Luka Doncic, as many predicted, has immediately stepped into the NBA and looked far and away better than the vast majority of this rookie class. He’s got the veteran know-how of a guy who’s been playing professional basketball for years because, well, he has been. While Marvin Bagley was winning player of the year in the ACC, an award that hasn’t produced an NBA All-Star since Josh Howard won it in 2003, Doncic was busy winning MVP of the second-best basketball competition on the planet along with every other individual and team honor possible in his final year with Real Madrid in Spain. The Dallas Mavericks were all too happy to trade a future first-round pick to move up two spots to grab the Slovenian sensation and, so far, he’s proven their gamble a worthy one.
Doncic’s individual statistics are already well above average for the NBA at large, not to mention among those in his draft class. He’s ascended into a primary playmaker role for an upstart Mavericks team that finds itself firmly in the playoff mix in the Western Conference; though, to be fair, every team in the West is in the mix except for the Phoenix Suns. Still, Dallas is far ahead of preseason expectations and while Doncic doesn’t get every ounce of the credit, he’s the main conductor of their No. 13-ranked offense and has the numbers to back it up – high-end efficiency on solid usage, a good creator for his teammates, and clutch stats that are just to die for.
Already sporting an above-average true shooting percentage while using more than a quarter of his team’s possessions, Doncic’s all-around ability to score has been the largest surprise through the first 23 games of his career. The supposed lack of burst and athleticism was something that held him back when compared to the other prospects at the top of the draft, but he’s been able to mostly put those concerns to bed thus far. He’s not wowing anybody with over-the-top put back dunks or anything, but there were translation concerns with his step back jumper and ability to get to his spots in pick-and-roll. The step back is firmly in place; just ask Clint Capela.
Getting to his spots hasn’t been much trouble either, though like any rookie he’s had some struggles with the physicality and athleticism of the NBA. Regardless of EuroLeague being as close to the NBA as one can get without actually being there, it is a significant step up athletically and Doncic doesn’t always have the combination of ball skills, burst, and strength to ward off the very best at his position.
Fortunately, when he does get bumped, he’s able to put his best skill to use: his passing. Doncic does have the propensity to try the hardest pass available to him at times, but that’s only because he’s more successful with those tries than almost anybody else in the league. This shows up in the biggest way when he gets up in the air to fire a pass clear across the court, an adventure that either ends in an open three for a teammate or a runout layup for the Mavericks’ opponent that particular night.
Defensively, Doncic is just about where one would expect. It’s unlikely he ever evolves into a wing stopper, but he’s good enough that teams aren’t constantly picking on him and going out of their way to take him on. Dallas does a good job hiding him, which is made easier by his positional size – Rick Carlisle can throw him out there against the offense’s least-threatening player and know that Doncic isn’t going to be taken advantage of in isolation or post-up situations. This is a key difference between him and other primary playmakers who are more offensively-focused; those players are usually true point guards and are therefore sized as such, which makes it more difficult to hide them on a power forward. Dallas doesn’t have that problem when they deploy Doncic defensively.
It’s still extremely early in his career, but Luka Doncic has so far cleared just about every bar that has been set in front of him, from individual statistics to clutch performance to team success. The surprising Mavericks are riding his coattails as far he can take them, which very well may be further into April than anybody would have thought two months ago.