In an ESPN survey of NBA coaches, scouts and executives, Dallas Mavericks phenom Luka Doncic scored well. However, some executives’ comments reveal he’s still criminally underrated.
Luka Doncic came into the league with mixed perceptions about his upside at the NBA level. No doubt he’s a talented youngster with a wealth of experience playing professionally in Europe, but even if he was facing the toughest competition outside the NBA, how much could really be expected at the highest levels from a 19-year-old without top-notch athleticism?
After all, his build is not what you associate with elite NBA players. He’s no LeBron James or Kevin Durant with a lethal combination of speed, strength and athletic ability. With his youth, perhaps he would take excessive time to figure out the league, for the game to slow down enough for him to keep up.
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Point guard is one of the hardest positions for a young NBA player to master. The decision-making and reads an inexperienced primary ball-handler must make more often than not simply expose those who aren’t quite ready, and without the kind of next-level burst that some of these other players possessed from their earliest days in the NBA, maybe some (the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks, depending on what you think of Trae Young, in particular) could be forgiven for selling Luka Doncic a bit short.
At a certain point, however, you have to stop underrating him.
In his rookie season, he put up an impressive stat-line (for anybody, let alone a rookie in his age-19 season) of 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists. His shooting wasn’t remarkable, just 42.7 percent from the floor and 32.7 percent from 3-point range on high volume, but he was efficient enough thanks to that volume (43.3 percent of his field goal attempts were 3-pointers).
Virtually no rookies are plus-contributors, but Doncic recorded an entirely respectable 4.9 winshares and a reasonable +1.29 real-plus minus.
So, maybe you can assume Doncic, who recorded a very good season for just about any player, and a spectacular season for a rookie, has reached his ceiling at the young age of 19. Again, just like from a certain point of view you could excuse a handful of teams for deciding to pass on him in the draft, maybe you can forgive some folks who should know better for thinking he’s peaked.
Bad news for those folks, though, he blew his rookie season completely out of the water in year two.
His volume took a big leap, going from 30.5 percent usage to 37 percent. His 3-point rate ticked up slightly to 44.2 percent and his free throw rate jumped from 40.9 percent in his rookie season to the same rate of 44.2 percent.
His counting stats exploded. He averaged 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game and in an abbreviated season put up what almost certainly would have finished as perhaps the greatest season any 20-year-old has ever had in the NBA. He led a historic Dallas Mavericks offense that scored a preposterous 115.8 points per 100 possessions and his playmaking was nothing short of preternatural.
Luka Doncic had the league’s fifth-best RPM at +3.80 and was 10th in win shares with 8.1. By any statistical metric, he’s clearly a top-10 player if not closer to the top five. And all this before his 21st birthday.
In spite of all this, he still has highly-placed doubters. In a recent ESPN survey of NBA coaches, scouts and executives, the quartet of Doncic, Trae Young, Ja Morant and Zion Williamson were pitted against each other.
The question was which of these young stars they would want to lead their franchise, and to be fair Doncic did win solidly. He received 17 of 20 first-place votes and the only votes worse than first were three second-place votes.
It’s not in the votes where the disrespect can be found, but in the sentiments of the respondents.
“I don’t know if Luka can be any better than he is,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “He’s really good. But I think this might be who he is — which is very good.
But Ja can get better in terms of his shooting, his team will get better around him and he makes players better around him. I think he can affect the game at both ends.”
“Very good” probably isn’t meant as an insult in this case, but one has to wonder if this Eastern Conference executive has updated his perception of Doncic since his rookie season.
“I’m only taking Luka because of health concerns about Zion,” said one Western Conference coach who had Doncic and Williamson first and second, respectively. “If [Zion’s] healthy, I think he’ll win an MVP. That’s how good I think he is.”
The prevailing notion from a number of quoted respondents was that Luka Doncic took the top spot from Zion Williamson primarily because of health. But in a league where wings and ball-handlers are often the difference between a good team and a great team, even if Doncic doesn’t have a record-setting vertical leap, how can you pick any player in this list over him?
Health is indeed an issue with Williamson, but even with perfect health, Luka Doncic should still be the first choice.