SAITAMA, Japan — Luka Doncic is only a 22-year-old Olympic rookie, a player who might still be a few years away from his best basketball.
Sergio Hernandez doesn’t need to wait.
“For me, I said this two years ago: He is the best player in the world, including the NBA,” Argentina’s coach said. “And if there was any doubt in my mind, there is no doubt anymore. He is the best player in the world.”
Hard to argue after Doncic’s performance Monday at the Saitama Super Arena.
Doncic made a spectacular Olympic debut with 48 points, tied for the second-highest total in men’s basketball history, to lead Slovenia to a 118-100 victory.
In Slovenia’s first Olympic game ever, Doncic scored 31 points in the first half, putting him on pace to break the Games’ scoring record of 55 points by Brazilian Hall of Famer Oscar Schmidt in 1988.
Though he didn’t have to do as much in the second half with Slovenia’s huge lead, the superstar guard for the Dallas Mavericks stayed on the floor well into the fourth quarter and ended up tied with Eddie Palubinskas, who had 48 for Australia in the 1976 Games in Montreal.
There was still enough time left to break the record when Doncic checked out with a few minutes left, but he wasn’t interested in pursuing more points.
“I don’t care about records,” he said. “We got a win and that’s what we came here for.”
His teammates wanted both.
“Everybody was telling him on the bench, ‘OK, let’s get the record,'” veteran Zoran Dragic said.
“But that’s not the case. The case is to win the game. He knows that, and it’s crazy that he’s only 22 years old.”
Slovenia didn’t even have a spot in the Olympics until earlier this month but is a medal threat thanks to Doncic, who had a historic first postseason in the NBA and might just do the same in the Olympics.
Luis Scola scored 23 points for Argentina. Facando Campazzo of the Denver Nuggets added 21.
The opening day of play in Group C started with Luka against Luis, the phenom against the 41-year-old veteran who was beginning his record-tying fifth Olympics in men’s basketball.
But it was quickly clear Doncic would be the star of this show with 15 points before the game was five minutes old.
“He was too good obviously,” Scola said. “I mean, he was unbelievable.”
Casually launching his step-back 3-pointers from well behind the international 3-point arc – one came from just inside the TOKYO 2020 logo at center court – Doncic shot from places where Argentina just couldn’t come out to defend.
When they tried, he just took his game inside, getting consecutive baskets on follow shots in the second quarter on his way to 11 rebounds.
That came during a 23-8 finish to the half for Slovenia, extending a 39-34 lead to 62-42 at the break.
Manu Ginobili was impressed, the Argentine idol tweeting at halftime that Doncic was “a beast” and praising his “tremendous mastery of the game.”
Doncic had already shown he had that playing in Europe even before going on to win Rookie of the Year honors in the NBA. In his second season, he became the first NBA player to average 30 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in his first postseason series.
His first Olympics might be even better than that.
Slovenia has been a country on the rise, winning the EuroBasket title in 2017 and then qualifying for Tokyo by winning one of the Olympic qualifying touraments earlier this month. The Slovenians knocked off host Lithuania in the final after Doncic went right to playing for his country after the Mavericks were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round.
Argentina, the 2004 Olympic champions, were thought to be past their years of challenging for titles when Ginobili and some other stars from that era called it a career.
But Scola is still here and the Argentines showed they’re not done just yet when they made a surprise run to the gold-medal game two years ago in the Basketball World Cup, losing to Spain but not until after clinching their spot in the Olympics.
Spain is also in Group C along with host Japan, but even those games shouldn’t be any tougher than playing against Doncic.
“We tried everything that we would have tried against a normal player,” Hernandez said, “but he’s not a normal player.”