The Play That's Turned Luka Doncic into an MVP Candidate

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IDecember 9, 2019

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 7: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks smiles during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on December 07, 2019 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Luka Doncic is running the Dallas Mavericks offense the way a maestro conducts an orchestra. Doncic was drafted with the idea that he could turn into a great NBA player, but no one had it happening so soon.

In just his second season, and at just 20 years old, Doncic is leading a symphony in the Mavs' pick-and-roll and leading them to a historically great offensive rating. 

Before their Nov. 1 game against the Los Angeles Lakers, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle was asked when he realized how special Doncic was. "The first day he, he showed up in September and played pickup...he dominated the pickup games with passing and vision." He added "his size and vision and strength and power, stuff like that is very unique for a young player."

It can take years for a young player to develop the feel Doncic has, especially in the pick-and-roll game where he really shines. 

Last season he was good in pick-and-rolls; this season, he's been amazing. 

According to Synergy Sports Technology, he is getting 1.12 points per possession in pick-and-rolls including passing, which tops the NBA (minimum of 150 possessions)—a number that's up from 1.01 last season. 




Luka Doncic PnR PPP*



Mavericks PnR PPP**

0.86 (16th)

1.11 (1st)

* Synergy Sports Technology Stats

** NBA.com/Stats Playtype Pick & Roll Ball Handler

This correlates with the rise in the Mavs offense, which by nature of having one the best pick-and-roll guards this season has the best pick-and-roll offense as a team. They lead the league in scoring frequency at 50.2 percent, 4.8 percentage points better than the next-closest team. 

Carlisle said about Doncic's improvement, "Some of it is just experience having gone through it a year, but the majority of it is the hard work he put in."

Doncic has made one thing clear: He can play every instrument out of the pick-and-roll whether it is a shot or pass. 


Pick-and-Roll Passing

Doncic is second in assists per game this season with 9.2 and potential assists with 17.7, sitting behind only LeBron James in both categories. 

Doncic can make every pass out of the pick-and-roll. He makes the right reads depending on the defensive coverage, often hitting the screener whether he is rolling to the rim or popping out to three. If the defense shifts to take away the screener, he finds the open player on the weak side. 

Although still relatively early in his sophomore season, Doncic has improved using pass fakes and his eyes to create passing lanes. Even though the Boston Celtics defense is trapping him coming off the high ball screen, he sees Brad Wanamaker coming over to tag Dwight Powell. He then uses a pass fake to the corner to slow down Wanamaker before firing the pass to Powell for the dunk.


With teammate Kristaps Porzingis setting the pick, it opens up the pop option for Doncic off picks. He recognizes that whenever defenses are pulling more toward him, they're leaving the career 35.8 percent three-point shooter Porzingis open at the top of the key for three. 

Against the San Antonio Spurs, Porzingis flips the high screen at the last moment, forcing both defenders to chase Doncic, leaving him open to sink the three ball. A similar play happened against the Lakers: Doncic stretches out the light double-team he's facing, creating the distance Porzingis needs for another wide-open look. 


If defenses attempt to collapse on Doncic as he drives off pick-and-rolls, he consistently will find open teammates on the weak side. When he drives off a Powell pick against the Lakers, he sucks in three defenders who are all ready to meet him at the rim, so he whips a pass to Delon Wright all alone in the corner for the three. 

Earlier in the game, James picked off a Doncic pass to the corner, but later, Doncic learned his lesson. This time he comes off a screen and sees James, so he holds the ball for a second longer. This keeps James from leaking out to Tim Hardaway Jr in the corner. Despite all the traffic, Doncic fires a crosscourt pass right in Hardaway's shooting pocket for another Mavs corner three.

Doncic's passing in the pick-and-roll is aided by his ability to score out of the pick-and-roll.


In the Paint

One of the biggest areas of improvement for Doncic has been his work in the paint. According to Cleaning the Glass (CTH), Doncic has seen his field-goal percentage at the rim jump from 62 percent to 72 percent. Doncic's finishing around the rim has gone from mediocre to the 93rd percentile.

A lot of Doncic's shots at the rim have come off attacking bigs in the pick-and-roll. Anytime he comes off a screen and the big is flat-footed, he is going straight to the rim. He catches Kevin Love, Kyle Kuzma and Anthony Davis as he cruises to the rim for a few scores.

Doncic also uses a crossback off picks to attack bigs and make it really difficult for his primary defender to get back to him. When Marcus Smart goes over the top of the Powell pick, Doncic sees Robert Williams meeting him at the three-point line, so he blows by him using a left-to-right crossover dribble—also cutting off any angle for Smart to recover—and gets to rim the for a layup.

Doncic has also improved his scoring out of the short mid-range (a shot outside four feet and inside 14 feet, free-throw line distance, per CTH) from last year to this one. In particular, he has worked on his floaters, which is crucial. Carlisle remarked that he is going to go up against drop coverages when the big defender hangs back, conceding mid-range shots and floaters, "but [Doncic] has gotten better at executing those and getting those in the basket."

According to Synergy Sports Technology, Doncic's floaters have jumped from .90 PPP to 1.15 this season, which puts him in 85th percentile. As Carlisle stated above, the floater is a great tool against teams that try to play drop coverage against Doncic in the pick-and-roll. 

Against the Memphis Grizzlies, Jae Crowder goes over the top of another Powell screen, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is playing drop coverage. Jackson is trying to stay connected with both Powell and Doncic and eventually reaches for the ball, which opens the door for the floater. Doncic also catches Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers in drop coverage and sinks another floater. 


Crossover and Step-Back Threes

Doncic came into the league with the step-back three, making 61 of them in his rookie season on 36.5 percent shooting. This season he hasn't slowed down there either, shooting 35.0 percent on step-backs. It is not exactly the same as James Harden, but it is just as deadly.

Doncic breaks out either a step-back or crossover anytime he catches a defender overplaying a drive. Dejounte Murray works over the top of a screen and is sitting on his left side prepared for any drive in the lane. Doncic just stops on a dime with a right-to-left, between-the-legs crossover that seamlessly sets up his shot. He catches Avery Bradley going under a screen, so he just goes right into a step-back three. Finally, he sees Kyle Kuzma is giving him too much space, so he fakes like he's going to attack before unleashing another step-back. 


Doncic is not afraid to use it against anyone; James switches on him after a high screen-and-roll. Very calmly and coolly, Doncic drills a 30-foot step-back three to ice the game for the Mavs. 


The maestro has taken the leap and it all started this past offseason, according to Carlisle: "He put in a great summer of work, really on all areas of his game from conditioning to all the skill areas." 

In just his second season, Doncic is already being mentioned with James, Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the early MVP discussions.

Doncic may not win MVP, but he is running the league's best offense, has improved across the board on the offensive end, and no one is playing sweeter music in the pick-and-roll.

Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator as well as three years with the Australian Men's national team.