'For special occasions': Inside the lab where Luka and Kyrie create their wildest moves


GOD SHAMMGOD ENTERS into a defensive stance, the 3-foot long padded extensions strapped to each arm serving as tools against the isolation wizardry of Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic.

They’re in the middle of one-on-one work inside the Mavs’ practice facility, and Shammgod is shading to the left side of Doncic’s hip to prevent the superstar from launching into his signature move.

“You can’t go right!” Shammgod shouts as he defends Doncic on the perimeter. “You can’t shoot the step-back right!'”

Shammgod knows Doncic will take the taunt as a challenge, but the Mavs’ fourth-year assistant and head of player development is merely following the scouting report. Doncic has taken 527 step-back 3-pointers during the regular season and playoffs, according to his NBA Advanced Stats shooting splits, and you could use your fingers to count the number of times he went to his right.

At least that was the scouting report until the final seconds of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, when, after shaking Wolves center Rudy Gobert, Doncic fooled the four-time Defensive Player of the Year by stepping back to his right and drilling the winning 3. It was the first time all postseason that Doncic didn’t go to his preferred left on his step-back 3.

But Shammgod and other Mavs assistants weren’t stunned. They’ve been getting beat by that move all season.

They’d seen Doncic splash plenty of righty step-backs during post-practice one-on-one sessions, during which Doncic and backcourt partner Kyrie Irving take turns attacking the rotating trio of assistants that also includes Darrell Armstrong and Marko Milic.

And just as they’d seen Doncic’s new wrinkle to his step-back, Irving had hit plenty of 20-foot southpaw hook shots in front of Shammgod & Co. before swishing one at the buzzer to shock the defending champion Denver Nuggets in March.

“We just try new things,” Doncic told ESPN of the 30- to 60-minute sessions. “We’re smiling, and we’re just playing basketball. That’s what it’s all about.”

And, as Dallas prepares to host the Boston Celtics in Wednesday’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC), Doncic and Irving will lean on the bond they have forged while deepening their arsenal of scoring moves.

“That’s definitely the craft table right there,” Irving told ESPN. “Just working on our craft when no one’s looking. We have a lot of fun, man. It’s always a fun time when you can see somebody working on things they don’t necessarily show in the game that often, but you know they have it in their bag.”


SHAMMGOD’S PADS AREN’T the only way the Mavs’ middle-aged assistant coaches try to even the playing court against two of the NBA’s most talented playmakers.

“They only get two or three dribbles now. Can’t get 16 dribbles,” the 55-year-old Armstrong told ESPN. “You only get two or three to help us out.”

Armstrong carved out a reputation as a pesky defender during a 14-year NBA career that was highlighted by winning Sixth Man and Most Improved Player of the Year awards in 1998-99.

His feet aren’t quite as quick — and it probably doesn’t help that he wears only low-top Chuck Taylors to practice — but he says his swipe-down move is still as effective as ever and relentlessly talks trash to Doncic and Irving regardless of the results.

“I mean, I lock ’em down,” Armstrong playfully boasted.

Doncic, meanwhile, raised his voice when Armstrong’s claim was passed on.

“Oh, hell no! DA?! No!” Doncic barked, breaking out in a grin as he shook his head. “You know that’s not true.”

Armstrong, of course, readily admits that Doncic is right. His constant chatter is meant to keep the mood light while providing kindling for the competitive fires of Doncic and Irving.

“It’s really just to get ’em going, get ’em some good work,” Armstrong said. “It’s just fun to get not serious, but competitive. I’m talking s— and getting my ass whupped.

“You already know Luka’s talking s—, but Kai’s sneaky with it, too. Kai’s sneaky. The way they be doing us, I don’t blame ’em.”

Armstrong has been on the Mavs’ coaching staff for a decade, predating Doncic’s arrival in Dallas. The relationships between Doncic and Milic, as well as Irving and Shammgod, go back much further.

Milic, 47, was the first NBA player from Slovenia, a burly, bouncy 6-foot-6 forward who saw 44 games of action as Jason Kidd’s Phoenix Suns teammate from 1997 to 1999 before returning to Europe. Milic was teammates with Doncic’s father, Sasa, during the Slovenian club Union Olimpija’s Adriatic League championship season in 2007-08, when young Luka served as a ball boy. Milic, an assistant coach for the Slovenian national team, joined the Mavs’ staff before last season.

Shammgod, 48, a New York City native known for his ballhandling wizardry, has been friends with Irving’s father, Drederick, and Kyrie’s godfather, former NBA star Rod Strickland, for decades. Irving’s relationship with Shammgod, who has been on the Mavs’ staff since 2019, was among the factors that made the eight-time All-Star comfortable in Dallas upon his arrival via a trade following a turbulent 2½-year tenure with the Brooklyn Nets.

“For [Doncic and Irving], it’s so many evolutions,” Shammgod said. “It’s great. It’s like a painting where I have this beautiful canvas, and I can just keep adding stuff to the canvas.”


DONCIC AND IRVING have never played each other one-on-one — “Next year, we’ll try,” Doncic said — but they still compete against each other in the sessions, and in regular free throw and 3-point contests.

When Doncic pulls off the kind of move that makes jaws drop, Irving will attempt to mimic it or one-up him. And vice versa.

“There’s some crazy stuff he does that I can’t do, but sometimes I try it,” said Doncic, one of many current or former players who has called Irving the most skilled ball handler in the history of the game.

“It’s healthy creativity, man, and that’s what you want,” Irving said. “Call it like osmosis. We’re in that environment together. He’s trying new moves, I’m trying new moves. We pick up things and add it to our game.”

Sometimes the moves are spontaneous. On other occasions, Doncic and Irving take suggestions from Shammgod, who played only 20 games in his NBA career for the Washington Wizards but has unique cachet among current players.

Shammgod, who has a Puma signature shoe deal, is widely considered one of the most creative ball handlers in the history of the game. There’s a famous, one-handed crossover commonly known as “The Shammgod,” a move Doncic used in his warmup before Game 1 of the NBA Finals while being guarded by the namesake himself.

Doncic and Irving are more than receptive to Shammgod’s feedback. It’s often a tip about a seemingly tiny detail, such as Doncic working on getting comfortable getting into his usual step-back after going between his legs left to right, instead of needing to always pick up his dribble with his left hand.

“Players like them,” Shammgod said, “you give small stuff and then they just make it bigger. They make it bigger with their imagination. It sounds small, but for great players, the small things are significant.”

In a lot of instances, Doncic and Irving might appear to be messing around. The higher degree of difficulty for a shot, the more fun it is.

But there’s a practical reason for that kind of competitive artistry. They never know if a late-game moment during the Finals will require a lefty runner from outside the paint or a sling up a sidearm bank shot from 3-point range, as Doncic did for a clutch bucket in an early-season win over the Nets.

“In the practice, they miss a lot of shots,” Milic said. “But they are ready for the game, for special occasions.”

“They have these extra surprise moves — surprise for us. For them, they make it look natural.”



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