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Luka Doncic Is Scoring More and Playing When He Doesn’t Have To

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LOS ANGELES — Jared Dudley, an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks, put together a pickup game earlier this month when his team had an official day without work.

He invited players who normally don’t see much time on the ground, including Jaden Hardy, Theo Pinson and Frank Ntilikina, in addition to A.J. Lawson, who had been on the team for lower than a month. The goal was to get them a couple of extra minutes to play, and to let Dudley and other coaches help them construct up the informal dynamics of working together.

As Dudley organized the sport, Luka Doncic noticed. “I need to play,” he said.

Dudley was stunned because, in his experience, star players rarely add on to their workload in this manner.

He wondered if it was idea because Doncic had played 43 minutes (and scored 43 points) the previous night in a loss to the Clippers. However the team’s medical staff approved, so he let Doncic play.

“Just likes to hoop,” Dudley said.

Doncic’s passion has shown within the games that count, too.

It had been clear since Doncic was drafted into the N.B.A. in 2018 that he was a special player. But five seasons in, he seems to have taken a superstar leap. Entering Friday, Doncic led the league with 33.7 points per game and was fifth in assists per game with 8.8. By his own evaluation, he got here into the season more prepared than he has in seasons past, perhaps motivated by losing to Golden State within the Western Conference finals last season.

“Until you win the championship, I believe it at all times has to push you,” Doncic said. “And it’s going to for me of course.”

On Jan. 11, when Doncic insisted on playing within the unnecessary pickup game in Los Angeles, he was within the midst of an astounding stretch of basketball.

The following day he scored 35 points against the Lakers, which put his average over a 10-game stretch to 40.2 points. During that span, he scored 60 points against the Knicks, put up 51 against the San Antonio Spurs and had 50 against the Houston Rockets.

“The history of the sport is written by the players, and it was written again tonight,” Mavericks Coach Jason Kidd said after the Knicks game. “For a player, Luka, doing something that’s never been done before, it’s hard to do.”

Kidd added: “Elgin Baylor, Wilt, he was in that class, after which he separated himself and made his own class.”

The Mavericks needed every little bit of his performance. They won that game by only 5 points in time beyond regulation. Doncic scored 18 within the fourth quarter, adding 7 in time beyond regulation, which outscored the Knicks entirely.

“This kid doesn’t quit,” Kidd said.

Doncic passed 50 points in a game for the primary time last season, when he had a 51-point effort against the Clippers in February.

This season, the Mavericks need him to attain more. They lost the reliable scorer Jalen Brunson in free agency when he signed with the Knicks, and have needed to weather injuries to other key players.

Doncic also spent the summer fiddling with the Slovenian national team, then returned to Dallas prepared to take an enormous step.

“I used to be far more ready than last 12 months in the beginning, in order that was really crucial thing,” Doncic said.

Dudley saw that in quite a few ways. Doncic was in higher shape. He was more aggressive in early games. He leads the league in first-quarter scoring, averaging 11.4 points during that period.

“He plays the entire first quarter now because we are able to play him at a better rate,” Dudley said. “We imagine defensively he can sustain with that. And shooting at such a high percentage. I believe as confidence grows, he knows what he’s as a player, he knows nobody can stop him.”

Dudley, who played the ultimate stretch of his N.B.A. profession with LeBron James on the Lakers, sometimes uses James for example for Doncic. He knows Doncic will respect learning about James, because he was considered one of Doncic’s favorite players growing up. James and Doncic traded jerseys during Doncic’s rookie 12 months, and Doncic has that jersey hanging in his house in Dallas.

The maturity he shows in his play makes it sometimes jarring in moments when that lapses.

“He’s way wiser than his age; he acts like he’s been here before,” Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith, 29, said. “But, , sometimes you forget he’s only 23 years old. You forget until he does something crazy like kick the ball all the way in which up into the stands. You then’re like, OK, all right. He’s 23.”

To be fair, Doncic hasn’t been fined for kicking the ball into the stands since 2019. But he does have a fast temper on the court. He has been assessed 10 technical fouls this season, though one was rescinded.

“Off the court, I’m not an offended person,” Doncic said with a smile.

Finney-Smith has seen that up close.

They became friends regardless that they got here from very different places and commenced their N.B.A. careers in very other ways. Finney-Smith grew up in Portsmouth, Va., and joined the Mavericks as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Two years later, the Mavericks drafted Doncic, who had played skilled basketball in Europe since he was 16, with the No. 3 overall pick.

That off-season, Finney-Smith and Doncic spent a variety of time together and bonded over pickup games.

“We worked out with one another a complete week straight, even on the weekends, and played ones all night, all day,” Finney-Smith said. “Played full court one-on-one.”

Then, as now, Doncic just loved to hoop.

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