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NBA Daily: Luka Doncic — Unmatched On The Move

Luka Doncic’s improved shot-making has received most attention, but it’s his effectiveness penetrating – especially as a passer – that’s propelled the Dallas Mavericks to the league’s best offense. Jack Winter writes.

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The pre-draft notion that Luka Doncic had less room to improve than other top prospects was always foolish. Not only did his age and fleshy physique suggest he was years of training, dieting and maturing away from reaching his physical peak, but Doncic was clearly the type of playmaker who would benefit immensely from the extra room to operate afforded by the NBA game.

Just over a month into his sophomore season, it’s additional burst with the ball and growth as a shot-maker that’s most propelled Doncic to the front of the MVP race, in fact, the odds on Luka Doncic winning MVP are increasing weekly. He’s launching more pull-up triples per game than anyone but James Harden, draining them at 36.1 percent, a solid clip that’s nevertheless deflated by the insane difficulty of the majority of his attempts. His burgeoning confidence as an off-dribble three-point shooter makes it even easier for Doncic to attack, as primary and help defenders are increasingly wary of giving him enough breathing room to let fly.

The result is Doncic averaging 17.9 drives per game, tied for fifth-most in basketball, per NBA.com. He’s shooting a league-best 67.6 percent on those forays to the paint; only Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James have eclipsed the 60 percent threshold on drives in the past six seasons, per Second Spectrum data. Despite his strides from floater range and at the rim, expect Doncic’s shooting numbers while penetrating to come back to earth. Even a dip of just two or three percentage points would still be a historical outlier.

But just because Doncic is bound to regress as a finisher hardly means his overall effectiveness will wane. Why? He doesn’t drive to score himself as much as he does to produce points for the Dallas Mavericks at large, a dynamic that extends to every second the ball is in Doncic’s hands. Case in point: Doncic accrues 2.9 assists per game on drives, best in the league, and his 16 percent assist rate only ranks behind those of pass-first penetrators Ricky Rubio and Kyle Lowry.

It’s in the tight confines of the paint that Doncic’s passing genius is most readily apparent. Barely more than a full season into his career, he’s already manipulating multiple lines of defense like the savviest veteran floor generals.

Even after losing weight and tightening his body over the summer, Doncic still lacks the extra gear most star ball-handlers possess. He’s only an average leaper when he has time and space to load up, and he struggles to get off the floor in a crowd. Doncic isn’t especially long at 6-foot-8, either.

Those physical deficiencies are hardly noticeable on the floor. Doncic plays at his own pace, never rattled by pressure and constantly aware of how to move defenders. His elite 71.7 percent shooting from the restricted area has been accomplished by exercising additional patience, using fakes and pivots to get shot-blockers off the floor. Doncic routinely utilizes the same tricks to create passing angles that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

These are the types of dimes that separates him from world-class passers like LeBron James and James Harden. Effective as they are, James and Harden – at least in part because they possess the athleticism that’s never warranted developing it – lack Doncic’s level of command in small spaces.

Many league followers blanched when the Mavericks gave Dwight Powell a three-year, $33 million extension. Bigs with merely hopeful shooting stretch and limited defensive versatility are a dime a dozen, and Dallas decided to pay him money befitting an impact player.

That dichotomy made it easy to overlook that Powell is one of the best dive men in basketball, with a broad catch radius for lobs. In he, Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber, Doncic always has at least one imminent alley-oop threat at his disposal – and he’s already an expert at finding them above the rim with unique timing and pinpoint accuracy, even on the move.

Kleber and Powell aren’t behind the defense when Doncic lets go of these lobs.

Dallas takes a higher share of its shots from deep than every team in the league save the Houston Rockets. Doncic owns the most dangerous step-back triple in basketball other than Harden, but the Mavericks live beyond the arc most because he generates long-range looks for his teammates on a regular basis that the vast majority of playmakers can’t.

Doncic’s size looms largest as a passer in situations like the one below. All penetrators expect the weak-side corner to be filled, and most would be able to see Tim Hardaway Jr. retreating to the arc as they turn the corner around the screen. But completing the pass to Hardaway right over the outstretched arms of Khem Birch as momentum carries him the other way? That’s a dime exclusively reserved for Doncic and James.

As much as his size matters, Doncic’s mind matters more. He has a keen understanding of how and when to engage help defenders on the drive. But because he doesn’t have the speed needed to engage the primary helper while leaving room for the roller to catch as his primary defender trails, Doncic often slows down instead, giving him the chance to move the chess pieces with lookaways, hesitations and ball fakes as he sees fit.

Doncic will always lack the athletic explosion of his superstar wing peers. It’s already clear that pre-draft assessment was spot on. But the expectation among naysayers that his ceiling was relatively low due to that shortcoming has already been proven wrong, too.

As Doncic continues staking his MVP claim, his superior shot-making ability and the accompanying ball pressure provided by defenders will remain the most obvious justification behind his rise. It’s his newfound and devastating effectiveness as a penetrator, though, that’s the greater means behind his improvement – and the passes therein lifting Dallas to the league’s most efficient offensive attack.

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer & reported with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated.

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