He’s the most touted prospect in European history. His back-up is hurt. Now he’s got to lead his side into the toughest environment in European basketball. Luka Doncic lives for this kind of pressure but that doesn’t mean the odds are in his favour. Emmet Ryan on how the challenge of Panathinaikos in the Euroleague playoffs could teach us a whole lot about Real Madrid’s young leader
There’s one wrinkle in Luka Doncic’s list of achievements that tells a broader story. The young Slovenian has an ACB winner’s medal from the 2014/15 season but not one for Real Madrid’s triumph in Euroleague that same season. Doncic wasn’t on the roster for the title campaign, one that ended a drought that began almost four years before the Slovenian was born. Instead Doncic lined out with Real’s youth side that Final Four weekend to win the Adidas Next Generation Tournament.
Doncic wasn’t ready for real minutes yet with the senior side but, more importantly, Real recognised letting him finish out the stretch in his final youth season (albeit with two years of eligibility left) was more important than rushing him. Once that was done, he was added to the roster for the Spanish playoffs and Doncic duly added his first senior title a couple of weeks later.
The arc went explosively from there. His big display as a 16 year old against CSKA to introduce himself to European fans. The great form continued all the way through last season’s playoffs where Doncic was ready for his close-up at the Final Four in Istanbul, only to flounder hard on the biggest stage of his career to date.
It’s that doubt that Panathinaikos will look to target. They have the crowd behind them, and it’s nothing to take lightly. The OAKA is the most intimidating arena in the sport. While the Greens ‘only’ went 13-2 at home in the regular season, this is the toughest place for anyone to get a W. Now Doncic has to do it without a fall-back option. Facundo Campazzo has been ruled out for the entire series. With Sergio Llull still not back, Doncic is going to have to essentially play as the lone point guard option for Real.
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Make no mistake, Panathinaikos are going to go after him and hard. They would be idiots not to do so. In Nick Calathes they have the only* other serious contender for the season MVP facing down Doncic. James Gist is going to get in his face too, as will anyone else that sees him. It’s a pair of objectives for PAO, beat up the kid and get him in foul trouble. Nobody has faith in the next man up at the 1, Chasson Randle, and that includes Pablo Laso. If Real are going to win this series, they need Doncic to play north of 35 of the 40 minutes a night at point guard and to do so in dominant fashion.
*Much as this corner loves Doncic, irrespective of this series the BiE vote for MVP has long been secured by Calathes.
What Panathinaikos need to realise is that this isn’t the same kid that got his ass beat in front of a partisan Fenerbahce crowd last May. Doncic returned to Istanbul in September, to the same barn where he’d taken that personal hiding, and took over. First was Ukraine, where he flirted with a triple double. Then came Latvia, where he took on Kristaps Porzingis without a care in the world and happily sat in the driver’s seat after Goran Dragic handed him the keys to close out the win. The medal rounds arrived, with them the pressure of Spain. Another near trip-dub and the kid was on fire. The enduring sight of that EuroBasket tournament oddly wasn’t any of his displays but rather him being carried high on the shoulders of his team-mates for the medal ceremony after Slovenia took down Serbia in the final. Doncic had limped off hurt but the veteran roster around him recognised their young star in style. They knew what he had given through those two and a half weeks. They had all put their trust in him, including Dragic, and Doncic delivered.
That same trust and more is held by his team mates in Madrid. When Llull was ruled out for the season, there was no question who would be in charge on the floor. This Real side trusts Doncic because they know nobody else on their roster can do what he does. It’s his ability to shut out the questions of his youth in the bright lights that drives him on.
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Yet still the challenge is a brutal one.
Doncic had to ride through some rocky moments through the regular season’s final third before a few big nights at the tail end of the campaign. He’s been highlight reel material more than ever this year but that’s only made the target on his back bigger. Panathinaikos know that Real have a big advantage on them in the front line so the best way to disrupt that is by hurting their source of supply.
Oddly it’s a failed effort of Llull that should give Doncic inspiration. As Real fell to Fenerbahce in that semi-final last season, Llull was in monstrous form. Fener stuffed most of the men in white shirts that night but Llull was charging head first into pain and delivering. Llull has always been brave but it was a night where he showed resolve like never before. That’s the tape the kid ought to watch, not to remind himself of his own failings but of the game he needs to have.
Anything less than a Euroleague title to cap his final season on this continent will be a failure for Doncic but that’s not the story here. Taking over a series, the series to watch of these playoffs no less, builds the narrative. As the march towards the NBA draft comes, being the man when the whole continent was watching (along with a shedload of NBA execs) will stand out a long way. The way Doncic tends to operate, he’ll do that by not worrying about the next challenge or what future the NBA holds. He just wants to pound what’s in front of him.
Madrid in 4.
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