NEW YORK — Luka Doncic arrived in New York late Wednesday, excited, nervous and mostly exhausted after a long flight from Madrid. When he got to his hotel room, Doncic was more interested in hitting the pillow than hitting the streets. But with his body clock off by several hours, and the anticipation of finally being drafted overwhelming him, Doncic was wide awake at 4 a.m., twiddling his thumbs on a video game controller while playing his favorites, Overwatch and Fortnite.
Unlike the other players who were invited to the green room for Thursday’s NBA draft, the Slovenian sensation didn’t have the benefit of spending several days in the city doing an inordinate amount of corporate-sponsored events, promotional appearances, autograph signings and league-required responsibilities. Doncic had to earn his chance to be here, by virtue of leading Real Madrid to a four-game victory over Baskonia in the ACB finals. His last shot of the series — a ridiculous, one-legged 3-pointer — now serves as a precursor for what the next stage of his already accomplished professional career will entail as a member of the Dallas Mavericks: the chance to learn how to master that shot from the man who perfected it and made it the most unguardable weapon this side of the sky hook.
Doncic speaks four languages — Slovenian, English, Spanish and Serbian — but struggled to explain his good fortune in teaming with Dirk Nowitzki. “It’s amazing. I’m without words,” Doncic told Yahoo Sports. “Dirk is a great example for me. He’s amazing. A great player. A great person. A great leader. I hope I can learn so much from him.”
The Mavericks hope they’ve finally found the player to lead them into a post-Dirk period for which they’ve been preparing for some time. But Doncic also represents the chance to expedite the rebuild for a franchise that has experienced some lean years with Nowitzki now set to play his 21st season at age 40. Trae Young — the fifth pick of the draft — and a protected first-round selection in 2019 to Atlanta were all that was required to move up and acquire arguably the most prepared prospect of this draft at No. 3. Doncic is 19 but has been playing professionally for four years.
“Everybody put the pressure on me, if I got to the NBA or not,” Doncic said. “I think I’ve been dealing with that a lot. I think I’m used to that. On the court, I just want to play basketball, forget about everything. And just play ball.”
The move for Doncic was the perfect way to commemorate how the Mavs acquired Nowitzki 20 years ago in a draft-night deal that was much riskier at the time but made this one more readily acceptable. The Mavericks won that 1998 trade with Milwaukee in lopsided fashion, with Nowitzki — then a little-known German whom Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson said baffled folks back then with that “hockey-sounding name” — now merely padding stats on his illustrious Hall of Fame career.
As the youngest to ever win an ACB title, EuroLeague title, EuroLeague MVP and EuroLeague Final Four MVP, Doncic is the most decorated European player to ever get drafted. He won’t hold a grudge against Phoenix Suns coach Igor Kokoskov, who coached the Slovenian national team, or Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac, a Serbian who scouted him several times, for passing on him. But he did joke, “I’m going to text [them] later and say I’m mad.”
The Hawks debated internally whether they should take Doncic or Young, but they wound up passing on Doncic, too. But not without first drafting him and having him go through the exercise of hugging his mother, Mirjam Poterbin, who generated some buzz on social media, and grandmother while donning a red Hawks cap. Doncic did his initial interview in the cap but only wore it for about 10 minutes while sequestered in a back room until the trade was announced. An NBA staffer carried the cap for the rest of the night, and Doncic has no plans of ditching it. “I think I’ll keep it for the memory,” Doncic told Yahoo Sports, “but I’m happy to be a Dallas Maverick.”
Neither Doncic nor Young knew where they’d wind up, but they dressed as if they were prepared for the final outcome. Doncic wore a Mavericks-appropriate navy suit that was shipped to him from Madrid for the festivities, but he didn’t even bother to take note of the designer. Young wore a maroon and black short suit that worked well with the Hawks cap he knew he’d be wearing even as commissioner Adam Silver announced that he was selected by Dallas.
At least Doncic and Young didn’t have to experience what had to be an odd ordeal for Mikal Bridges and his family. The former Villanova standout was taken 10th overall by his hometown Philadelphia 76ers and spent nearly an hour addressing how good it would be to stay home — with his mother, Tyneeha Rivers, vice president of human resources for Harris Blitzer Sports and Entertainment (which oversees the Sixers and New Jersey Devils), expressing the same sentiment — only to be traded to Phoenix for Zhaire Smith and a 2021 first-round pick. The Charlotte Hornets also swapped Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for Miles Bridges in a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers that yielded two second-round picks. But those deals won’t be scrutinized as closely as the one involving Dallas and Atlanta.
Doncic and Young have never met, even as they awkwardly crossed paths in a back room where they had to participate in some activities for NBA digital. They will always be linked because of the trade, but Young disputed the notion that his career would always be measured against Doncic’s. “I’m not competing with Luka,” Young told Yahoo Sports. “Luka is a really good player, but in my mind, me and my teammates, we’re competing against other teams. I’m not competing against one other person. I’m not into individual battles. My main focus is winning. That’s all I care about.”
Young won’t have a choice in something fans will determine. But he will have enough of a challenge trying to win over Hawks fans. Atlanta has been star-deprived since Dominique Wilkins was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 1994 but is now banking on Young to connect with one of the league’s most apathetic fan bases.
The last time the Hawks dealt the third overall pick was 2001, and they ended up getting one All-Star appearance and a few decent years from Shareef Abdur-Rahim in exchange for Pau Gasol, then a little-known Spaniard who is now a likely Hall of Famer. But the last time teams swapped the third pick for the fifth on draft day, the Minnesota Timberwolves scored the victory in getting the lower selection of Kevin Love in a deal that sent O.J. Mayo to Memphis in 2008.
Young isn’t concerned, just confident that he will finally find the freedom to play a game devoid of triple teams and clogged lanes. He rarely saw an uncontested shot at Oklahoma, which often led him to flash some Stephen Curry range in college just to find some open space. The Curry comparisons, fair or not, will only continue now that he joins a Golden State Warriors disciple in general manager Travis Schlenk.
“I think my game translates better to the NBA, because of spacing and my ability to shoot the ball, find my teammates in transition, things like that,” Young told Yahoo Sports as he awaited an engraved Tissot watch. “This is what I dreamed of. This is the moment I was waiting for. I’m super excited to go to Atlanta, and now that the whole process is over and I know where I’m actually going to go, that makes it even more exciting.”
As he made his way through a room for TV and radio interviews, Young couldn’t stop from scrolling through his phone. He was trending on social media and by 9:30 p.m. ET his phone was blowing up with more than 200 congratulatory text messages, including some from rappers Lecrae and Quavo of the Atlanta-based group Migos. “He’s a really good friend of mine, so it’s pretty cool,” Young said.
While Young couldn’t keep the grin from his face, Doncic was using every ounce of strength just to remain awake. His bloodshot eyes from sleep deprivation left no doubt about how he would celebrate his evening. He accomplished his dream of reaching the NBA. He will have the honor of studying under the tutelage of a legend whom he always admired, even while patterning his game after the likes of James Harden and LeBron James. But that will be for another more well-rested, less jet-lagged day. Possibly Friday, when he plans to head to Dallas for the first time. “Right now, I think it’s like 4 a.m. in my country,” Doncic said as he concluded his final interview. “I don’t think I’m even going to dinner. I’m just going to take room service and go straight to sleep. I’m exhausted.”
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Wetzel: Agonizing NBA draft night for once can’t-miss-prospect Michael Porter Jr.
• Adelson: Jameis Winston made it impossible for Bucs to trust him again
• MLB bans deals with Mexican League, sources tell Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Passan
• World Cup: Argentina reportedly attempted mutiny vs. coach