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The secret to Luka Doncic’s rapid rise into a leading MVP candidate

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The Slovenian sensation is turning a pre-draft weakness into a strength.

A collage of Luka Doncic on the Mavericks.
Luka Doncic has firmly joined the NBA’s superstar tier.

With less than a minute left in a one-possession game against a conference rival, Luka Doncic caught the ball far from the hoop against a pesky small defender. There was too little time and space to no-look a pass to a teammate or set up a stepback moonball to shut the game off for good. Doncic had to do this the hard way. He had to create a shot for himself off the dribble, with one opponent in his grill and the other four watching his every move.

OK, I cheated a bit. This description actually covers two moments in Doncic’s young NBA career. What happens next explains Doncic’s rapid transformation from a fun sensation as a rookie into a legitimate top-five player as a sophomore.

The first took place on Dec. 28, 2018, against the Pelicans. Doncic began the play near half court, with Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday attached to his hip. Doncic slowed down to change speeds, hoping Holiday would come out of his defensive stance. Then, Doncic attacked right, surging to the free-throw line in three dribbles and gathering to finish an open layup to tie the score. Alas, Doncic’s first step was too slow and wide to fully beat Holiday, allowing the Pelicans’ guard to chase him down for a thunderous block.

The second was on Oct. 29, 2019. With the shot clock dwindling and his Mavericks clinging to a one-point lead over the Nuggets, Doncic received the ball deep on the left wing against Gary Harris, Denver’s gritty shooting guard. With seven seconds on the shot clock, Doncic dangled a right-handed dribble while getting his feet in position to attack. After initially staying square, Harris opened his stance in response to Doncic’s quick first step. Doncic’s second and third steps then powered through the Nuggets’ guard, and by the time Harris swiped wildly from behind, it was too late.

It was clear from Day 1 of Doncic’s rookie season that he could pass, shoot, and flummox opponents with his trickery. It was also clear he’d survive against quicker defenders, thanks to a less-traditional form of athleticism that was hiding in plain sight. But it’s those two plays that show the key to Doncic’s rapid growth from rookie sensation to possible MVP frontrunner at the ripe old age of 20. Doncic already possessed a gravity-defying Last Step. Now, he has a rapid First Step to go with it.

That newly minted first step is consistently getting him past defenders who he couldn’t shed last season. Doncic’s flexibility and deceleration may be elite, but he relied on both too often last season. As they did in Europe, spindly defenders crept into Doncic’s space and stayed connected to him as he slowly drove downhill. They weren’t bigger than Doncic, but they were quicker and could stay in front of him — or at least beside him. They made drives like this difficult.

Doncic produced many funky finishes last year, but relying on trickery alone only gets a player so far. He was not a great one-on-one player, often failing to get by smaller and bigger defenders alike. Tons of possessions ended with Doncic side-stepping and/pump-faking to nowhere, like a pigeon reaching down for bread.

That also neutralized Doncic’s superb vision. Why would Zach LaVine rotate off Dorian Finney-Smith if Doncic can’t get past Justin Holiday?

Doncic’s Last Step and touch around the hoop sometimes bailed him out, but his slow first step forced him to take difficult shots from the court’s most efficient area. Last year, Doncic converted 62 percent of his restricted area shots and 55.5 percent of his layups — decent numbers, but unspectacular. He also generated points on less than 51 percent of his drives, putting him 20th out of 27 players who averaged at least 12 such plays a game. It’s hard to shoot well around the basket taking so many layups in traffic. Even when Doncic did elude his primary defender, he expended so much energy that he didn’t have much left to generate the power necessary to finish against tough rim protectors.

In a narrow sense, Doncic’s predraft critics were right last year. He did lack the quick first step the best of the best possess. While that’s very different than saying he’s not athletic, it was a weakness that affected his game.

Well, it did last year at least. This year, not so much. Now, Doncic leaves dudes in the dust repeatedly, like this.

And this.

And while this shot somewhat resembles Doncic’s Houdini layups of last year, it’s made much easier because he surged quickly by Anthony Davis and took him out of the play with a hard drive into his recovery angle.

Doncic looks to be in better condition this year, and his feet are reaping the benefits of that work. The looping routes of last year that allowed defenders like Holiday to recover have been replaced by tight, straight lines that cover more ground with fewer steps. Doncic’s first step this year turns defenders and leads to him going forward, not sideways.

Armed with a legitimate First Step to go along with his elite Last Step, Doncic is creating easy looks for himself and teammates. He’s converted 73 percent of his restricted area shots this year and is fairing even better on shots classified specifically as layups. Better yet, he’s shooting a sizzling 67 percent on more than 18 drives to the basket a game — only one other player that posts 10 drives a game is even shooting better than 60 percent on such plays.

He can still toss in soft floaters, but now, he doesn’t have to. That’s how he’s averaging over 30 a game despite being best known for passing.

Not that his playmaking has suffered, of course. It’s a whole lot easier for Doncic to show off his supernatural vision when he’s able to get past the first line of defense.

And it’s a whole lot easier for Doncic to set up his stepback three as a counter to a rapid first step. rather than the reverse scenario.

So what happens when a gifted Last Stepper develops the first step critics have forever panned him for lacking? You get the next face of the league threatening to seize the throne far sooner than even his most enthusiastic supporters expected.


CLOSEOUT OF THE WEEK

Three-point shooting is essential, yet there’s no good stat that credits defenders for the essential act of preventing a three-pointer from being taken. We must reward these efforts.

I once called Pascal Siakamthe scariest closeout artist in the league.” This defensive possession against the Jazz is pure art.

REBOUND JOUST OF THE WEEK

Last year, I wrote about the rising trend of teammates fighting each other for defensive rebounds. These moments usually end harmlessly, but occasionally, they can cost a team. Here’s to over-aggression!

Denver ended up losing this game in overtime, so this botched defensive board was a bad omen.