BBC REPORT: Luka Doncic  just announced an unexpected departure of a significant…

               Luka Doncic smiled and slowly nodded as the 15,000 inside                 Real Madrid’s WiZink Center erupted around him.

His long, looping three-point shot had seemed to hang in mid-air, leaving fans open-mouthed as they tracked its progress; long enough, straight enough, sure enough. The ball rippled through the net.

The rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona is known the world over as one of football’s fiercest, and El Clasico burns red hot in basketball, too.

Doncic’s long-range buzzer-beater at the end of the third period against Barcelona in December 2017 was as spectacular as anything Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo produced on the football pitch. Then aged 18, he was already being described as the most promising prospect Europe has produced.

His numbers in that game – 16 points, six rebounds and seven assists – were modest by his own standards. But the poise and precision, the confidence behind that knowing smile, were signs he would soon outgrow the EuroLeague. The teenager’s potential seemed boundless.

Within a year, Doncic was producing similar moments of breath-taking magic in the NBA. He earned Rookie of the Year honours at the end of his first season with the Dallas Mavericks and, before the coronavirus pandemic brought the 2019-20 campaign to a halt, was averaging a near triple-double of 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists, elevating himself into MVP discussions, now aged 21.

Doncic has stood out as an elite talent since taking his first steps in competitive basketball at seven years old. Those who know him never doubted he would shine on the game’s biggest stage.

Just maybe not quite this soon.

Basketball was a constant in Doncic’s early life. His father Sasa played professionally in Slovenia, Serbia and France, and his godfather is the former San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves and Toronto Raptors centre Rasho Nesterovic. The young Doncic would sit behind the basket while his father played, sneaking on to the court at half-time to practise his jump shot.

When Sasa Doncic joined Olimpija in 2007, Luka also signed for the club and was placed among kids his age in the Under-10s group. The move brought him under the tutelage of Grega Brezovec – but only very briefly.

“I was his coach for exactly 16 minutes,” Olimpija’s basketball school coach says.

“He was much better and taller than other kids his age, and even though he was much better than the others, he was always a great team player and leader. It was noticeable that basketball is in his blood.”

Doncic was moved up to train with the club’s Under-12s team the next day. Two years later, by the time he was 12, his name was eliciting excited whispers from Europe’s major scouts. He was a constant, dominant presence at youth tournaments in Slovenia and, when Olimpija’s select Under-12s or Under-13s would venture abroad, he’d put Barcelona, Lazio and countless others to the sword.

Already comfortably over 6ft tall, he was physically domineering, a smooth, technical operator with the ball in his hands, orchestrating attacks and unleashing streaks of scoring. Despite his smiling demeanour, he was fiercely competitive.

“All the moves you see him doing now in the NBA we saw in Slovenia when he was younger,” says Olimpija’s head of youth basketball Lojze Sisko, who coached Doncic from the age of 11 to 13.

“Of course, now he’s bigger, stronger and faster, but how he’s playing, how he’s reading basketball – all that we saw in Ljubljana.”

By now several major European teams were tracking the young Slovenian. Montepaschi Siena made a concerted effort to prise him from Olimpija, but a rival offer proved impossible to resist. A five-year deal at Real Madrid. Doncic was 13.

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