles look like free throws, and veteran NBA monsters can’t guard him.
Those who have been with the Mavs long enough know that at the same point in their careers, Luka is better than Dirk. And it’s not even close. They are different players, and Doncic’s ball handling gives him a chance to do more damage than Dirk.
In Dirk’s second NBA season, back in 1999-2000, he averaged 17.5, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. He would not make an All-Star game until 2002.
This season, Luka averages 28.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 8.7 assists. He’s the NBA’s reigning Rookie of the Year. By law, he should be turned away from any All-Star party in Chicago where alcohol is present.
For Doncic to equal Dirk, no less than 34,315 things need to go right. Luka will need to win an NBA MVP award. He will need to win an NBA title, or two. He will need to remain healthy, and consistently perform in a way that he is too young to comprehend.
But the implausible is possible.
Luka Doncic just has to figure out what he wants. There is no wrong answer. He doesn’t have to do it today, but the potential is there for a major decision.