Luka Doncic is 20 years old. Watch him play basketball, however, and he looks more like a player who has spent 20 years in the NBA. Before he can even legally drink in the U.S., Doncic has wedged himself near the top of league leaderboards in points (30.6) and assists (9.6) per game, ranking third and second, respectively. For his latest feat, Doncic took down LeBron James — the only player ahead of Doncic when it comes to dropping dimes — and his Lakers on Sunday in Los Angeles, 114-100.
Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that Doncic — who scored 27 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed nine boards against L.A. — continued his incredible early season run against James. That’s because LeBron was the last player to have the monster impact Doncic is having just a year out of his teens. If you’re trying to figure how this young Slovenian star is pulling this off, here’s a key number: 3,441. That’s the minutes Doncic played professionally before he even stepped on an NBA floor.
When he was just 16, Doncic began his career with Real Madrid, a team in Spain that competes in two of the best competitions outside the NBA — the ACB, Spain’s top domestic league, and Euroleague, the intercontinental competition that pits Europe’s best clubs against each other. For three years, Doncic honed his game against former NBA players and top international stars, a vast improvement in competition faced by players who spend just a lone season in the NCAA.
That experience is exemplified by Doncic’s passing. He plays chess, with some flair, whereas most NBA players play checkers. Doncic whips passes to the weakside corner, lob balls into space where only his teammates can catch, or uses his eyes to bait defenders away from the true target about to receive his pass.
While we often think of assists as a lone category, what Doncic is really doing is creating points without shooting the ball himself — 24.6 points per game, according to NBA.com’s tracking data. During his last season in Spain, Doncic averaged a whopping 1.275 points per possession on passes out of pick-and-rolls, per Synergy Sports. That mark was the best in Spain and fifth best in any league outside of the NBA. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise that Doncic has carved up the NBA with his ball movement.
What is a little surprising is how Doncic has scored. Scroll through Twitter during his rookie year last season and you’ll find plenty of highlights featuring Doncic using some crafty dribble and footwork combination before launching a step-back jumper. This ability to create space before launching a shot helps Doncic balance his elite passing. And this season, the Mavericks’ forward is attempting more “open” shots per game than any other player besides the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard. (“Open” is the term NBA.com uses to define shots where a defender is four to six feet away.)
Open shots don’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a high degree of difficulty either. Because Doncic incorporates so many step-backs — NBA.com has him at 102 since he entered the league — it sort of masks where he’s at as a shooter. Doncic was considered a good but not great outside shooter before he entered the NBA. The one flaw in his game is that he shoots 33 percent from beyond the arc, so it’s scary to think where Doncic will be should he improve in that area.
If you are looking for an area where Doncic has already improved, it’s his commitment to attacking the basket. He averages 18.3 drives per game this season, according to NBA.com data, up from 14.7 during his rookie season. This mindset of going downhill more has helped Doncic up his free throw rate from .409 last season to .484 this season. In raw numbers, that means Doncic is averaging just a shade under three more free throws per game.
Getting to the free throw line is really where a lot of the NBA’s offensive stars have separated themselves from other players. In his first season in the NBA, Doncic was in the middle of the pack at getting to the line. This season, the only players ahead of the Mavericks’ star are Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Houston’s James Harden — pretty good company as far as offensive powerhouses go.
This evolution to Doncic’s game is one that would have been hard to see coming. For all the benefits of honing his craft in Europe, the spacing is quite different there. The international line is shorter and there are no rules, like the NBA’s defensive three seconds, to keep hulking big men from planting themselves in front of the basket. Doncic has clearly figured that in the NBA’s new spacing craze, he’s going to encounter far less resistance heading to the rim than he ever could have imagined while playing overseas.
This combination of passing, shooting and driving have added up to Doncic propelling Dallas to the top of the NBA’s offensive hierarchy. The Mavericks are first in the league at 116.1 points per 100 possessions. The return to health of Kristaps Porzingis, as well as some other new additions, has boosted Dallas’ attack, but make no mistake, the key to it all is Doncic.
In the 648 minutes Doncic played entering Sunday night’s game, the Mavericks posted an amazing 117.1 points per 100 possessions. When the Slovenian star sits, that number “plummeted” to a still-solid 110.1 points per 100.
Although Doncic and Dallas are not excelling on defense, the team clearly is improving. With Sunday night’s win over the first-place Lakers (17-3), the Mavericks are tied for fourth in the Western Conference. For those looking for a better indicator of the team’s performance, Dallas also boasts the conference’s second-best point differential, trailing only the Lakers.
It’s a good bet that James is going to be looking over his shoulder the rest of the season to see how Doncic and Dallas perform. And when he does glance back, the player who took the NBA by storm en route to one of the best careers in league history might be looking at a player a lot like his old self.