Sports

Luka Doncic Is an Incomparable Player. Let’s Compare Him to Some Players.

Luka Doncic on the court.
Luka Doncic at American Airlines Center in Dallas on Nov. 8. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It’s easy to get deliriously excited about Luka Doncic. In just his second NBA season, the 20-year-old Dallas Mavericks star is averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.2 assists per game. Only two players in history have matched those statistics over a full year (Oscar Robertson in 1961 and 1962 and Russell Westbrook in 2017), and Doncic has helped turn an otherwise middling Mavericks squad into one of the top teams in the Western Conference.

Granted, the season is only 21 games old, but Doncic’s history suggests that he doesn’t traffic in flukes. The Slovenian has been playing professional basketball since 2015, which is roughly an eternity for someone who was born in 1999. He made his first start for Real Madrid at the age of 16 and was named EuroLeague MVP two years later. He won the NBA Rookie of the Year last season, and his rapid ascent means he’s a bona fide MVP candidate this year.

Doncic can’t help but invite hyperbole. He’s been compared to a veritable Mount Rushmore of all-time greats. “We Haven’t Seen Anyone Like Luka Dončić Since LeBron James,” declared a recent FiveThirtyEight story. His own coach likened him to Larry Bird, which is modest praise compared to what Doc Rivers had to say.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think these people were trying to curse this young man. But unlike the cavalcade of “next Michael Jordans” who were poisoned by that honorific, Doncic defies glib comparisons. He’s a 6-foot-7 point guard who’s built like a fifth-year senior playing fraternity ball between cigarette breaks. There’s never really been a player like him, which makes it all the more tempting to desperately reach for comparisons. Let’s make some stretches, shall we?

James Harden

Doncic in a half-court set looks eerily similar to the Rockets’ free-scoring guard. Both use hesitation dribbles to keep defenders honest, clop through the lane with Eurosteps, and have the ability to drain annoyingly effective step-back 3-pointers with ease.

Both players work in offenses built to their strengths. They are surrounded by floor-spacing shooters and given carte blanche to make things happen. Like Harden, Doncic has the ball in his hands way more than any of his teammates. The Mavericks guard is the youngest player in history to post a usage rate of 36.5 percent, though he’s still lagging behind Harden’s rate this season (39.6 percent).

But Doncic is not a Harden clone. For one thing, he doesn’t have much of a beard. He also only takes 9.5 foul shots per game, which is a free throw famine compared with Harden’s average of 14.9 a game. Doncic also separates himself from Harden by virtue of winning a playoff semifinals, though he had to beat CSKA Moscow and not the Golden State Warriors. (This is no knock on Nikita Kurbanov, the Draymond Green of the Moskva.)

LeBron James

When it comes to being this good at basketball before reaching legal drinking age, only LeBron can match Doncic. FiveThirtyEight ran the numbers, but you only need to watch them play to understand the similarities. It’s almost as if James and Doncic share an allergy to making wrong decisions on the court, a condition that’s most apparent when they find teammates with inch-perfect passes.

They’re just so damn competent, even when dribbling into thickets of defenders. It’s like watching a really great waiter. Why aren’t you writing any of our orders down? Did you note that my father-in-law has celiac? Then they come with the food, it’s absolutely perfect, and you feel like an idiot for ever doubting them.

LeBron hasn’t gone so far as to compare Doncic to himself, but he did call him a “bad motherfucker,” which is a sweet thing to say.

Russell Westbrook

Doncic leads the league in triple-doubles this year (seven), and Westbrook famously averaged a triple-double between 2016 and 2019. Now that Westbrook is on the Rockets and has to share the ball with Harden, Doncic becomes the only player with a realistic shot at joining the triple-double club this season. Seems like it would be easy to find congruencies between the two, but note that Clippers guard Patrick Beverley coyly tweeted at Doncic during free agency last summer, sparking rumors he would join Dallas.

Given that he and Westbrook hate each other’s guts, Beverley’s cute fondness for Doncic makes this particular player comparison impossible.

Dennis Rodman

This one is just because Luka wears the number 77, which would look stupid on anyone else but is cool because he is cool, just like Rodman and the number 91.

Larry Bird

Since Doncic is white, you are required by law to compare him to Larry Bird. Problematic, yes, but this is a real law (USC 33.33), and due to the direction the federal judiciary is headed, it won’t be changed any time soon. I’d love to break down the basketball similarities, like their versatility in the post or passing and shooting skills, but I want to focus on a more obvious resemblance between Doncic and Bird. When running without the ball, both men look like Ted Cassidy sprinting to the bathroom on the Addams Family set. Not much arm movement there, but it gets the job done.

Arvydas Sabonis

Sure, one came into the league as a teenager while the other was already past his legendary prime. And yes, they play totally different positions and have contrasting playing styles. But have you considered the fact that they are both Europeans? NBADraft.net listed Toni Kukoc and Hedo Turkoglu as players comparable to Doncic before he joined the league, so why not throw in some more Europeans for good measure?

Dirk Nowitzki

Again, not really similar in terms of basketball skills (Doncic is a primary ball handler, Nowitzki the archetypal stretch-big man), but both are Europeans in Mavericks jerseys. It must be like looking into a mirror for Doncic!

Tina Maze

Maze won two gold medals for downhill skiing at the 2014 Olympics. Not only is she a great athlete, but, just like Doncic, she is also Slovenian. That’s all I got. This is worse than the Sabonis one, huh? Maybe it’s best to just enjoy Doncic for who he is: a cross between Adrian Dantley, Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, and Vinny from Jersey Shore.