Raptors’ Hernangomez proud to see longtime friend Doncic rise to the top

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic dribbles during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets in Dallas, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022. (LM Otero/AP)

TORONTO — It’s the debate that can never be resolved but has become more interesting than ever this season. The question, simply, is has Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic become the best basketball player in the world?

The Toronto Raptors will be able to gather some more data as they host the Mavericks on Saturday and try to figure out how to somehow slow the massive point guard.

That Doncic has reached these heights — three consecutive all-NBA selections before his 24th birthday and a perennial favourite for league MVP honours — isn’t entirely a surprise given he was the third pick in the 2018 draft and was the EuroLeague MVP as an 18-year-old.

But could anyone have really seen it coming this far and this fast?

Toronto Raptors forward Juancho Hernangomez had a better idea than most.

He and Doncic spent a lot of time together when Doncic was playing with Real Madrid, having turned professional as a 14-year-old, and Hernangomez was a junior with Estudiantes, the other top club in Madrid. Willy Hernangomez, the New Orleans Pelicans big man and Juancho’s older brother, was the other young guy for Madrid, and the three hung out with the Slovenian prodigy as a routine.

But best in the world?

“As soon as we knew him, he did different things that other kids,” Hernangomez said after the Raptors practised Friday. “I didn’t know he was going to be top one, top three in the world, with guys like KD, LeBron, Giannis. We didn’t know he was going to be that good. We thought he could be an all-star, but he got way better and I’m happy for him. He worked hard, he deserves it, he’s a good kid.”

Emphasis on “kid.” Hernangomez’s relationship with Doncic is based on all the same things that most friendships evolve from with the added dimension they were both trying to make their way as professional athletes and Doncic was barely high school age and living in a grown-up world.

With Hernangomez and his brother, Doncic could be himself.

“We grew up together. … He eats my mom’s cooking, we stay at home, play video games when he was young,” Hernangomez said. “… We loved hanging out, being outside, doing barbeques, being in the pool, so we became friends, hanging out after his game, after my game, we hang out all summer. He loves Spain, he grew up there.”

But it wasn’t long before Doncic had outgrown Spain, or even Europe, at least in a basketball context. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound point guard won everything there was to win in Europe — including helping lead tiny Slovenia to a historic European title in 2017 — before coming to America and quickly establishing himself as one of the league’s greats.

He was NBA Rookie of the Year in 2019 and has been one of the league’s most dominant players ever since.

This year, Doncic has taken his game to another level and comes into Toronto leading the NBA in scoring with 34 points per game while adding nine rebounds, 8.1 assists and 1.8 steals on 60.6 per cent True Shooting. He would be first player in league history to achieve all of those thresholds in a full season.

He’s struggling from the three-point line, connecting on 29.4 per cent of his attempts, compared to 35.3 per cent last season, but is making up for that by averaging 11.3 free throws per game and hitting a career-best 61.1 per cent of his two-point shot attempts.

He’s huge, smart and almost impossible to stop.

The Raptors have seen his movie up close. They were in Dallas earlier this month and were largely helpless as Doncic scored 36 points on 15 shots even as the Raptors were trying to force the ball out of his hands.

The situation promises only to be more difficult Saturday. It was against the Mavericks that Toronto’s injury problems began in earnest as Pascal Siakam strained his adductor muscle late in the third quarter, left the game and remains out of the Raptors lineup. The hope is he could make his return next week. Also missing will be Precious Achiuwa, who has the size and speed to at least bother Doncic, while Scottie Barnes — another match-up possibility — is questionable for Saturday with a knee sprain.

The good news is Fred VanVleet practised Friday and is hopeful of returning, as did Dalano Banton, both having missed time with a non-COVID illness.

The undermanned Raptors faced a similar test against Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday and came up short. They were reasonably successful in making him give up the ball by running a second man at him — they held Durant to 12 points on 10 shots, both season lows — but did a poor job rotating defenders to his open teammates. The Nets shot 54 per cent from the floor against Toronto, and the Mavericks (9-8) can easily do the same thing if the Raptors aren’t sharp.

“It does make it challenging,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And listen, what makes it challenging is that there isn’t OG to Pascal to Scottie to Precious, you know? That’s what makes it [tough].”

Then again, Doncic can foil any defensive approach. He’s massive for his position and can shoot, pass and shimmy his way to the rim almost at will and is as comfortable in the post as he is facing the defence.

“[His size] makes everything easy,” said Raptors guard Malachi Flynn, who will give up six inches and nearly 80 pounds in a matchup with the Dallas star and can only fantasize about playing point guard at Doncic’s size. “You get easy layups, you get easy dunks, you can pass over people …”

But it’s not just Doncic’s size or skill that has paved the way for his rapid rise to the top of the basketball world. Those qualities are just the entry fee. In his short career, he’s already shown the kind of competitive nature that has enabled him to pile big games and big moments like so many Lego bricks.

“He just wants to try to win the games no matter what,” Hernangomez said of his old friend. “If he’s gotta score 50, he’s going for 50. If he’s gotta do 20 assists, he’ll do 20 assists. He knows how hard it is to get wins in the NBA, every team prepares to try to guard him — double teams, box-and-ones — he saw every kind of defence and he’s smart enough to go through that.”

Did Hernangomez know the guy he was playing video games with and having over for dinner when they were kids in Madrid was going to be one of the best players in the world, if not the best?

Maybe not, but now that it’s happened, he can’t say he’s surprised. The fire, the confidence, the will to win? That was always there.

“When we used to play video games, he’s the same guy, He’s really competitive and one thing you cannot do is try to laugh at him or something,” Hernangomez said.

“When he gets fire, he’s tough to guard. He’s got God’s gift of talent, God has given it to him, and you know he’s going to make the last shot and gonna do tricky shots, shoot it from halfcourt and make it [to win]. That’s how he is.

“If someone can do that, it is him.”

Is Doncic the best in the world?

“He’s one of them,” Hernangomez said. “He’s in the conversation for sure. For me, it’s tough to be objective because I love him so much … for me, I am so proud of how far he came, as top one, top two, top three of the NBA …

“He’s a winner, and he competes.”

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