There was ample evidence that Luka Doncic was the best player available in the run-up to the 2018 NBA Draft.
Doncic had powered Slovenia’s Cinderella run to gold at 2017 EuroBasket, and was coming off a EuroLeague championship with Real Madrid where he was named league MVP and Final Four MVP at 18 years old. This website had Doncic as the top prospect in the draft a year before it was held, and maintained that position the entire season. It was a relatively popular opinion, even as it became apparent the worst franchises in the NBA were missing what seemed so utterly obvious.
Doncic was always going to be a stud in the NBA. He was simply too good at too young of an age in one of the best leagues in the world not to be. But did anyone think it would happen like this?
This feels like it gets redefined with each brilliant performance, but here’s the quick version: at 21 years old, in his second season, Doncic has already proven himself to be one of the five best players in the NBA this season. At this point, it’s fair to wonder if we’re watching someone who will ultimately go down as of the greatest basketball players ever.
Doncic played what was perhaps his best NBA game yet on Saturday night against the league-best Milwaukee Bucks. Facing the No. 1 defense in the league and soon-to-be two-time MVP winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, Doncic authored the type of performance that has no parallel: 36 points, 19 assists, and 14 rebounds in a 136-132 overtime victory.
It was, with no hyperbole, one of the top individual performances of the season.
Doncic hasn’t just fulfilled his pre-draft hype — he’s blown through even his biggest supporters’ expectations only 131 games into his career. He is the most dominant player to enter the NBA since LeBron James, and he still has so much room to grow from here.
Doncic is the ideal lead initiator for the modern era
Doncic’s draft day doubters all had the same question about how his game would translate to the NBA: would he be athletic enough to consistently create offense against the biggest and fastest players in the world?
It’s a laughable critique at this point. Doncic has plenty of athleticism, it just isn’t purposed like prime Vince Carter. He never needed to be able to dunk from the free throw line to effortlessly shake defenders. Just look at how much seperation he put between himself and Wes Matthews on this dribble pull-up.
With the ball on the string and a preternatural understanding of how to get the defense off-balance, Doncic always seems to have the game in the palm of his hand. Combine his anytime scoring ability with elite vision, rare passing ability, and the moxie to believe he can only be limited by his imagination, and you have the recipe for an all-time great.
As the game went into overtime, Doncic delivered a signature highlight of his career. Trapped by Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe out of a pick-and-roll, Doncic threw a between-the-legs pass to teammate Maxi Kleber for a dunk and his 19th assist of the night:
Doncic looks nothing like the point guards who perfected the position 30 years before he arrived in the league, but he offers the ideal template for how the position will be played moving forward. At 6’7 and 230 pounds, Doncic is in total control of the game, blessed with the size and vision to make any pass, the skill to put pressure on the defense as a scorer, and the IQ to constantly make the right decision with the ball in a split-second.
For decades, the big man was always viewed as the most valuable piece to any basketball team. Not anymore. The first thing any NBA team needs now is a dynamic offensive initiator. Doncic is the template for how the league will look in the near- and medium-turn future.
Doncic is already one of the best players in the NBA. He’s only going to get better.
Doncic is one of the very best players in the NBA already by any measure. If he isn’t at the level of LeBron James and James Harden just yet, he’s already scary close for a player who wasn’t legally able to buy a drink until February.
For as dominant as Doncic is, there’s still so much room for improvement in his game. Start with his three-point shooting. Doncic is hitting only 31.6 percent of his three-pointers this year, a below average number that doesn’t capture the true impact of his shooting. Because Doncic takes so many attempts — nine per game — largely with an incredible degree of difficulty, his outside shot forces defenses to protect the arc, which only opens up the rest of his game. It’s a similar idea to the one that has made Harden one of the greatest shooting guards ever. Now imagine Doncic’s impact if he can get his three-point percentage up to 35 or 36 percent, where Harden has comfortably sat throughout his career.
Doncic’s conditioning can get better, too. When that happens, his defense will get incrementally better, even as head coach Rick Carlisle says he’s playing better than ever on that end.
There has been this strange idea that Doncic is already a finished product following him throughout his young career. All it takes is to look at his leap from his rookie season to his second year to see how wrong that is.
It’s no slight to today’s current stars — most of whom are on the wrong side of 30 — to say Doncic will be running this league soon. As Antetokounmpo has risen to become the best player in the NBA at just 25 years old, Doncic is right behind him as someone who can be the future face of the NBA.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Giannis:
Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo on Mavericks’ Luka Doncic (36 points, 14 rebounds, 19 assists): “Makes his teammates better. Talented. Really talented. One of the most talented players I’ve ever played against.” pic.twitter.com/AC6nKc42rz— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) August 9, 2020
When the next superstar prospect hits the draft — whether it’s inbound Oklahoma State recruit Cade Cunningham or whoever follows after him — evaluators will be asking different questions than the ones Doncic faced. Chiefly: can this player be the next Luka?