Luka Dončić: The 2020/21 NBA MVP?

Javier Mendia García (Cropped)
When it comes to the NBA’s MVP, don’t get too comfortable Giannis – Luka’s got next.

Poor Phoenix.

I remember reading an article about the Phoenix Suns. It was about how the team isn’t tanking right now – they’re just losing.

Tanking is supposed to come with some kind of reward. One big win at the end of a period of small, numerous losses.

It’s a process, if you will.

You tank, you suck, you get a good draft pick, you get a good player and then they make you suck a little less.

It’s the circle of life.

To the naked eye Phoenix are tanking. Allegedly loosing on purpose to draft that can’t miss prospect. That player who would have an immediate impact on the franchise. And even if all that losing wasn’t on purpose (why would anyone admit to losing on purpose?), it did lead to the number one overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, however.

Deandre Ayton was the prize. The big man, the can’t miss prospect, the player who would have the immediate impact on the franchise. He played for the University of Arizona too.

It was perfect.

Now I’m not here to slate Deandre Ayton. He’s a good player don’t get me wrong – he was All-Rookie First Team. But since they drafted him the Suns are 45-102. He also had his drug policy violation and subsequent ban. I’m not pinning the fact that the Suns aren’t winning games on him – the Suns have had a host of other problems over the last few years. In fact the failings of the Phoenix Suns organisation is a whole other topic to write about in its own right.

I want to focus on the Dallas Mavericks, who had the fifth pick in that 2018 NBA Draft. They managed to get a 19 year old European after a trade with Atlanta involving another first round pick and Trae Young. They obviously saw something in this European.

That kid is 20 now. That kid is the next great NBA talent. That kid is the can’t miss prospect, the player who would have the immediate impact on his franchise.

That kid is Luka Dončić.

Luka won Rookie of the Year for the 2018/19 season, averaging 21 points, almost 8 rebounds and 6 assists a game. In NBA history, only two 19 year olds have averaged 21/6/6, or even 20/5/5, for an entire season – Luka and LeBron James.

That’s pretty good company.

But as stats exist in a vacuum, it’s important to note that both Luka and LeBron were basically handed the keys to the franchise in their rookie years – both players had their team’s highest Usage Percentage. The ball was in their hands, and the systems that they played in were designed to put it there.

LeBron’s team in his Rookie year is seen as the worst he’s ever been on, and the Mavericks traded the player they selected with their first round draft pick from the year before to make Luka the primary ball handler. These two young stars’ teams revolved around them.

But winning ROY doesn’t always mean you’re going to be MVP, or play anywhere near that level (sorry Michael Carter-Williams). But Luka was instantly seen as something special. There was even a chance in his debut NBA season he’d be the first Rookie since Blake Griffin in 2011 to play in an All-Star game. He ultimately didn’t make the cut.

Don’t get too upset he didn’t make it though, he got there in his second year.

And that second year has been pretty impressive, much like the first year. Actually, it hasn’t been “pretty impressive”.

It’s been phenomenal.

In his second year in the NBA, at 20 years old, Luka is averaging 28 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists a game. Only one other player has averaged that for an entire season, Oscar Robertson.

If 28/9/8 seems a little too cherry picked, Luka is one of only six players in NBA history to average 25/8/8 for a year. Luka is also one of eight players to average a ‘LeBron‘ for an entire season (27/7/7), which, in my opinion, is the gold standard for all-around basketball play. All the other players on these lists, besides Luka, are current, or future, Basketball Hall of Famers.

But again, it’s important to note that all these players always had (or have) the ball in their hands. They also led (or lead) their teams in Usage Percentage for these seasons. I’m not counting Luke Jackson’s 10 games for Cleveland in 2004/05, Coby Karl’s 3 games for Cleveland in 2009/10 and Josh Reaves’ 2 games for Dallas this season. Sue me.

Luka is the joint youngest player to put up these numbers too, so hopefully as Yazz sang, the only way is up.

That MVP could well be on the horizon.

But, for a player to be awarded the MVP, voters do concentrate on these stats, but also on the win/loss record of the player’s team and the media narrative surrounding said player (as odd as that sounds, just give it to the best player).

Allow me to explain quickly.

When Russell Westbrook won the MVP in 2017 playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder, he was putting up absurd numbers. He became only the second player in NBA history to average a triple double for an entire season. He was winning games and getting the Thunder into the Playoffs – even if it was only a six seed. But most importantly, the storyline of his season was dominated by the fact that Kevin Durant had left in free agency. Westbrook was the “one who stayed”, and he dragged his team into the Playoffs all by himself (or so it seemed, I’m not going to get into that season right now).

Russell was the “most valuable” player. He led his team in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, minutes – almost everything. He won MVP because his individual stats were impressive, his team won games, and because he had a story that triumphed over all others.

Luka can do this too.

The stats mentioned previously show he can put up the numbers. The man seems to stuff the stat sheet, but not in the obscene and egregious way that Westbrook does. Or maybe he does. Either way, the basketball talent this 20 year old possesses would confuse even James Naismith.

Also, the Mavericks’ system will give Luka the ball. This year he’s second only to the one-man-wrecking crew that is Giannis Antetokounmpo in Usage Percentage. He also has the sixth most isolation possessions per game in the entire NBA. Dallas give him the ball and let Luka loose.

There’s no doubt that the Mavericks can win games. They’ve got a coaching savant in Rick Carlisle sat on their bench, and a solid number two in Porzingis.

Plus, the MVP voters may get tired of Giannis’ dominance with the award. Voter fatigue is a real thing, ask Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. Voters felt that it was Malone’s “turn” in the late 90s – even if MJ was the better player. Plus, as this article from Bleacher Report points out: “Voter fatigue tends to slant toward up-and-coming players.” Luka’s only been in the league for two years, and he’s certainly up and coming to say the least.

So, voters can look at; the Slovenian wonder’s numbers, the fact that he has the ball in his hands, my assumption that the Mavericks will win games, and their possible Giannis-related boredom.

All signs point to Luka.

His play is already near MVP level too.

Luka said himself that in the NBA, “it’s easier to score compared to Europe”.

He’s got that signature move, the step back jumper. Despite not being the quickest move of all time, it’s still effective. You can see how it helps him get into his shooting rhythm and is almost unguardable.

He’s also got a strange combination of a first step and a head fake to drive towards the basket. Again, it’s not the quickest move, but it seems to get defenders off balance and get him to the hole. Even if a drive doesn’t lead to him directly going in for a score, he can set up his crafty “I’m going to stick me inbetween you and the ball” body position to keep defenders away.

His passing is already fantastic.

He seems to like to jump and pass the ball to the roller when running the pick and roll, which can be a little risky. But this elevation, combined with the height advantage he already has over smaller guards, enables him to see over the defence and zip the ball right where it needs to be. But it’s his lob passes that impress me. Just watch the touch on this one. The ball floats in the air for a second, just begging to plucked out of the sky.

However, his defending could do with some work.

His one on one defending isn’t bad, but as he’s not the most athletic player in the world, it’s hard for him to shift his feet quickly enough sometimes. But, he seems to read the game well, and knows where to stand. He’ll get better over time.

By the way, bad defending never stopped James Harden from winning the MVP.

Speaking of Harden, Luka’s 3-point percentage is slightly below the league average of 35% at 32%. In my opinion, to really take his game to the next level, he needs to get that up into the high 30s. But it’s not a bad percentage by any means. The opposition still need to respect him from 3-point range, so he spreads the floor nicely – that opens up opportunities on the pick and roll, or for Luka to drive into the paint himself.

I’ve waxed lyrical about the stupendous Slovenian enough now. The Eurostar. Ludicrous Luka. Dynamic Dončić.

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype when European players come to the NBA sometimes. As a Chicago Bulls fan, I remember how excited everyone was when they drafted former Liga ACB MVP Nikola Mirotić. He was good, but, maybe not as good as everyone thought he would be.

Luka is a former Spanish league MVP too, so you can argue that he knows what it takes to win this kind of award.

Everything seems to be in place for Luka to be MVP next year.

He can put up the individual stats. He can win the games. He can steal the media spotlight from Giannis.

To get players to play at an MVP level, yes, teams do need to put a good set of complimentary players around them, coach them well, have a good win/loss record and some Playoff success.

But you have to make sure that the player is the next great NBA talent. That the player is the can’t miss prospect. That the player is the one who will have the immediate impact on the franchise.

So you need to get lucky, and you need to draft the right player.

Poor Phoenix.

I took all my stats from Basketball Reference and stats.NBA.com – which are both great if you’re into that kind of thing. Also if you’re interested in Luka’s play a little more, watch this video by Thinking Basketball on his Rookie year – it’s fantastic and the YouTube channel should have way more subscribers that it does.

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