Luka Doncic Is on Track for More Than Just Rookie of the Year

Background

Last year, an 18-year-old Luka Doncic told Euroleague reporters, “I think it’s a gift. I was just born to play basketball.”

He was right.

According to Luka’s family, he first held a basketball when he was just seven months old. From that point on, he was rarely seen without one. By his first birthday, his parents had purchased a miniature hoop which he frequently played with. He began playing organized competitive basketball at the age of seven, where he was matched against older players because he was considered too skilled for opponents of his own age. When asked about this, Luka stated, “I was always training and playing with older kids who had much more experience than me. Many of them were bigger and faster than me too, so I had to beat them with my brain.” Beating them with his brain was no problem for the son of Sasa Doncic.

Luka Doncic’s father is a famous Slovenian basketball player. Sasa was known for his creativity and intelligence on the court, and his craftiness with the ball led him to be one of the more well-respected players in Slovenia. It appears that he passed this natural talent onto his son.

Europe

In 2007, his father was signed to the Slovenian club Union Olimpija. Like Stephen Curry, Luka embraced being the son of a professional basketball player. Current NBA All-Star Goran Dragic also played for the club and when asked about Luka, who was eight-years-old at the time, Dragic reflected, “Even at that age you could see he had a great feeling for the ball like his dad. Every time at halftime when we came out from the locker room he would always be shooting the ball.”

In 2011, Luka competed in the Under-14 Vasas Intesa Sanpaolo Cup. He represented Olimpija and was awarded the Most Valuable Player honor of the entire tournament. In February 2012, when Luka turned 13, he was loaned to the European basketball powerhouse Real Madrid for an under-14 Spanish club tournament. Luka averaged 13.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 3.3 steals per game and won the MVP honor once again. Two months later, he competed in the Lido di Roma tournament for Olimpija and was once again named the Most Valuable Player, averaging 34.5 points per game. In the final, Italian basketball club Lazio saw the clutch factor of Luka that the NBA is just now witnessing. Luka put up 54 points (39 in the first half), 11 rebounds and 10 assists to take home the championship.

After this stretch of powerful performances in youth competitions, Real Madrid signed Luka to a five-year contract in September 2012. Five months later, Luka led the club to a Minicopa Endesa win. He averaged 24.5 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists and 6 steals per game. After winning the final against FC Barcelona and earning MVP honors, his fame in Europe continued to increase. The thirteen-year-old basketball prodigy told reporters: “When I play, I feel the same as when I dream.” One month later, he was declared Most Valuable Player of the under-16 Spain Championship. Luka Doncic was dreaming big, and it translated onto the court.

Through the next two years, Luka continued to lead Real Madrid to victories in youth tournaments, like the Ciutat de L’Hospitalet Tournament. He was selected to the All-Tournament Team, despite being two years younger than the rest of his team. He later won the under-18 Next Generation Tournament where he once again won the MVP honor.

On April 30, 2015, Luka made his professional debut for Real Madrid at 16 years, 2 months, and 2 days of age.

In the next season, Luka became a regular member for Real Madrid’s senior team, debuting in the Euroleague during the 2015-16 season. Luka’s rise to prominence took place during the 2016-17 Euroleague season. The best moment of his year was likely a performance against Zalgiris where he hit these two clutch shots in the waning moments of the game:

Entering the 2017-18 season, Luka was thrust into a greater role for Real Madrid after star player Sergio Llull suffered a torn ACL. In the first Euroleague game, he scored a career-high 27 points. A week later, he eclipsed that total when he put up 28 in an 87-66 win. This was just the beginning. Luka led Real Madrid to a EuroLeague finals victory and was named EuroLeague Final Four MVP. More notably, he was named EuroLeague MVP, the youngest ever recipient of the award. The highlight of the year for Luka may have been this game-winner against Crvena Zvezda:

The NBA

With the season over, Luka was just weeks away from the 2018 NBA Draft.

There was a legitimate argument to be made at the time of the draft for Luka to be the first overall pick. Here was a teenager who was already dominating professional basketball in Europe, which is considered to be stiffer competition than American collegiate ball. There was nearly zero risk of him being a bust — he was an established, proven player. Like Kristaps Porzingis said, “There’s no college kid that would be able to put up those kinds of numbers at the highest levels in Europe, playing against professionals, grown men. And he’s so young with such confidence, it’s unbelievable.”

Nevertheless, Luka was selected with the third overall pick by the Atlanta Hawks. He was promptly traded to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for the draft rights to Trae Young and a 2019 first round pick.

Before the season, Maverick legend Dirk Nowitzki added onto the praise for the teenage star: “I think he’s going to be great for [the Mavericks] for a long, long time … I could shoot a little bit but I never had the court vision … the savviness that he brings to the game … He’s going to pick defenses apart and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

“Fun to watch” is an understatement.

23 games into his career, it’s already fair to say that Luka Doncic is must-watch television. He’s averaging 18.2 points per game, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists with a True Shooting Percentage of 56.1%. Not bad for a 19-year-old.

Many great players have played in the league before turning 20, and Luka is playing as well as the best of them — even legends like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. While some players like LeBron played heavy minutes right out of the gate, others were role players, so we’ll normalize the stats to 36 minutes.

 Points Per 36 MinutesRebounds Per 36 MinutesAssists Per 36 MinutesTrue Shooting Percentage
Luka Doncic20.17.24.656.1%
LeBron James19.1 5.0 5.4 48.8%
Kobe Bryant21.44.23.554.8%
Tracy McGrady14.99.0 3.750.4%
Dwight Howard13.2 11.1 1.0 57.1%
Giannis Antetokounmpo10.06.4 2.8 51.8%
Devin Booker17.93.23.4 53.5%

The Comeback Kid

What stats can’t track is the number of highlight plays Luka generates on a nightly basis. With some players, we say that they’re “quietly” putting up good numbers. In that case, Luka is doing it very loudly.

Against the Rockets, Luka had just 10 points going into the 4th quarter on 3/12 shooting from the field. He was having a bad night– it happens to the best of players. Down 102-94 with under 3 minutes to go in the game, the Mavs needed someone to step up. Luka responded to the call and went on an 11-0 personal run. He individually attempted 4 shots in a two-minute span and made all of them, giving Dallas a 105-102 lead with 57.8 seconds left.

Luka kicked things off with this open corner 3, set up by Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes, cutting the deficit to 5 points.

Things got crazy after that.

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After James Harden and Wesley Matthews traded missed three-pointers, Luka sized up Clint Capela on the iso play and stepped back to hit a deep three-pointer. One of the criticisms of Luka heading into the draft was his slow release. People questioned his ability to shoot the ball effectively when he wasn’t wide open. In this clip, his release doesn’t look fast, but he’s still able to get the shot over a good defender like Capela.

On the next Mavericks possession, Doncic hit a driving layup to draw the game even at 102.

And after Harden missed another three, Doncic capped off his magical run with another step-back three:

The Mavericks once again got the matchup they wanted. Luka is 6’7 but centers like Capela can’t guard him on the perimeter in situations like this. Luka simply hit Capela with a nasty crossover and stepped back for another trifecta to take the lead with 58 seconds left in the game. The Mavs went on to hold the lead to win the game.

You can’t teach clutch.

Luka has the uncanny swagger and poise that a 19-year-old in the NBA never has. How many teenagers shooting under 25% from the field are going to step up and put their team on their back against the reigning NBA MVP? Refer back to his “unbelievable confidence” that Porzingis mentioned. That’s not teachable.

It wasn’t the first time Luka left the Rockets wondering, “What more can we do?” Two weeks ago in Houston, Luka put up 20 points on 6/11 shooting in a 128-108 blowout. Even though Luka only made 6 shots that night, it feels like all of them were unbelievable plays, like this contested corner three while guarded tightly by Harden:

No rookie in recent memory has made these highlight reel plays as consistently as Luka has except for LeBron James, who is now widely regarded as one of the best basketball players of all time.

Playmaking

There’s no shortage of young players in the NBA who exhibit impressive scoring ability. However, time and time again, these players display very prominent flaws. We foolishly expect them to undergo videogame-like developments that will repair their deficiencies. Have players like Tyreke Evans, whose best season was his rookie year, taught us nothing? We see great players like Ben Simmons and automatically assume they will develop a reliable jump shot that will elevate them to the next tier of players. In reality, professional sports are not this simple.

There is a significant difference between players like Simmons, who completely lack a jump shot to begin with, and players like LeBron James, who had an inconsistent jump shot which they improved over time. Players can improve. They can not magically boost their rating like in NBA 2K.

In the case of Luka, we do not need to assume that he will mend the glaring defects that are holding him back. He is already a well-rounded player. It’s easy to be disillusioned by the inconceivable crazy plays Lika generates on a nightly basis, but it’s important to remember that he isn’t just a flashy player. Luka has attained a mastery of the fundamentals of the game and he consistently displays his high basketball IQ on the court.

The best example of his remarkable basketball intelligence is his ability as a facilitator. Throughout his playing career, he was known for his natural passing aptitude. He is currently leading the Mavericks’ starting lineup in assists per game. His greatest strength might be his playmaking in transition.

Luka quickly takes the ball up the court against the Sixers. As the Sixers key in on him, he has the awareness to toss an alley-oop to Dwight Powell with 20 seconds left on the shot clock.

Luka spots Dorian Finney-Smith streaking behind the Knicks defense. The ball leaves his hand with 21 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

In this play, Luka gets the steal on one end of the court and makes a move behind his back to maintain possession of the ball. He then immediately pushes on transition and acknowledges Donovan Mitchell shifting over to prevent an easy layup. This allows Luka to finds Wesley Matthews in the corner for an open 3 with 20 seconds to go on the shot clock.

Luka has also excelled at running the pick and roll with center DeAndre Jordan. 75.2% of Jordan’s field goals are assisted, which is the second highest rate of his 10-year career. This is exactly what the Mavs needed — someone to be able to effectively feed their All-NBA big in the paint and that’s exactly what Luka has done.

Defense

Yes, Luka’s performance on defense has plenty of room for improvement. However, the thing that separates him from flawed defenders like Karl-Anthony Towns is that his past defensive success was not due to his athletic dominance. Towns put up 4.3 blocks per 40 minutes while playing for the University of Kentucky. He was a highly hyped prospect due to his elite play on both sides of the ball. “Defensively is where Towns separates himself as a prospect,” Jonathan Givony and Mike Shmitz explained to readers of DraftExpress before the 2015 NBA draft. “He has the size and strength to defend centers effectively, but also the length and mobility to contain most 4s, giving him terrific positional versatility that is highly coveted in today’s NBA.” In the pros, Karl-Anthony Towns is a liability on defense. His dominance on that side of the ball in collegiate play was due to his unique athletic ability, which is not enough to succeed in the NBA.

Luka, on the other hand, didn’t get by due to his athleticism. The EuroLeague is filled to the brink with grown men. Luka didn’t have the luxury of playing against other teenagers. He was playing against men ten years older than him yet he survived and thrived due to his generational basketball intelligence.

Luka exhibits his smart help defensive play in this preseason clip where he notches a block on what would have otherwise been an easy layup.

The next clip is from a game between the Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers. After Luka embarrassed LeBron James with two blocks, LeBron James said post-game that he wanted to get revenge on Luka by attacking him in the paint. Luka anticipated this and was able to intelligently draw this charge against James.

This isn’t a play you often see rookies making, let alone against arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time.

Conclusion

The Dallas Mavericks are the best possible team for Luka Doncic to cover some of Luka’s shortcomings while still allowing him to flourish and develop. Luka is known to sometimes dribble too much and develop tunnel vision when he is up against more athletic defenders. On a bottom feeding team, this could lead to a poor rookie year, but Luka is in a perfect situation on a team with other players who can succeed with the ball in their hands, like Dennis Smith Jr, Wesley Matthews, and Harrison Barnes. This does not inhibit Luka’s development, however. He is still leading the Mavericks in minutes and is second in usage rate.

The team is also built to be able to utilize Luka’s strengths. DeAndre Jordan is obviously the perfect center for Luka, but Ryan Broekhoff, Dorian Finney-Smith, Barnes and Matthews are all more than competent shooters who Luka will be able to set up for open looks.

Luka Doncic is enjoying a rookie season of the caliber which we have not witnessed in a very long time. He is must-watch television not only because of the flashy highlight reel plays which he consistently creates but also because of the well-rounded fundamental grasp of the game which is incredibly rare for a player of his age.

People will try and come up with players to compare him to: LeBron James because of his generational playmaking ability, Dirk Nowitzki because he’s a European big man with great shooting, Larry Bird because he’s white. The truth is that Luka Doncic is a one in a kind player just like those legends were. It’s yet to be known whether he will be able to replicate their success, but he’s on the right track. Rookie of the Year is just the beginning.

As he said, he was born to play basketball.

Image Source: Jerome Miron / USA Today Sports

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