25-under-25: Luka Doncic is a perfect basketball robot

25-under-25, Dallas Mavericks

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Luka Doncic plays basketball like a video game, piling up stats and achievements. But can he thrive while still letting go of the controller?

A cigarette burns on the screen’s left side. To the right sits a rubbed-down blue chalk cube. These are objects whose use wears them thin. The voiceover belongs to the director. He opens with a declarative statement: “Nine-ball is rotation pool.” He follows it up with two more declaratives, but the complexity unspools like a thread of smoke from that burning cigarette: “The balls are pocketed in numbered order. The only ball that means anything, that wins it, is the 9.”

We’re not really here to discuss this film by the way, and if we had more time, we could intricately lay out how Luka Doncic could just as easily be the 9 ball as the player. But you see Luka Dončić is a big deal. He is a first name only, a force to behold, a one-man wrecking crew, the subject of a Jim Croce song. Don’t pull on his cape and all that, and so we are here to consider how he could be digitally flattened.

Have you encountered Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 MetaHuman framework? If you have, then maybe you have encountered Luk.AI. Are you confused? You should be. Luk.AI is designed to be indistinguishable from Luka. They have the same interests. They both like trick shots and video games. Luk.AI can even be “augmented with neural network technologies trained with real-world facial animations from Luka’s performance capture.” This is how WestWorld either begins or ends. Yes, Ed Harris would know.

“Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 ecosystem will enable Luk.AI to exist across short-form video, games, film & television, and emerging XR mediums”, which will leave the real Luka to work on trick shots and video games. It all makes sense. That has to be the angle. Make some money, collect data, provide a tech company with research and development opportunities that cross some event horizon, swallow up what remains of our collective humanity outside the carbon footprints.

Admittedly, this all feels a bit overcooked the way membership in the Burger King Kids’ Club must have tasted to discerning parents in the ‘90s. I am as dated as anyone–Eric Schlosser included–, but it falls right in line with NFT culture, or whatever else can be peddled as art these days. Anytime a celebrity, whether athlete or rapper, becomes involved in what feels like a short sale the individual can’t help to come across a tad bit diminished, like there is no there there.

If Luk.AI really is indistinct from Luka, then what does that say about Luka whose value as an athlete relies on muscle and bone and sinewy synapses? At its worst, the pitch is dystopian, and at its best, boilerplate parody for The Onion. And The Onion has tried to take on Luka as a subject. I count at least three headlines since January of 2021, two of which revolve around Luka’s tension with league referees. In the last three seasons, he has amassed season totals of 18, 17, and 13 technical fouls, and he refuses to talk about whether Luk.AI will commit such travesties too. The reality is funnier than the parody. Luka and his digital self are not the same.

And there lies a misperception between Luka and his numbers. He’s not so much an individual with an explosive temper. He’s more entitled to sulk in the vein of Andy Roddick losing serve in a Wimbledon Final to a much better Roger Federer. Have you seen Steph Curry? Is there a shot he can’t make? How well-tiered is the game of the Golden State Warriors? That’s the mission should Luka accept it, and the technical fouls seem to be mostly the result of not having achieved the goal already.

These outward displays of inner turmoil place Luka kindly alongside Draymond Green, Russell Westbrook, and Trae Young, and the temperament is mostly a forgivable foible, especially considering everything else he brings to the court. First and foremost, he’s a competitor. When the game begins, he’s play for play as a Tom Cruise character might say.

There is what Luka Doncic does, and there is how he does it

And the offensive numbers are overwhelming. His rookie year he averaged 21.2 points per game. Since then: 28.8, 27.7, 28.4. The percentages are solid too. The 3-point shooting hindered somewhat by selection. Then again, Luka can steal a whole playoff series volume-shooting from deep, grinning through the grudges he most likely invents himself, and so watching him morphs into a tracing of lineages. The uniform gestures toward Dirk, and Luka will pull up on a pogo stick at the elbow and fadeaway a couple times each game, but mostly he makes one think about Kobe Bryant’s midrange or James Harden’s tinkering. The usage rates place him in that vicinity as well, and one doesn’t have to venture too far from the trunk to know Michael Jordan likely approves.

In large part, the spectacle of the water being carried is what makes Luka worth watching, although that’s also where one can begin an earnest critique. Is Luka aware of the larger context? He is largely running and gunning alone, not so much Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as Butch Cassidy Robs Trains. And yet Luka as singularity is what makes his game a hard sale for those wanting something beyond sheer numbers and luck born out of volume.

Back in May, Micah Wimmer wrote about Luka for RealGM:

“I do not enjoy watching the Dallas Mavericks. I will readily admit that Luka Doncic is a marvel, one of the rare players capable of transforming any franchise into a playoff team by himself. And though I am often left in awe of his individual achievements, I’m left cold by the context they are performed in.”

Wimmer draws a comparison between basketball and moviemaking, longing for an artistic beauty rendered by collaborative efforts that are individual but not isolated. Wimmer finds little beauty in Luka’s game because Luka’s game doesn’t necessarily connect with his supporting cast:

“When I watch a basketball game, I want to see a personal touch, a style that marks the performance as that of a unique individual. Despite Doncic’s personal mastery, I do not see this when I watch the Mavericks.”

The Mavericks are obviously still formulating around Luka. Jalen Brunson left for New York in the offseason, and no one of equal daring took his place. But the issues aren’t just architectural–they rest with the engineering. How does one build around Luka for the long haul in a market not known for landing top-end free agents and what is the eventual wear and tear in the meantime? Similar questions once circled  James Harden in Houston, and much of Luka’s game answers the question as to what Harden might be if he didn’t shrink in stature come the postseason. Yet the team results for the two players — the one who performs in the spotlight and the one who doesn’t — are, to date, largely identical.

Luka’s biggest moments have the look and feel of a one-handed backhand from Stan Wawrinka breaking into what was at the time a Big Four of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. Luka doesn’t so much finesse the postseason as run over it roughshod like an earth-quaking forehand from Juan Del Potro. But Luka isn’t playing tennis. He’s playing basketball. And his performances against the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns last year as well as against Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers the two postseasons prior raised the stakes from wait and see to, oh! this is happening now. While still competing for the outright label of best in his draft class, the consensus early on is he’s auditioning for pantheon status.

Athletes have a long history of trying to enlarge themselves, to build a bigger base, and Luka would not be the first to do so in a lame marketing scheme. The goal of Luk.AI is to connect. But whatever connections will benefit Luka most in his grand scheme to be loved in perpetuity need to happen on the court with his teammates — now or in the future. After all, an even greater deal of pressure rests on the front office to assemble a supporting cast with a vision that accounts for more than Luka’s isolated skillset. The greatest strength and weakness of his game is that whether he heats up or goes ice cold everyone around him dwindles. Like a true Maverick, he just might be the last real movie star.

He steps away from whatever arcade game he’s losing himself inside and unleashes what anyone in the vicinity would have to observe as a sledgehammer of a break.

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