“He’s an authentic original. He’s truly unlike any specific player that I’ve ever seen.”
These were the words of Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle. For someone that won an NBA championship during his playing days with the Boston Celtics and one as a coach of the Mavs, this is high praise. Despite coaching one of the ultimate NBA legends in Dirk Nowitzki, Carlisle’s never seen anything like this before.
For those of us that have watched Luka Doncic, neither have we.
The 21-year-old phenom from Slovenia has taken the NBA by storm in just his second season. Most recently, Doncic led the 8-seeded Dallas Mavericks to a six-game playoff series versus the heavily favored #2 seed, the Los Angeles Clippers. Without his Latvian counterpart in Kristaps Porzingis for half the series and going up against defensive stalwarts in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Doncic was unfazed in his first postseason action – and he showed us all why he will one day be the face of the NBA.
When you watch Luka Doncic, there’s no question he’s already one of the best players in the league. But lacking elite speed, agility, and explosiveness, some people wonder – how is he so damn good?
Let’s dive in.
In this clip, you can see Luka calmly wait for the pick from Maxi Kleber; once he gets Ivica Zubac to commit back to Kleber on the pick and pop, Luka accelerates – only to meet Paul George at the rim. This is where Luka is so good, as he has the patience of a 15-year veteran in the league. Most young players, especially at age 21, would try to beat George by speed or draw contact and flail away from the basket in an attempt to draw a foul. Instead, Luka simply waits for the contact, uses his shoulder to knock George off balance, turns in mid-air to be squared up to the basket, and completes the play and makes his shot.
Again, absolutely no rush to his game here. Kawhi Leonard does a great job moving his feet, and Luka then gives a pump fake as well as one slight fake. As he goes into the air and gets Leonard to commit to the initial shot attempt, he double clutches and switches to his right hand to prevent Leonard from blocking the shot.
I don’t know if this necessarily falls under the “Patience” category, but I mean, c’mon. The game-winner that the world will remember for the rest of eternity – okay, maybe not the rest of eternity, but you get what I’m saying – it’s so impressive for one main reason: Luka knew exactly how much time was on the clock with every step and every dribble of that last possession. In a young player’s first postseason action, with the first chance to win a playoff game for his team, you rarely see such poise and patience on a series-defining and series-turning play. Luka is otherworldly in that sense.
- Pick and Roll
Per Synergy, in his rookie season, Luka Doncic averaged 0.895 points per possession as the pick and roll ball handler. This season, Luka bumped that up to a ridiculous 1.036 points per possession, placing him among the game’s elite – for reference, his PPP average as the pick and roll ball handler this year put him ahead of the likes of LeBron James, Trae Young, and James Harden, to name a few.
As you can see in the clip above, he’s shown the league enough to be a threat in the pick and roll, which forces Kawhi and Montrezl Harrell to have to communicate. Luka seemingly walks Kawhi into Boban Marjanovic as if he’s walking a dog in the park, keeps Kawhi on his back, then dribbles in far enough to where Harrell has to commit to him. As soon as he does, he drops the pass off, and Boban has the easiest two points of his life.
Here’s the same exact play as the one above; the only difference here is that instead of sticking to Luka’s hip, Landry Shamet tries to race around and front Luka. Luka reads this so easily that it looks like Shamet told him what he was going to do, and Luka uses a simple stepback to knock down the midrange jumper.
Once again, Luka just kind of lulls everyone to sleep. Off the pick, he just bounces and moves along, hesitating about two to three times. Each hesitation keeps all the Clipper defenders on their toes because he’s such a gifted playmaker, and as you can see with the last bounce he makes, Kawhi shuffles over to guard Dorian Finney-Smith in the corner thinking Luka might pass the ball, while Marcus Morris Sr. freezes thinking Luka will turn back around and kick it out to the top. Now that he has a 2 on 1 advantage against Zubac, Luka gets him to commit before wrapping around and dropping off a free bucket for Boban once again.
More numbers: in his rookie season, Luka Doncic averaged 1.249 points per possession + assists, which placed him in the 66th percentile. This year, that number went up to 1.353, which placed him in the 86th percentile. Specifically, In the Mavs’ halfcourt offense, that number went from 1.234 points per possession + assists last year to 1.351 this year, taking him from the 69th to 90th percentile.
Now, one might say those numbers aren’t as relevant considering he had a better team around him this year, including the presence of Porzingis. However, if you watch this clip, you’ll see why it makes sense. Luka not only has excellent court vision, but sees every play develop waaaaaaaaaaaaay ahead of schedule. JaMychal Green doesn’t make a particularly hard close out, meaning Luka can’t shoot that stepback three by instinct. But, his plan here all along is to hit Kleber on the baseline cut, and if not, he knows he’ll have Kawhi ball-watching – meaning Seth Curry will be available for a catch-and-shoot. Sure enough, Shamet does a nice job of rotating down to Kleber, and Luka uses his incredible strength to whip over a pass right into Curry’s shooting pocket.
Again, believe it or not, Luka sees this play way ahead of everyone else. He wants the switch on Morris, which he gets, and then he drives straight at him. We’ve seen Luka hang in the air, twist, and hit that bank shot plenty of times, but he knows that Finney-Smith is cutting and will be wide open if he just drops off the pass right then and there. Sure enough, Luka gets the easy assist – what seems like an easy play is all due to Luka’s passing brilliance.
Most guys in the league can’t even throw this rocket of a skip pass on target, even in an empty gym. Here’s Luka doing it with one of the best defensive players in the league on him, against one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Maybe you’re not mesmerized, maybe you’re not part of the “HalleLUKA” squad, maybe you think he’s overhyped. But there’s no denying he has elite skills in multiple categories that make him so unstoppable on the court.
In Part Two, we’ll look at what he could still improve on to become the best player in the NBA.