In what is only his second season in the NBA, Luka Doncic has taken his rightful place as the best foreign-born player in the league. With the level of imported talent league-wide, Doncic has risen through the ranks with unprecedented precision, at just 21 years old he’s already one of the premier talents the NBA has to offer.
Fittingly, Doncic has taken the mantle from future Hall-Of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki while also replacing him as the face of the Dallas Mavericks franchise. Dallas has endured somewhat of a love affair with European players over the last thirty years, and Doncic seems keen to ensure the fairytale continues.
Having turned professional at the tender age of 16 while playing for European giants Real Madrid, Doncic has been developing his game against more prominent, more vigorous opponents. Conversely, his contemporaries in America were pitting their wits against the age-appropriate competition of the AAU and NCAA. Having been thrown in with the sharks, Doncic would either sink or swim when facing fully grown men with years of experience in the world’s second-tier basketball competition.
It turns out, Doncic learned to swim with these sharks and, over time, became the biggest preditor in that particular ocean. Doncic was developing a complex skill set that was highly translatable to the American game. Utilizing elite body-control, playmaking, and shot creation along with suffocating perimeter defense, Doncic had NBA scouts salivating at the prospect of him one day declaring for the draft – something he did in 2018. Since being drafted, Doncic has been displaying a polished game on both ends of the floor, sure, there are still flaws, but these will can get ironed out over time.
It all begins with Doncic’s ability to run an offense, utilizing his ball-handling, elite-level court-vision, and basketball IQ to find the right pass continually. Basketball-Reference has Doncic averaging seven assists per game over his first two seasons in the league, with his assists increasing by almost three a game this year (6.0 in his first year, 8.7 this season).
Doncic’s playmaking relies upon both his ability as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations and his shooter’s gravity, both of which complement each other tremendously. Doncic’s ability from beyond the arc is somewhat underwhelming, sitting at 32.2 percent on his young career, but the threat he poses with his drives and passing forces defenses to play him high when he peels off the screen with the rock. Pushing up on defense like this, allows Doncic to modify the pick play into drag screens, where he will drive laterally rather than vertically.
Drag screens force the defense into rotations, allowing for slashers to cut or for a secondary screen to take place on a more favorable section of the floor. Conversely, the on-ball defender can become compromised by the ball-handler leading them into a player’s path, where the unexpected screener can then become a roll-man himself.
Doncic is exemplary at finding the cutter/roller or forcing the action into the teeth of the defense (usually between the shoulder and low block), which draws help defenders into his path. Allowing his teammates to cut hard to the rim due to the help defense focusing on him, Doncic then dishes the pass to the open man in motion for the easy bucket.
Doncic utilizes the pick play 46.3 percent of the time according to Synergy, where he is operating at an elite level, ranking in the 91st percentile league-wide. Not only does Doncic read the floor exceptionally well, knowing when to hit the curls, cuts, spot-ups, or when to operate out of dribble-drive penetration, but he attacks his spots with fierce desire and effectiveness.
On offense, Doncic is again heavily reliant on the pick-and-roll to maximize his impact, using his socky frame and quick speed to get to the rim when a pass isn’t available. Finishing around the rim is Doncic’s bread-and-butter, he’s currently sitting in the 94th percentile of wings with a 73 percent success rate. Usually, when a player relies on driving the lane so frequently, defenses will counter by either switching as the player drives, which forces a larger body onto them or by operating a drop coverage. Doncic’s abilities render drop coverage nullified, as when driving, he would draw multiple defenders onto him, allowing the pass to take place. With drop coverage a none-factor in containing Doncic, teams flit between zone, switches, and man-to-man coverages, with the hope of either forcing the pass or a contested jumper from outside the restricted area.
Doncic negates the defenses attempts to keep him outside of the paint by attacking the seams that open from pick plays, or breaking his man down when in isolation.
While not advisable, there will still be times when Doncic receives the ball with the defense positioned to cover the drive using a drop or with him driving following a show. When these situations occur, Doncic can utilize his floater or post moves to get a bucket, Cleaning the Glass is tracking Doncic’s success in the short mid-range at 40 percent, which keeps him sitting at a comfortable 70 percentile amongst wings. Glimpses of a post-game from Doncic, along with the mismatches he can cause due to his height and point guard-esque skillset, make defenses ponderous when they do slow his drives down, further strengthening his ability to hurt teams on multiple levels.
For Doncic to take that next step towards superstardom, he needs to start stretching the floor more consistently, bringing that three-point percentage up to around the 38 percent mark on a minimum of five shots per game. Adding a reliable deep ball to his game will create more passing and driving opportunities for Doncic organically, defenses will show or ice with far more regularity, both of which will generate opportunities to drop dimes. At the same time, double-stack screens could open up scoring opportunities for Doncic himself, both from deep and up close.
Continuing the logic of adding a three-ball, this would also open up the floor for Doncic in transition, which has been an area in which he’s struggled thus far in his NBA career. Teams know that either a drive or pass is on the agenda when Doncic is on the break; as such, they can react accordingly by ensuring the hedge Doncic towards his weaker side and stay in front of any potential outlets. Should a deep ball be added to Doncic’s arsenal, defenses will need to meet him towards the break rather than at the nail, allowing blow-by opportunities or pocket passes depending on what the defense gives.
Having played in the Euroleague during the formative years of his basketball education, it’s no surprise that Doncic is fundamentally sound and defensively prudent – a hallmark of long-tenured Euroleague ballplayers.
Doncic displays an eagerness on the defensive glass, while operating with an unwillingness to send opponents to the line, he wants the opposing team’s possession ended as efficiently as possible. Doncic is pulling down 7.2 rebounds per game over his two years in the NBA (6.6 first year, 8 the second year), while only committing fouls on 2.5 percent of the team’s fouls overall.
While on defense, Doncic spends a large portion of his time patrolling the low helpline, deterring drives, or kick-outs to the strong-side corner three. By operating in the manner when not in man-to-man coverage, Doncic is utilizing his speed and length to close to areas of attack simultaneously while also looking to jump the passing lane and force a fast break should the offense get sloppy. At just 1.1 steals per game over his first two seasons, jumping the passing lane is still a work in progress.
Due to his size, strength, and length, Doncic can guard anywhere from the two-through-four, providing the Mavericks with a versatile defensive option capable of reacting to switches without weakening the teams’ situational schematics. The speed Doncic possesses ensures he’s able to stay in front of (or on the hip of) most NBA wings or guards, while his strength allows him to battle down in the post should he get switched onto the opposing four.
After only two years in the NBA, Doncic has already joined his teammate Kristaps Porizingis as one of the best foreign-born players in the league. Sitting alongside company such as teammate Kristaps Porzingis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic at this early juncture in his career is a testament to the level of talent Doncic has.
Should he continue to follow his current developmental trajectory, Doncic will find himself a valid MVP candidate before too long. Furthermore, he may be the next import to bring a title to Dallas alongside Porzingis, but only time will tell. For right now, all that is known is Doncic came into the league billed as a superstar in the making, right now he stands on the precipice of that billing waiting to take the final step.