CHICAGO — After Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks revealed that Kobe Bryant hit him with some Slovenian trash talk from courtside during a game, admiration for Bryant’s linguistic versatility was a common reaction.
Bewilderment was another.
Bryant had long been known to speak Italian and Spanish in addition to English. What was never clearly explained: how or when Bryant managed to pick up a few unprintable words in Doncic’s native tongue.
Sasha Vujacic knew. One of the first Slovenians to reach the N.B.A., Vujacic played alongside Bryant for more than six seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers — and let’s just say he helped Bryant expand his vocabulary.
“Kobe and I connected in Italian from the very first day, but we would fight a lot in practice,” Vujacic, drafted by the Lakers in 2004, said by telephone.
“It was a big brother, little brother kind of thing,” Vujacic continued. “I would cuss him out in Slovenian or Serbian when I got mad. He would find that interesting that I didn’t back down. And then we would talk about it.”
Vujacic said he has struggled to talk about much publicly since Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. He turned down numerous interview requests over the past few weeks but agreed to this one after he was told it had been inspired by the brief but now well-chronicled interaction between Doncic and Bryant on Dec. 29 at Staples Center.
Doncic was preparing to inbound the ball for the Mavericks in the second half, right in front of Bryant and his daughter Gianna, when he heard things in Slovenian that he never expected to hear. Doncic turned around, spotted Bryant and shook the iconic Laker’s hand.
Six weeks later, Bryant is tragically gone. Doncic has since turned the background of his Twitter page into a tribute to Bryant and an encounter he called “something amazing.”
“It’s going to be one moment that I remember for the rest of my life,” Doncic said in an interview on Friday. “Obviously I was hoping there would be more times with him, maybe even practice with him some day, but a terrible thing happened.”
The opportunity for an up-close look at the Doncic phenomenon — and a chance to take pictures with him after the game — is what drew Bryant and his daughter to Staples that night. Although Doncic doesn’t turn 21 until Feb. 28, he is averaging 28.9 points, 9.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists in his second season. He has quickly established himself as the new basketball darling in Dallas in the wake of Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement at the end of the 2018-19 season.
On Sunday, Doncic will become the third Maverick in franchise history, after Nowitzki and Jason Kidd, to start an N.B.A. All-Star Game. He’ll also become the youngest All-Star starter since LeBron James, who was also 20 when he started in 2005.
Vujacic has found that talking about the rising star from back home is a good way to try to detach himself from his sorrow over Bryant’s death.
“I think he’s the best player in the league, to be honest,” Vujacic said. “I love his demeanor. I love what I see in his eyes. His eyes talk championship.”
Over the top as some might find such praise, even for a fellow Slovenian, Vujacic is hardly the first to heap adulation on Doncic. The onslaught of positive reviews has meant that the three teams that could have had him at the 2018 draft — Phoenix, Sacramento and Atlanta — have been subjected to constant second-guessing. (Atlanta drafted Doncic third overall but only as part of a pre-arranged deal to trade him to Dallas for Trae Young, another All-Star debutante this weekend, whom the Mavericks took on the Hawks’ behalf with the fifth pick.)
Doncic, of course, has yet to appear in a playoff game. He has also missed 11 games this season after spraining his right ankle twice, raising fears that the injury will linger.
Doncic is shooting just 32.3 percent on 3-pointers and 76.5 percent from the free-throw line — two areas where he could clearly improve. He has likewise chided himself publicly about his penchant for arguing with referees.
So the 6-foot-7, 230-pound playmaker is hardly infallible.
But he is about to step onto one of the game’s biggest stages. In earning this summons to Chicago, and a starting spot in Sunday’s All-Star game, Doncic has strengthened his case to be perceived as one of the 10 biggest stars in the league, through both his popularity and his statistical production.
On Friday, at the request of N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, Doncic appeared on a heavyweight panel at the league’s annual technology summit alongside the TNT commentator Charles Barkley, 10-time All-Star Chris Paul of the Oklahoma City Thunder, W.N.B.A. star Candace Parker and Vivek Ranadive, the owner of the same Sacramento Kings that selected Marvin Bagley rather than Doncic with the No. 2 overall pick in 2018.
Doncic also will get a chance to meet the former Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan in person for the first time after he signed a five-year sneaker deal with Jordan Brand in December.
“It’s everything I dreamed about as a kid,” Doncic said.
He returned to the Dallas lineup on Wednesday after a seven-game injury absence. Mark Cuban, the Mavericks owner, has been joking all week that Doncic would have played in the game “in a cast” if he had to in order to prove his readiness for the All-Star game on Sunday.
“He’s so excited,” Cuban said. “Especially to play on the same team with someone he looked up to like LeBron. I know this is important to him.”
Miami’s Goran Dragic is the only other Slovenian, of the 11 N.B.A. players born there, to earn All-Star status. When Doncic was 18, he and Dragic combined to lead Slovenia to the EuroBasket championship in the summer of 2017, to the shock and delight of a basketball-loving country of just 2 million people.
Doncic was only 5 years old when he and Dragic met. Dragic, in his second pro season, had joined the team Slovan for the 2004-05 campaign and played alongside Luka’s father, Sasha Doncic.
Luka was a ball boy for the team who, as Dragic tells it, could not put the ball down.
“He was just happy all the time — that’s what I remember,” Dragic said. “Even now he always has that smile on his face. He’s just enjoying, having fun.
“In this league you have a lot of unhappy players. I don’t know why, but sometimes they just lose that drive, that happiness. Luka is still young, but I feel like he’s never going to lose that.”
If Dragic was the N.B.A.’s most decorated Slovenian player before Doncic, Vujacic was the most successful from a team perspective, earning two championship rings as a role player alongside Bryant in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.
Vujacic joined the Knicks before the 2015-16 season and eventually played alongside two fellow Europeans who were big Doncic fans: Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez. They were eager to feed him updates on the rising prospect.
Porzingis and Doncic, of course, are teammates in Dallas now. Daily exposure, not surprisingly, has given Porzingis, 24, an even higher regard for what the younger Doncic is doing.
“He’s just one of those, like, super talents,” Porzingis said. “He’s born with it. The way he plays, with his confidence, he just has it. It’s something you can’t learn. It’s something you have or you don’t. And he has it.”
Said Dragic: “Luka is huge. People don’t realize how big and strong he is. And he plays at his own pace. Nobody can rush him.
“You can see he never feels pressure. It’s always a game to him. That’s something rare.”
So rare that Dragic, even with the benefit of having watched Doncic from the beginning, said that things are coming together for him faster than anyone could have predicted.
In any language.
“It’s Year 2 and he’s already playing at an M.V.P. level,” Dragic said. “I always thought he’s going to do great things in this league, but if I’m honest, not so quick.”