The ‘Luka Magic’ you don’t see: Step into Luka Dončić’s trick shot addiction

It’s about an hour before the start of a late December game, and Luka Dončić is about to perform magic.

With Slovenian pop songs bellowing from the American Airlines Center speakers, a long-held home habit for his pregame warmups, Dončić strolls to the halfcourt line. He misses his first, makes his second. For Dončić, that’s no sleight of hand. After all, from this distance, Dallas Mavericks assistant coach God Shammgod says Dončić converts nearly half of them.

With nothing more than a blank expression, Dončić holds out five fingers to Shammgod and Darrell Armstrong, the Mavericks’ longest-tenured assistant coach, to signal how many pushups they owe him. It’s a tradition of Dončić’s pregame routines that always ends with half-court attempts.

Unsatisfied, though, Dončić seeks out another basketball resting on the mid-court line. He kicks it into his hands, readying an even more audacious attempt. This time, Dončić turns around to face the other rim. Without looking, Dončić launches the ball backward over his head with his right hand.

“I’m just making up my own shots,” Dončić says from his locker earlier this month in a rare postgame interview away from the media conference podium. “In practice, I just try it.”

It swishes into the nylon net. The fans already in the arena ooh and aah. Shammgod and Armstrong arise from the floor, amazed. And Dončić, finally, flashes a sly smile.

Luka Dončić is many things: A generationally talented savant, a ruthless competitor, a calculated on-court maestro, one of the NBA’s most captivating superstars. But he’s a performance artist, too, and this pregame recital is when his show begins.

“I be telling him, ‘I ain’t never seen nobody as good as (you) at making these bulls— shots,’” says former teammate Dennis Smith Jr., now with the Brooklyn Nets.

But what makes Dončić stand apart from other stars, even those who make similarly ridiculous shots on a semi-regular basis, is how he’s turned trick shooting into a legitimate skill and perpetual challenge. He’s always, genuinely always, testing himself with more difficult attempts: higher arcs, unnatural mechanics, longer distances, lower probabilities.

“It’s not just some B.S.,” Shammgod says. “He’s not just throwing the ball to the rim. He’s really trying to make it.”

For example, his backwards fling isn’t just a prayer, but a calculated attempt, one he’s now made time and time and time again.

“When he’s (facing backwards),” Shammgod said two hours before Dončić’s 73-point performance in Atlanta, “he’s looking at this rim” — Shammgod points to the court’s opposite rim, the one Dončić’s facing when he flings it up backwards — “to gauge his shot on that rim.”

“When I line it up correctly, it goes in,” Dončić says with a smile.

Dončić doesn’t take trick shots in his daily life. No trash can heaves, no invented challenges in hotel rooms, nothing of that sort. “I don’t try in the house,” he says. “That’s different.”

But on the basketball court — literally anytime he’s near a basket with a ball — his showmanship morphs into a full-blown addiction. It’s not just his pregame warmups. It’s before games and after whistles, in unfamiliar road gyms and home shootarounds, for money or simply for the challenge, and, sometimes, even during the actual games themselves. (He has, of course, hits plenty of absurd shots within actual games, too.) Stephen Curry is the player whose trick-shot artistry turned the pregame into must-watch entertainment. But Dončić, to his peers, has become the NBA’s true trick shot king.

“You can give him that title,” star teammate Kyrie Irving says.

Shammgod, the legendary Brooklyn dribbler who has worked with countless stars, can only name one player on Dončić’s level, one he never even watched with his own eyes.

“I would say him and, on film, Larry Bird,” he says. “Nobody personally I’ve seen (makes) more magical shots.”

These shots might seem charmed. They certainly are an embodiment of the 25-year-old’s youthful zeal, still strong as ever as he enters his second decade as a professional player. “I like to have fun,” Dončić says. “So sometimes, I just try some new stuff.” But he also believes, and tries, to make every one.

And, as his teammates, coaches and peers will tell you, he usually does.

No matter the setting, Luka Dončić tests himself with trick shots, like this one where he tries to kick the ball in. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

On a practice court underneath the Cleveland Cavaliers’ home arena, having already exchanged his signature Jordan brand shoes for his idly-waiting-for-the-bus slides, Dončić finds his next shotmaking challenge. Standing just outside of the paint, he starts potshotting at the other rim. And then he swishes one.

Various Mavericks staffers and players, witnesses to his latest act of magic, yell out, amazed. Don Kalkstein, the team’s director of sports psychology, high fives him, saying, “First try!”

Kalstein was joking; Dončić had several wayward heaves before this attempt nestled in. Perhaps that contributed to Dončić’s reaction: two clenched fists in the air, pumping them once for emphasis.

Dončić has spent a lifetime attempting full-court heaves like this. During practice, whenever the whistle blows for a huddle, Dončić typically flings the ball toward the furthest rim from wherever he’s standing.

“S—, before practice even start, he probably threw every ball on the rack at the rim from wherever the rack at,” says Dorian Finney-Smith, a former teammate now in Brooklyn. “He gon’ grab all the balls and probably gonna launch ’em 90 feet to try to make ’em.”

Dončić has only connected once in an actual game from beyond half-court, a 51-footer against the Nets his rookie season, despite taking 41 such shots in his career. Armstrong can’t believe it isn’t more.

“That really surprises me,” Armstrong says. “Because he hits those all the time.”

Armstrong may be remembering Dončić’s many near-misses or just-after-the-buzzer heaves that don’t count in the official record. Like his half-courter in the 2020 NBA Rising Stars Game. Or this near-full-court swish, which he purposely held beyond the final buzzer because Dallas led. Or this 70-plus foot shot this season against the Orlando Magic just after the halftime buzzer.

In Dončić’s rookie season, his teammates quickly learned two things about him. The first was that he never says no.

“He makes stupid bets,” Maxi Kleber told The Athletic in 2018, just two months into Dončić’s rookie season. “He knows the odds are against him like crazy, but he still accepts them.”

The second: Don’t bet with him.

“Over the years, I’ve lost quite some money,” Kleber admits.

Kleber claims to have recouped some earnings by applying that first lesson. Especially in the cramped confines of various road gyms that the team holds practices, Kleber dares Dončić to shoot from angles behind the backboard that, he says, aren’t possible. “When the ceiling is not high enough (and) you go far enough back,” he says, “there’s no angle.”

But because Dončić has never seen a shot he doesn’t believe he can make, he still says yes.

Finney-Smith, on the other hand, made a practical decision early on to not bet with his superstar teammate.

“I was like, ‘You know what, I can’t even afford that right now,’” he says. “I was still on my rookie deal, non-guaranteed, so I was like, ‘Hell no.’”

Finney-Smith claims Wesley Matthews owed five figures to Dončić in just one half-season they played together. According to Dončić, Matthews still hasn’t paid up. (The 37-year-old veteran Hawks guard declined an interview request before Dončić’s 73-point night.)

“Yup,” says Dončić, confirming Finney-Smith’s account. “(For) about three years now.”

Dončić says he has settled all of his outstanding debts, even with JJ Redick, who jokingly tweeted last year that Dončić owed him $1,700. “He saw me (last week),” Dončić said after the team finished a week-long road trip in New York, where Dončić met with Redick for a podcast interview “And he never asked because it wasn’t true.” But Dončić certainly hasn’t forgotten those who owe him, naming Shammgod and Armstrong as two other culprits.

“I need cash,” Dončić says, dead serious. “Straight cash.”

Shammgod and Armstrong, along with Slovenian hoops legend Marko Milič, another one of the team’s assistants, may have witnessed more of Dončić’s ridiculous makes than anyone else alive. They join Dončić for his pregame warmups, taking over the role current Orlando Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley filled alone before he departed the franchise in 2021, and they’ve only encouraged his audacity.

“If you’re a good coach, you challenge them in a way where it’s fun,” Shammgod says. “Players like him, they need to have fun to stay involved.”

Like when Dončić launches a final pull-up 3 of the pick-and-roll drill at an impossibly high arc. “He’s got two or three chances to throw it up high to either bounce it or swish it,” Armstrong explains. Dončić recently hit this exact shot messing around during All-Star Weekend.

Or those “jump” shots Dončić began taking this season, when he discards his floorbound shooting technique for one more akin to, say, a mock version of Russell Westbrook’s.

Amusingly, Dončić began shooting these exaggerated jump shots shortly after a home matchup against the LA Clippers. “He’s doing that because that’s how a lot of guys shoot jumpers,” Armstrong says. “He’s just having fun with that, but he’s starting to learn how to hit it now.” And all this occurs before Dončić even moves to the half-court line.

Because Dončić’s half-court shots have become too easy, the coaches have added rules. “First, we bet money, like $100 or whatever,” Shammgod says. “Then he was making them so much that I was like, ‘You’ll do pushups and I’ll do pushups.’” Dončić gets two normal half-court tries and two more behind his back. If he makes one, they drop to the floor while he stunts on them with the Griddy.

“I’m getting in shape because of him,” Shammgod says.

When Dončić returns to the floor with his teammates just before games, they join his hijinks.

“When we switch sides in layup lines, I throw it really high,” Dwight Powell says. “He tries to hit it in with his shoulder.”

One former teammate, Davis Bertāns, said this trick shot was the one that most amazes him.

“He does it every time,” says Bertāns, now a member of the Charlotte Hornets. “I guess I have small shoulders, because I tried it one time and I was like, ‘I’ll probably hurt myself before I even get the ball up there.’”

There are more attempts and more makes, so many more that it would be exhaustive if not impossible — as Finney-Smith says, “If he sees someone else make a trick shot, he’s gonna try to make that trick shot before you do” — to catalog them all. But all those within Dončić’s orbit have their personal favorites. Jason Kidd, Dončić’s head coach, finds himself most amazed by Dončić’s seated launches from the courtside seats.

“He makes it look so easy, (but) sitting down and shooting from the bench is not,” Kidd says. “He’s so strong.”

Milič is most fascinated by Dončić’s bank shots off the shot clock nearly 20 feet above the basket. Once, while Dončić mindlessly took them as the two chatted underneath the basket, Milič began counting: five straight, then 10, and then finally 12 makes in a row. Dončić often seeks out the firmest substance above a basket he can — in the team’s home practice facility, it’s the support beams of the facility’s ceiling runs parallel to a basket — to try improbable Tim Duncan-esque tricks. In an actual arena, with the ceiling far too high to reach, the shot clock must do.

The Orlando bubble, however, was perfect for these low-roofed anglers. “He made some crazy ones back (then),” Finney-Smith said. “We were just so surrounded by basketball that we had nothing else to do.” Like this one:

Dončić says he doesn’t have a favorite make. Several seasons ago, though, he repeatedly asked media members if any had recorded one he claimed then was his most impossible: a full-court shot using his foot. No one had. Perhaps it will go down as apocrypha, but Dončić has at least one eye witness.

“He did actually do that,” says teammate Josh Green, affirming Dončić’s feat even though he couldn’t fully remember the details. “He kicked it in.”

Dončić, like many savants, cannot explain this spectacular genius he has. Asked why he’s so good at making these ridiculously improbable shots, he only says, “I just kind of try.”

Those around him struggle to explain it, too. To Shammgod, it’s Dončić’s belief that these impossible shots will go in if he shoots them. “Luka has the ‘it’ factor, and people don’t understand how much having the ‘it’ factor means, because it’s not something you can practice or train,” Shammgod says. “Your mind just has to be wired toward that.” They aren’t impossible shots, not to Dončić, not with the genuine belief he will make them.

“When you’re having fun with the game and when you’re a kid and no one else is watching, and you’re playing with just with your friends or your family, (shooting) trick shots and half court shots, you know, it’s gonna translate into ultra talented and ultra gifted,” Irving says. “He has the confidence and the cajones to shoot it.”

Seth Curry, Dončić’s former teammate and brother to the league’s other greatest trick shot showman, offers a more tangible reason: hand-eye coordination.

“When you have that, it makes it easier to do that type of stuff,” he says. “Some of the passes, the crosscourt passes, the behind-the-back passes, that’s hand-eye coordination. That’s skill. That’s touch.”

But it’s innate, too. However nebulous it may sound, Dončić was born to put the basketball through the hoop.

“There’s a lot of people who can work every single day, a lot of hours, and not even come close to him,” Bertāns says. “We all have our strengths and weaknesses (as people), you know? Basketball’s his strength.”

That’s what those who witness Dončić always come back to. Whatever talent or trait or undefinable mystique allows him to splash in 80-foot bombs or psychic-defying rainbows, it’s what also makes him a generational basketball player already ascending into the sport’s pantheon. It’s just who he is.

“I think,” Kidd says, “they’re just regular shots to him.”

Required Luka Dončić reading from Tim Cato

Jan. 29, 2024: How Luka Dončić and his 73 points broke Atlanta’s defense, step-by-step

Jan. 18, 2023: Luka Dončić has always been a record-setting genius, even at age 13

Jan. 4, 2023: How the NBA has tried — and mostly failed — to stop Luka Dončić

Dec. 28, 2022: Luka Dončić, NBA history and trying to make sense of greatness

May 20, 2022: Luka Dončić’s legend in Slovenia reached new heights in 2022 playoffs

March 11, 2020: ‘Luka’s doing magic’: How Dallas discovered its next superstar a world away

Oct. 23, 2019: Slovenia’s enormous passion is willing Luka Doncic to superstardom

Feb. 19, 2019: Luka Doncic’s stepback isn’t just his signature shot, but a glimpse into his unique athleticism

Dec. 24, 2018: ‘These are shots he shoots every day:’ How Luka Doncic learned to make impossible shots

(Illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Som Hodde, Ron Jenkins, Christopher Pike, Getty Images)

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