Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of Luka Doncic’s NBA debut. This story was originally published on Aug. 25.
We hear you, Mark Cuban. Really, we do.
“Don’t try to compare him to others. He is blazing his own path,” the Dallas Mavericks‘ owner tweeted in August following Luka Doncic‘s 43-point triple-double and winning step-back 3-pointer in Game 4 against the LA Clippers in Round 1 of the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
But we just can’t help ourselves.
Neither can Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, by the way, who again mentioned Larry Bird while gushing about Doncic’s dominance in Game 4.
Yes, a lot of what Doncic is doing is unprecedented. For example, nobody else in NBA history has ever capped a 40-plus-point playoff triple-double by drilling a winning buzzer-beater, as Doncic did to even the series between his underdog Mavs and the Clippers.
And Doncic, now at the ripe old age of 21, has staked his claim as the youngest ever to record a long list of incredible statistical feats.
Sure, Doncic is blazing his own path. But the kid also reminds a lot of basketball lifers of the journeys of some of the legends who have come before him. We’ve collected the most telling comparisons from Doncic’s first two NBA seasons.
Why young Luka is like current LeBron
Dwyane Wade, retired 13-time NBA All-Star: “Quote me right where I say this — it’s LeBron James-like from the standpoint of how he’s able to rope that pass to shooters in corners, getting blitzed. There’s not many guys who can do that and put it right there. He does an amazing job of it.”
Steve Nash, NBA Hall of Fame guard: “The numbers are a little inflated because of the pace and the hand check. But still, I do think LeBron was so gifted, but I don’t think he was as polished as Luka.”
Kendrick Perkins, ESPN analyst and 14-year NBA veteran: “The physicality, the basketball IQ, the passing, the rebounding, the ability to go out there and score in a variety of ways, not just one-dimensional. … He is a baby LeBron, minus the hops.”
Jay Williams, ESPN analyst and former NBA guard: “I’ve often said that he is a less athletic but more skilled 20-year-old version of LeBron James.”
It’s a testament to James’ one-of-a-kind skill set that few players, if any, have been advertised as “the next LeBron” despite the dozens of “next Michael Jordans” we got during and after Jordan’s playing career. Doncic isn’t James either, but in important ways he comes closer than anyone ever has.
The six most similar seasons to Doncic’s 2019-20 campaign according to my SCHOENE system, which considers height, weight and 11 key statistics? All by James, from each of his past six seasons. (James Harden‘s 2016-17 is next.) Conversely, Doncic this season also scores as the closest comp for James’ performance this year.
In some ways, James has evolved into playing the style Doncic came into the league playing. Their age-20 seasons don’t rate as especially similar, in part because James wasn’t yet as prolific a playmaker or as efficient a shooter inside the arc. Part of that can be attributed to how the league has changed over the past 15 years, as both rule changes and improved spacing have given more freedom to perimeter creators with size.
That said, their early success definitely is a point of comparison. Among seasons begun at age 20 or younger since the NBA-ABA merger, Doncic’s 2019-20 ranks sixth in terms of wins above replacement player (WARP) per game played by my metric. Naturally, the top two seasons were both by James.
For all the similarities, the differences between Doncic and James are striking, too. As many experienced observers have noted, their similar statistics are the product of different styles — James’ based more on athleticism and a superhuman memory that has processed every strategy possible, Doncic’s more on his preternatural skill and savvy.
This disconnect is most clear on defense, where James developed into a standout during his prime years who can still dial it up in the right setting to take opponents out of the game. Defense is not a strong suit for Doncic, and his relatively limited foot speed means that it might never be.
Still, given the way we’ve seen James mature and add to his game year after year, it’s exciting to think Doncic could follow a similar trajectory.
— Kevin Pelton
Is Luka borrowing from The Beard?
Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors head coach: “He’s got this James Harden skill set with crossovers and step-backs. He’s a brilliant player and so young, and he’s going to be one of the cornerstones of this league for a long time.”
Doc Rivers, LA Clippers head coach: “He’s a combination of a lot. [James] Harden, in some ways. Obviously the Larry Bird comparison. … He has great vision, LeBron-ish. There’s a lot of people in him. But I think … when he retires, people are going to say he was Luka.”
A bemused rival executive sent a text as Doncic took yet another trip to the free throw line during an early-season game.
“Looks like Luka has seen every Beard game tape from the past 3 years,” the executive texted. “He’s using all the tricks.”
Many folks around the NBA consider James Harden, the Houston Rockets‘ perennial MVP candidate, the best comparison for Doncic. They have similar body types as big, powerful point guards and subtle athleticism, specifically their rare deceleration and the ability to stay in control while slamming on the brakes and changing directions with the ball in their hands. It’s not a coincidence that Doncic’s game frequently looks a lot like Harden’s stylistically.
That between-the-legs bounce pass Doncic delivered to Maxi Kleber for a dagger dunk to help beat the Bucks in the bubble? Harden’s highlight reel features several similar dimes to former Rockets roll man Clint Capela.
All the crafty ways that Doncic draws contact while driving? Sure, he has borrowed from Harden’s bag of tricks. Same with the footwork for step-back 3s, such as the one Doncic splashed at the Game 4 buzzer to beat the Clippers.
“I watch a lot of his film, for sure,” Doncic said during his rookie season. “Especially the drawing fouls and the step-back.”
It’s not fair to compare Doncic to Harden at the same age. “The Beard” hadn’t even earned his nickname at that point, when he was averaging 12.2 points and 2.1 assists per game as the Thunder’s sixth man and third offensive option behind a couple of other future MVPs.
Squint hard enough while watching Doncic now and you might see Harden in his early prime, when he was a seasoned All-Star who still ran a ton of pick-and-roll. Doncic’s shot profile now looks a lot like Harden’s in his first season playing for coach Mike D’Antoni.
In the years since, the Rockets have essentially scrapped the pick-and-roll to allow Harden to isolate over and over and over again, as his step-back has become arguably the most dangerous weapon in basketball. Harden was 191-of-517 (36.9%) on step-back 3s this season, per NBA.com stats; Doncic attempted the second most in the league, going 93-of-273 (34.1%).
What happens if Doncic develops a step-back as efficient as Harden’s? Has Harden’s stylistic evolution provided a blueprint for Doncic?
This is where Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, the architect of the Doncic-run offense that set an NBA record for points-per-possession efficiency, slams the brakes on the comparison.
“It’s important that this is not the next version of James Harden,” Carlisle told ESPN before this season. “This is the first Luka Doncic, and this is a guy that’s carving out a very special niche in today’s game.”
— Tim MacMahon
The best European player and the greatest Mav?
Jerry West, NBA Hall of Fame guard: “He will be the best player Dallas has ever had. I have great respect for Nowitzki, but Dirk is not him. … [Doncic] hasn’t even scratched the surface. It’s fun to watch genius.”
Shawn Marion, former Mav and 16-year NBA veteran: “For him to be as poised and have the confidence and the cockiness, kind of like a little swagger that he has, at this young in a career is very, very rare. What he’s doing right now, he can possibly be better than Dirk.”
Dirk Nowitzki, never one who craved the spotlight, certainly didn’t mind that his unofficial farewell tour was often overshadowed by the arrival of another European sensation in Dallas.
That Nowitzki and Doncic shared a season as teammates was a treat to Mavericks fans, who were so fortunate to follow the entire career of the best European import in NBA history, and then got to see the big German pass the torch to a Slovenian kid who could knock him down to second on that list.
However, aside from their native continent and NBA employer, Doncic and Nowitzki don’t have a whole lot in common.
Their games are completely different. Nowitzki was the sweetest-shooting 7-footer to ever play, and Doncic has more in common with the surefire Hall of Fame point guards who delivered Dirk the ball, kind of a supersized blend of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd.
They also took totally different paths to the NBA. Nowitzki’s previous pro experience was playing for his hometown Wurzburg X-Rays in the German league’s second division. Doncic left home at 13 and spent most of his teens playing for Real Madrid, the biggest powerhouse in European hoops, arriving in America as a champion and MVP in the world’s best league outside the NBA.
“This kid just has so much more swag than I did,” Nowitzki said on multiple occasions last season, even more impressed by Doncic’s confidence and on-court charisma than his breathtaking talent. Nowitzki spent his rookie year wondering whether he made a mistake by leaving home. At 21, he had just started to establish himself as a quality NBA starter.
Doncic electrified the league as a teenage rookie and has been a dominant force in his second season, making his potential seem limitless. It feels destined that he’ll match Nowitzki as Mavs who earned MVP and Finals MVP honors. Heck, it’d be a bit disappointing if Doncic doesn’t win those awards on multiple occasions.
If he’s durable enough, Doncic is a good bet to also join Nowitzki in the exclusive 30,000-point club, considering he already has 3,285 points in the bank and only recently has been able to buy a beer in the United States. What’s scary is that scoring isn’t even what the kid does best.
Mavs fans, from Mark Cuban up to the folks in the nosebleed seats at the American Airlines Center, just hope that Doncic follows Dirk’s footsteps by spending an entire two-decade career in Dallas.
A combination of Magic and Bird?
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs head coach: “It’s Magic Johnson-like in the sense that he sees the floor in that same way. He’s got a real intuitive sense and you can’t teach that. He’s just got it, and he’s great at it.“
Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks head coach: “He knows where everybody is not only on offense, but defense. That’s the sign of a savant-type guy. I’ve played with Larry Bird. He could see everything like that. I had the privilege of coaching Jason Kidd. He could see everything like that. Luka is in that same mold.”
Kerr: “You know, he’s got this incredible knack for seeing the floor and being a step ahead. He reminds me a little bit of Larry Bird in that regard. He’s kind of one step ahead in the chess match.“
Jalen Rose, ESPN analyst and 13-year NBA veteran: “I have never compared a player to [Larry Bird] until now. … In the modern game, if he was facing the floor as the primary ball handler, he would look like Luka.”
Mark Jackson, former NBA player and coach and current broadcaster: “To me, Luka Doncic is an absolute combination of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.”
We still know them as “Magic and Larry” because of their intertwined careers and highly creative skill sets. So it’s only fitting that both NBA legends have been used as Doncic comparisons.
The Johnson comp stems from Doncic’s combination of size and playmaking ability. The term “triple-double” was popularized to capture Johnson’s versatility, and he still leads all players in NBA history with 30 postseason triple-doubles. With a pair of triple-doubles in his first four playoff games, Doncic — who became the third-youngest player to record a playoff triple-double, behind Johnson and James — is coming for that record.
Any time a player with the size of a forward is used exclusively at point guard, some debt is owed to Johnson’s Hall of Fame career. His success, and the five championships the Lakers won during nine NBA Finals appearances in the 12 years before his forced retirement due to HIV, made big point guards a new standard.
Through two seasons, Doncic has already made more 3-pointers (339) than Johnson in his entire career (325). Even accounting for the leaguewide reluctance to shoot 3s back in the 1980s, Johnson stood out as a non-shooter. It wasn’t until his 10th season that Johnson made more than 11 triples. And that’s why Jackson compares Doncic to Johnson and Bird.
As a shooter, Doncic looks likely to land somewhere in the wide gulf between Johnson and Bird. While Doncic has made more far more 3s in each of his two NBA campaigns than Bird ever did in a season, that owes to the increase in attempts leaguewide. Bird was a career 38% shooter, far outstripping Doncic’s 32% accuracy so far. And while their shot patterns are very different, Bird’s free throw shooting (89%) put him far ahead of Doncic (74%) as well.
While Bird wasn’t the kind of ball handler that Doncic and Johnson are, Bird’s court vision at his size (6-foot-9) and creativity feed into the comparison.
Projecting far into the future, Doncic might set himself apart from Magic and Larry by virtue of longevity. Among ESPN’s top 10 NBA players of all time as voted on in May, Johnson (906 games) and Bird (897) had the two shortest careers. If Doncic can stay healthy, his early start gives him a chance to crush those totals.