It wasn’t the first time Mirjam Poterbin witnessed her teenage son become the center of attention. In fact, two days before the NBA Draft, Poterbin watched him win his third ACB championship with Real Madrid.
But this spectacle — seeing Adam Silver rehearse walking up to the podium a dozen times under Hollywood set lights, the countless cameras surrounding the stage and multi-millionaire sports agents chauffeuring their young clients around in a city with a population four times greater than Slovenia’s — was different.
“He’s my son — he’s everything in my life,” Poterbin said, with her son surrounded by photographers and journalists clamoring for his attention in the green room.
Luka Doncic, 19, is entering the NBA as the most accomplished European player ever, having won the EuroLeague Championship, EuroLeague MVP, Final Four MVP, Liga ACB MVP and a EuroBasket gold medal with the Slovenian national team just in the past two years.
Appropriately nicknamed “Wonderboy,” Doncic has surpassed the international accomplishments of future hall-of-fame players such as Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and his newest teammate Dirk Nowitzki.
Doncic’s array of talents, even in a league that’s experienced decades-worth of evolution in merely a few years, is rarely seen in basketball. To find an international player remotely comparable to Doncic, it requires some shallow digging of the deep, rich history of Yugoslavian basketball.
With the third most Olympic medals, a first-place finish in the FIBA World Cup and three gold medals in the FIBA EuroBasket, Yugoslavia’s historic dominance on the hardwood was reflective of its prominence as a country on the world stage. The death of Marshall Josip Broz Tito was followed by nationalistic poisoning, turning a once-stable nation into a place of nightmares. Years of civil war and ethnic cleansing then split Yugoslavia into the smaller, permanently damaged countries that remain — Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia.
These countries are now home to the most competitive basketball teams in the world outside of the United States — all of which hope to capture even a flash of the medal-winning teams headed by the man often likened to Doncic.
“Drazen Petrovic would be the closest example of what we’ve seen to this Doncic phenomenon,” said ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla. “If you were an NBA basketball fan pre-internet and Twitter, anyone who followed the game had heard of Drazen — not to the extent they’ve heard of Luka because of draft interviews and footage, so there’s even more anticipation for Luka than the great Petrovic because times and the media has changed.”
Petrovic, like Doncic, had won practically everything there is to win — multiple EuroLeague Championships, a EuroBasket MVP and EuroBasket gold medal — before joining the Portland Trail Blazers in 1989.
Poterbin knows the comparisons exist — she was around when Petrovic’s popularity reached peak Beatlemania levels in Yugoslavia. But she’s also aware that — at 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6 or all the way up to 6–doot-10, as he’s been listed on various reports – a contrast exists between the two.
“I’m sure there are a lot of similarities between Luka and Drazen, but basketball was so different back then and it’s hard to make those comparisons,” Poterbin said. “Yet I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why people link their names together.”
Despite the accolades, hours of game footage and interviews available, Doncic still has critics.
Some basketball pundits are skeptical his talent will translate at the next level, where there’s a stronger emphasis on pure athleticism than there is in the EuroLeague. They point to his lack of elite foot speed or vertical leap. But his deficiencies, as was the case with Gasol, Nowitzki and other international players, can be overcome with his basketball I.Q.
“He has a quickness of mind the great players have — one that the vast majority of players that have played at this high level don’t have,” Fraschilla said. “You can dispute how athletic or skilled he is, but you can’t dispute the incredible basketball I.Q. he has. In that regard, he’s on par with some of the greats that have played the game.”
That ability to read a set before it develops and force the opposition to play at his speed is perhaps the most uncanny similarity shared by Petrovic and Doncic — but it’s not one that absolved Petrovic of hitting rookie walls.
Todd Spehr, author of “Drazen: The Remarkable Life and Legacy of the Mozart of Basketball,” suspects Doncic will be analytical enough to make the tweaks necessary to succeed long-term.
“Luka has yet to even see his first minute in the league, and as Drazen would attest if he were alive, those initial growing pains should not serve as the final judgment on what a player can and cannot be,” Spehr said.
“Give him time, let him develop, and enjoy the journey,” Spehr continued. “Luka’s journey has yet to start — Drazen’s will remain forever unfinished.”
Doncic, born six years after Petrovic was tragically killed in an automobile accident, is a basketball historian of sorts.
“In Yugoslavia we had some amazing players and we still have,” Doncic said. “There’s a lot of players in the NBA too, like Nikola Jokic and Milos Teodosic. I think I can be a part of that.”
Doncic is too young to have watched those greats play live, but he’s broken down their games extensively. Still, he’s not bothered about being passed on by the very players he once studied — like Phoenix Suns head coach and Yugoslavian legend Igor Kokoskov, who named his son after Luka, and the Vlade Divac-Peja Stojakovic front office duo in Sacramento.
As for Petrovic — the late Croatian star is one of Doncic’s idols, someone whose celebrated success was a testament to his tireless, unmatched work ethic.
“Drazen — he was an amazing, amazing player,” Doncic said. “If I would become like Drazen, it would be amazing — but I need to work more.”
“I need to work more,” Doncic said, again, as if the magnitude of the challenge finally settled in. “I need to work harder if I want to be like Drazen.”
At 19, Doncic has already achieved more than most professional players ever do — and it warrants the attention he’s gotten. Come October, though, he’ll have to start fresh again — a move away from his mother, much like did at 13 to sign with Real Madrid, and all familiar surroundings to carry a Mavericks franchise when they are finally ready to let Nowitzki hang No. 41 up for good.
But to Poterbin, Doncic is still the child whose first love was basketball — the kid who practiced like he knew this moment would one day come.
“It still doesn’t feel quite real,” Poterbin said. “We’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow.”