EuroBasket 2022: Luka Doncic has raised his game even higher for Slovenia

A week ago, the annual offseason questions about Luka Doncic seemed to be getting louder.

His conditioning has always been a big question mark, and early on in EuroBasket 2022, the 23-year-old Dallas Mavericks sensation didn’t look great. His signature drives to the paint lacked explosiveness, and he was settling for tough unassisted 3s, but those weren’t falling either.

In Slovenia’s first three games in group stage play in Cologne, Germany, Doncic averaged 16.7 points per game, shooting 47% from the field and a dismal 18% from 3-point range. That cold stretch culminated with a shocking loss to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a first for Doncic in EuroBasket play.

That defeat, in which the three-time NBA All-Star missed all eight of his 3-point attempts, was a wake-up call. To say Doncic has turned up his level of play since then would be an understatement.

Now Slovenia heads into the quarterfinals — and a matchup against Poland (2:30 p.m. ET Wednesday on ESPN+) — back on track to potentially win a second consecutive EuroBasket title, thanks in large part to Doncic, who is showing his ceiling is as high as it has ever been.

DONCIC CURRENTLY RANKS second among all EuroBasket 2022 players, averaging 28.0 points per game — but that tells only part of the story.

After that slow start, Doncic has averaged 39.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game to push Slovenia into the quarterfinals. For perspective, only one player has ever averaged 30 PPG for an entire EuroBasket tournament (Greece’s Nikos Galis, who did it four times). The tournament record is 37.0 PPG. Because of his slow start, Doncic likely won’t get there, but his remarkable run is as strong as anyone who has played in this event.

Doncic caught fire in a hostile environment against a host Germany squad last Tuesday, pouring in 36 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in just 34 minutes of play as Slovenia outclassed the host nation with first place in their group on the line.

The very next day, Doncic played one of the greatest games of his career, leading his team past Rudy Gobert‘s French side. Doncic scored a tournament-high 47 points on 23 shots, showing the world that his blend of interior and perimeter scoring can be both prolific and efficient even in the face of one of the best rim protectors in the world.

He finally found his jumper, hitting 6 of his 11 3-point shots, but the eye-opening plays came inside the arc, where Doncic made 9 of his 12 shots, showcasing what’s fast becoming one of the most complete 2-point scoring packages in the process.

Doncic is one of four players to record 5,000 points, 2,000 rebounds and 2,000 assists through his first four NBA seasons, along with Oscar Robertson, Grant Hill and LeBron James. And while his NBA numbers prove that he combines drives and post play as well as any player in the world right now, the trends in his 2-point numbers reveal he is just getting started.

Last season in Dallas, he led the league in drives, and he also posted up 240 times, by far the most in a season in his career and the most among guards in 2021-22. He has learned how to use his massive frame to bully smaller defenders, back them down and generate fadeaways and floaters at elite rates.

Doncic made 62 fadeaways last season, tied for fourth most in the NBA, and only two players in the league tried more floaters than he did. In short, he’s rapidly becoming a maestro of the midrange.

As he enters his prime, his footwork has become a signature strength, and he’s now not only a threat to score at all three levels, he has also become pretty good at drawing fouls, too. He went to the line 12 times against the French in part because his endless choreography of pivots, ball fakes and up-and-unders destroys the balance of his defenders and in part because he knows a thing or two about drawing a whistle — which isn’t always a good thing.

If there has been a red flag at EuroBasket it’s that he’s constantly haranguing the FIBA referees, and it has been a constant distraction throughout the tournament.

On multiple occasions per game in group play, Slovenia was forced to play 4-on-5 on defense while its superstar playmaker lagged behind the action choosing to berate officials instead.

So far, these moments have not proven costly, but as this competition gets more intense in Berlin, giving opponents a few easy transition advantages per game could very well be the difference between winning and losing a gold medal. It’s not unusual for superstars to lobby for calls, but compared to the NBA MVPs who are also competing in Berlin, Doncic takes it to another level.

The level of play in the knockout phase is simply too competitive to give away possessions, which brings up the biggest cause of concern in Doncic’s game. He is averaging nearly five turnovers per game, the most by any player in the tournament. That could become a major problem in the coming days, as potential opponents — Greece and France rank first and fourth, respectively, in steals per game.

How Doncic performs against those two potential opponents and their elite stars will go a long way toward determining not only Slovenia’s status in Europe, but Doncic’s status heading into the NBA season as well.

IN THE 21ST CENTURY, only one team has won consecutive titles at EuroBasket, which up until 2017 had been played every two years (this is the first tournament played on the new four-year schedule, delayed from 2021 by the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics).

Matching the repeat of the Spain teams of 2009 and 2011 would be a major feat for any European nation, but it would be truly remarkable for Slovenia, a relatively tiny country of 2.1 million people.

Doncic and his teammates have won 14 of their past 15 games in this event, including the 2017 gold-medal game when they bested Nikola Jokic and Serbia in Istanbul.

A lot has changed since 2017, when Slovenia won behind a marvelous tournament performance by Goran Dragic, who earned the tournament’s MVP award by averaging 22.6 points and 5.1 assists per game.

Back then, Doncic was 18 years old and more than a full year away from his NBA debut. Make no mistake, he was already key to the Slovenian team’s success, averaging 14.1 points and 3.6 assists per contest, but five years later, Doncic is the center of the Slovenian attack, leading the team in points, rebounds and assists, while Dragic has become a luxurious second option.

That combination of Doncic and Dragic provides Slovenia with the best pair of playmakers remaining in this tournament. Most of the other contenders have one key centerpiece, but Slovenia’s duo enables them to almost always have an elite orchestrator on the floor, and as a result they are one of the most prolific offenses in the knockout phase.

The weaknesses are elsewhere, particularly up front, where Slovenia relies heavily on Mike Tobey, a 27-year-old center who plays professionally for FC Barcelona, to both protect the paint and collect rebounds. While Tobey has played well thus far, it might be too much to ask for him to effectively compete with some of the elite big men.

Still, Serbia’s stunning loss in Berlin on Sunday makes Slovenia’s path to the gold-medal game easier. With Jokic out of the picture, if Slovenia gets past Poland on Wednesday, then the semifinals will likely bring a rematch with Gobert and France, a team Slovenia already defeated in the group phase.

Lying in wait on the other side of the bracket is a squad led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is leading the tournament in scoring while looking to power Greece to its first gold in this event since 2005.

Regardless, Doncic gives Slovenia a chance to win any game, and since his last EuroBasket triumph, the 23-year-old has blossomed into arguably the finest young player in pro basketball. Jokic, the NBA’s two-time reigning MVP, is out of the picture. A showdown with another two-time MVP, Antetokounmpo, could be waiting. How Doncic fares in the rest of this tournament could set the stage for an NBA MVP season of his own.

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