How Luka Doncic Gets Buckets Where NBA Giants Usually Dominate

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IJanuary 17, 2020

Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Remember when Luka Doncic wasn't the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft? Or the second? Even the team that originally had the third pick ended up trading down.

No one seemed to understand just how transcendent a playmaker Doncic was. Or, at least, the idea that he wasn't athletic enough to succeed at the NBA level got in the way.

The Dallas Mavericks knew what he could become. 

"We were in a rebuild, and there were obvious conversations about who was good in the draft, in the coming year," Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said. "We weren't projected to be good. So I just asked [general manager Donnie Nelson] the general question, 'Who's going to be the best player coming out?' and he said 'It's Doncic, and it's not close.' We got into a deeper conversation about it, but he just said, 'He's got the elements of some of the great international players of all time, plus he's an original.'"

Doncic is now putting up mesmerizing numbers in his second season with the Mavericks, averaging 28.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists. Those marks may seem hyper-inflated, but how he accumulates his points is even more impressive: using angles, touch and an elite basketball IQ, characteristics he showed with Real Madrid well before his NBA days. 

This season, Doncic has leveled up by getting into the paint and collapsing the defense. He's taking 31 percent of his shots at the rim and another 25 percent in the short mid-range (between four and 14 feet from the basket). But it's not just that he gets to the rim at a high level; his finishing there is better than most lob-catching centers: 74 percent at the hoop (98th percentile), which is almost as high as his career free-throw percentage (74.3).

Here is a comprehensive list of players (minimum 200 attempts) who are finishing at a higher clip around the rim: Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

That's it. That's the list.

We all know about his feathery touch. But he must get to the rim before he can shoot there.

His bag of tricks is a deep one. Getting into the heart of the defense is at the core of the Mavericks' historic offense, and while the nightly masterclass in changes of pace and direction he puts on may look natural, those are skills he works hard on. He's practiced the shiftiness that allows him to beat defenders he would never be able to get past if he relied on pure athleticism. 

"He just has a way of getting in there. He does it all different kinds of ways," Carlisle said. "Left or right, it doesn't really matter. He can go either direction very effectively. Just has a very good knack for keeping the defense off balance."

The sophomore guard's perimeter game sets up everything else. His understanding of angles is his premier skill. He is a puppeteer in the pick-and-roll, eager to manipulate the help from wherever it comes:

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In high-screen situations, Doncic often patiently maneuvers over the screen, sealing his man on his back and giving the Mavericks a five-on-four advantage:

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Or he can reject the screen entirely, using his quick crossover and long first step to get his back foot even with the defender's front foot:

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In either case, the defense is toast.

Eurosteps and floaters are primary finishing moves for Doncic and perfect examples of his elite change-of-pace ability. Without raw speed, he relies on a series of staccato hesitations, pivots and twitches in isolation.

A quick in-and-out dribble can freeze the defender and force him to jump toward the ball to stop a crossover toward the middle of the floor or a step-back three. Then, Doncic strikes: 

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The 20-year-old already uses combinations brilliantly.

"He's got this incredible knack for seeing the floor and being a step ahead," Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. "He reminds me a little bit of Larry Bird in that regard. He's one step ahead in the chess match. But he's got this James Harden skill set with crossovers and step-backs."

Each of his moves has a cascade of counters that allow him to set up one move then read the angle and momentum of the defender before deciding which option to pick. For example, step-back threes allow him to get to the basket and finish in a variety of ways later in the game:

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The defender is conditioned to lunge forward in order to contest the step-back. Doncic can then use the same motion. But instead of gathering into his shot, he hesitates and takes off for the basket: 

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It uses the same footwork and same motion, making it extremely difficult for the defense to guess what's coming: 

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What's special here is the angle Doncic uses to upend the defender's balance. He attacks nearly perpendicular to the sideline, crosses back through his legs and takes off downhill:

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Doncic doesn't have burst in the traditional sense. But once he uses one of his tricks to get an edge, he is often fast enough to turn the corner: 

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As soon as he gets a step, he lowers his center of gravity and, without losing control, forces defenders to essentially give up on the play for fear of fouling.

When Doncic isn't able to speed around the turn, his physicality comes into play. The 6'7", 218-pound guard is far from soft. Much like Harden and LeBron James, he is built with a sturdy upper body that allows him to deliver and absorb contact. He's a bulldozer when he lowers his shoulder and creates enough momentum to force the defender backward as he goes up for his shot.

From there, the defender is going toward the basket while he tries to keep pace. At that moment, Doncic uses his patented deceleration move. He stops on a dime and slowly elevates into his floater with plenty of space to get the shot off: 

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He's also got a sneaky off-hand swipe and subtle push-off move to help create space: 

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No single one of these moves is a creative masterpiece exclusive to Doncic. In fact, most talented scorers use some, if not all of them.

But put them all together and his sleight of hand keeps him two steps ahead of everyone else. Even if he's slow, his release takes time and he doesn't have a 40-inch vertical, he is a Twister spinner commanding you to tangle your feet so he can get an easy bucket. 

It doesn't matter to Doncic how he gets into the lane, just that he does. His ability to disguise moves always affords him enough space to get a shot off, and it has taken him from great to elite as an offensive focal point. He's a lethal threat from every square centimeter of the court, and that's something we all should have seen coming even before he was drafted.

"It's important that this kid is his own player, and he truly is," Carlisle said. "Each month, he continues to develop and learn more and hones certain skills even more. He's a very exciting player to watch. I understand the hype."

       

Follow Will on Twitter.

All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com or Cleaning the Glass and current heading into games on Tuesday. 

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