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Every time he suits up, Dallas Mavericks phenom Luka Doncic adds new plays to his ceaselessly swelling highlight reel.
On Tuesday night, he bolstered his collection of step-back triples by nailing the game-sealing dagger against the Portland Trail Blazers. Cooly gathering his dribble and leaping back beyond the three-point arc to create plenty of separation between himself and Evan Turner, he buried the jumper, extended the lead to nine points and helped push Dallas to a surprising 12-11 on the 2018-19 season:
One week prior, he dropped in a long-range attempt from Stephen Curry territory against the Houston Rockets. Just prior to the halftime buzzer, he crossed over PJ Tucker and fired with both the primary defender and James Harden in close proximity, again finding nothing but nylon:
Doncic’s highlights haven’t been confined to three-point territory, even if we haven’t touched upon myriad other examples. The position-defying rookie has contributed in across-the-board fashion while averaging 18.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.4 blocks with a 44.3/38.6/78.9 slash line.
He’s fooled multiple members of the Chicago Bulls with a creative arsenal of trickery that would make Jason Williams proud. Suckering Robin Lopez with a ball-fake wouldn’t have been nearly enough while creating this easy dunk opportunity for DeAndre Jordan:
He’s swatted LeBron James on consecutive shooting attempts, which is especially significant when only five other players (Al-Farouq Aminu, Richaun Holmes, Jonathan Isaac, Jusuf Nurkic, Karl-Anthony Towns), all of whom line up in the frontcourt, have blocked the four-time MVP at least twice during the early portion of 2018-19:
He can explode to the hoop for thunderous finishes through physical contests, stuffing both the ball through the rack and concerns about his athleticism through the mouths of those who dared questioned him prior to his NBA debut.
All the while, the clock has been ticking away, counting down the days until he turns 20 on Feb. 28, still one year shy of legal drinking age in the United States but moving out of the teenage years that have already ushered in so much basketball-related success.
During his Real Madrid days, the Slovenian wunderkind became the youngest EuroLeague MVP in history before joining the Mavericks (via a trade with the Atlanta Hawks) as the No. 3 pick of the 2018 NBA draft. He entered the Association with rather lofty expectations—43 percent of general managers pegged him as the likely Rookie of the Year—but he’s exceeded them all while tracking toward one of the best resumes compiled by a teenager in NBA history.
Doncic only seems to be getting better as he gains more confidence against NBA competition—confidence that has led to Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle running the offense through him even more frequently. But the rookie wall could strike, injuries could set in or Doncic could go through a shooting slump that depresses his numbers and curtails his early-season momentum.
Regardless, we aren’t talking about a large group of teenage standouts here.
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Including the eight from 2018-19, 125 different players have logged minutes during an age-18 or age-19 season (determined by age as of Feb. 1, for the sake of consistency). Thirteen different players have multiple such campaigns, though none more recently than C.J. Miles and Amir Johnson because of the relatively new prep-to-pro restrictions.
Once we look at seasons qualified for the minutes leaderboard, the group dwindles significantly. Only 54 remain, including five from the current season (Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kevin Knox).
Not all of those 54 experienced the same early success that Doncic is now enjoying. That’s where this gets even more interesting.
The list is littered with draft busts, ranging from Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Eddy Curry to Rashad Vaughn and Marquese Chriss. But plenty of young players who developed into standouts down the road struggled at first. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Chris Bosh and Tony Parker all posted negative box plus/minuses during their respective debut seasons. In fact, all but 12 of the relevant seasons fell in the red.
As for those 12:
- 1998-99 Tracy McGrady: 4.0 BPM in 1,106 minutes
- 2018-19 Jaren Jackson Jr.: 3.1 BPM in 566 minutes
- 2003-04 LeBron James: 1.9 BPM in 3,122 minutes
- 1995-96 Kevin Garnett: 1.7 BPM in 2,293 minutes
- 2004-05 Dwight Howard: 1.0 BPM in 2,670 minutes
- 2017-18 Jayson Tatum: 1.0 BPM in 2,438 minutes
- 2018-19 Luka Doncic: 0.9 BPM in 695 minutes
- 2007-08 Thaddeus Young: 0.6 BPM in 1,554 minutes
- 2018-19 Wendell Carter Jr.: 0.5 BPM in 649 minutes
- 2017-18 Jarrett Allen: 0.2 BPM in 1,441 minutes
- 1997-98 Kobe Bryant: 0.2 BPM in 2,056 minutes (he had a minus-1.7 RPM as a rookie in 1996-97)
- 2003-04 Carmelo Anthony: 0.1 BPM in 2,995 minutes
Most of the names on that list carry plenty of cachet these days. But Doncic isn’t just a BPM standout, nor is his impact rooted solely in box-score efficacy.
The Dallas standout is submitting positive numbers while also assuming responsibilities not typically heaped upon the still-developing shoulders of teenage players. Per Cleaning the Glass, he already ranks in the 93rd and 91st percentiles (relative to position) for usage rate and assist percentage, respectively.
That’s where he moves into the truly elite category while differentiating himself from Jackson, Carter and plenty of others:
Adam Fromal @fromal09
Not many qualified teenagers in NBA history have managed to remain heavily involved in their offenses. These are the only ones with AST%>10 and USG%>20.
Even fewer were so heavily involved AND positive players, per BPM.
Luka Doncic is special. https://t.co/HD8t0fizbY
A handful of teenagers have taken on similar levels of import. Anthony, Bryant, Durant, James, Stephon Marbury and Emmanuel Mudiay all join him in that stratosphere.
But look at how little green populates that graph. Maintaining such hefty usage while remaining a net positive is a difficult endeavor, which is why Doncic is already trending toward the teenage pantheon currently occupied by Anthony, Bryant, James and McGrady.
Better yet, he’s doing so while tracking toward the playoffs.
Whether Dallas, currently positioned at No. 8, can maintain this 43-win pace in a crowded Western Conference field is up for debate, but Doncic has been an integral part of the push. If successful, he’d join the following members of the original 54-man group as a postseason contributor:
- 1996-97 Stephon Marbury
- 1996-97 Kobe Bryant
- 1997-78 Kobe Bryant
- 2015-16 Stanley Johnson
- 2015-16 Justise Winslow
- 2015-16 Myles Turner
- 2017-18 Jayson Tatum
- 2017-18 Terrance Ferguson
Many of those youngsters were hangers-on, riding the coattails of superior veterans toward playoff berths. Marbury, Bryant and Tatum were significantly more key to the cause, but this group is already small enough. Even if Doncic can’t join that exclusive fraternity, merely getting close indicates that he’s a unique commodity.
Doncic’s numbers are partially bolstered by the metronome-shattering pace employed by today’s NBA, but his 18.6 points per game leave him behind only Anthony (21.0), James (20.9) and Durant (20.3) in teenage scoring. He’s also eighth on the rebounding leaderboard, while only six teenagers check in ahead of him in assists per game.
But he isn’t just posting lofty per-game statistics. He isn’t just providing highlights. He isn’t just adding substantial value while the Mavericks pursue a playoff berth. He isn’t just shouldering immense responsibility within Carlisle’s schemes.
He’s doing everything, and he’s doing it all before his 20th birthday.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.