First Year Focus: Luka Doncic
This column will examine one standout rookie performer each week, whether it be a contender for Rookie of the Year or a first year player maximizing their limited minutes and proving to be worthy of a greater role. Apologies in advance, but Ben Simmons will not be featured.
Last week I wrote about Trae Young, so it’s only fitting that we discuss Luka Doncic, the man Young was traded for on draft day. Doncic and the Mavericks have struggled to start the season, but the rookie has largely been a revelation, producing at the same level that won him last year's Euroleague MVP as an 18-year-old.
Luka Doncic’s nightly totals of 19.4 points per game, six and a half rebounds (even with Deandre Jordan stealing some) and four and a half assists are exceptional, and a deeper statistical view further highlights Doncic’s offensive value already. The Slovenian is leading his team - and all NBA rookies - in scoring through the first nine games, and he’s done so as one of Dallas’ most efficient offensive players.
Luka’s three point percentage sits just below 40 percent on nearly seven attempts a game, a much better shooting start than the more hyped perimeter stroke of Trae Young. Doncic has shown the ability to hit from deep either spotting up or off the bounce, which portends well for his ability to play off the ball or as a primary ball handler.
Doncic’s 31 point game against the Spurs showcased his takeover scoring ability, and he has scored in the double digits every game thus. Doncic can consistently get buckets.
Luka has shown a knack for scoring inside that many less-athletic rookies struggle with, especially as they adjust to the length of the NBA. Doncic has scored on over 50 percent of his attempts from inside the arc. He has a decent pull-up game to keep defenses honest, and his advanced ball handling and crafty finishing at the rim is enough to make up for his somewhat average athleticism.
At 6’7, Doncic also has the size and skill to go to work in the post and punish the mismatch when he’s guarded by a smaller guard. All told, Doncic is the complete package on offense.
One area that Luka has played like a nineteen year-old has been ball security. His assist to turnover ratio is just barely over 1:1, so the rookie is having the usual turnover issues that plague young ball handlers. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Doncic’s assist numbers trend upwards as the season goes along and he gains chemistry with his new teammates and a better feel for where to make plays out of Rick Carlisle’s offense.
If Doncic can control the turnovers, there is no reason he shouldn’t be the primary playmaker for Rick Carlisle over Dennis Smith Jr., as he has the ability to be a really high level passer who unlocks the best in this Dallas offense. As his defense improves, Doncic will only continue to play a critical role for Mavericks.
Doncic also needs to prove that he can be at least a league average defender. The Mavs backcourt pairing of the future in he and Dennis Smith will never be successful if they continue to hemorrhage points to opposing guards. Between Smith’s raw athleticism and Doncic’s high basketball IQ, it’s possible for the duo to become at least decent defensively, but they simply aren’t there right now. It hasn’t helped Dallas that formerly staunch wing defender Wesley Matthews has been atrocious defensively so far this season (-3.6 DPM), but Doncic and Smith have contributed greatly to Dallas’ 23rd overall defense.The Mavericks have been four and a half points worse defensively with Doncic on the floor than off, negating the three and a half point boost he gives their offense.
The usual rookie struggles in taking care of the ball and playing quality defense don’t worry me too much when a guy is showcasing as much offensive talent as Luka Doncic has. The 19-year-old point forward has been posting unprecedented numbers to start his career after winning the Euroleague MVP last year, and if he keeps up this level of play an NBA Rookie of the Year trophy could be added to his already crowded mantle. Even if he doesn’t win the award, Luka looks like he was a sound investment by the Mavericks as the young star that will finally help transition the franchise from the Dirk Nowitzki heyday.
*All stats accurate as of 11-4-18