There’s a magical element to Luka Doncic’s game that makes him special, and though it does surface when the young Slovenian is looking to score, the area in which that showmanship presents itself most boisterously is when the swingman starts distributing the basketball.
Night after night last year in both the Liga ACB and Euroleague, Doncic amazed spectators with his wizardry as a passer. In transition, those dimes were often of the no-look, alley-oop or behind-the-back variety.
But it’s Doncic’s passing in halfcourt settings that we’re here to talk about.
Because even as an 18-year-old suiting up against grown men, and even despite the reduced spacing in Europe due to the slightly shortened three-point arc, Doncic’s passing in the halfcourt was, more often than not, otherworldly – especially out of the pick-and-roll. The ball-handling maestro has an almost alien sense of how long to wait on any given play before hitting his roll men with pinpoint passes that lead to simple, uncontested finishes near the rim.
Of course, running the pick-and-roll is a two-man game, meaning Doncic – obviously – didn’t do it all on his own. And by European basketball standards, the newest Dallas Maverick did have excellent big men to aid him in his bucket-creating endeavors. Former Atlanta Hawks draft pick and most recently Cleveland Cavalier Walter Tavares, for example, often played the role of screen-setter for Doncic. Likewise one-time New Orleans Hornet Gustavo Ayon. Spanish basketball legend Felipe Reyes also deserves credit for helping create space for Doncic.
So, the question is: If Doncic was able to be so dynamic running the pick-and-roll with that group of talented-but-athletically-limited big men, how much better can he get running it with NBA-level bigs?
With the preseason wrapped up, we’re already starting to see glimpses of an answer.
For starters, Doncic’s scoring out of the pick-and-roll has translated well thus far. In the preseason, the first-year guard averaged 15.0 points, shooting a healthy 47.5 percent from the floor and 43.5 percent from three. Driving off screens, specifically, Doncic has already displayed impressive three-level scoring – successfully converting from deep, from the mid-range and near the basket, as can be seen below:
However, solid as his scoring was, it’s his passing we’re here to discuss. And although he had some trouble limiting turnovers in the preseason (14 assists to 13 turnovers over four contests), Doncic also showed that same flair for creative distribution that made him such an exciting prospect while overseas.
During the preseason, Doncic shared the court mostly with Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri as his bigs, while getting limited time with veteran center and Dallas’ most recent free-agent acquisition, DeAndre Jordan. That’s because Jordan only saw the floor for 49 minutes of action over two outings prior to the regular season. Still, in just that brief span of time, Doncic and Jordan were able to give exciting flashes of what they’re going to accomplish together in the 2018-19 campaign.
Jordan, a three-time All-NBA member, has been able to reach the heights he has to this point in his career thanks to his brutal effectiveness as a roll man. Obviously, running the all-important modern play-type next to a generational lead guard in Chris Paul gave Jordan a boost. But don’t get it twisted: The former Los Angeles Clipper center was an absolute beast in his role.
In his final season playing with Paul, Jordan ranked in the 99th percentile as a roll man, scoring an absurd 1.52 points per possession (PPP) on such looks. The next closest player in that regard that season, Rudy Gobert, produced just 1.38 PPP on those opportunities. Without Paul around last year, Jordan’s scoring as a roll man dropped a rather considerable amount, to 1.25 PPP, which put him in the 83rd percentile – still great but no longer the unbelievable mark of the year prior.
Well, with Doncic around, we expect Jordan to look more like his 2016-17 self than the 2017-18 version.
Now, that’s not to make an unfair comparison between Paul and Doncic. The latter obviously has quite a ways to go before he can be compared to the future Hall-of-Fame point guard, and there’s a good chance he’ll never come close to accomplishing all that Paul has in his career.
Even so, heading into his rookie season, Doncic’s passing out of the pick-and-roll should help Jordan regain some of that 2016-17 magic, when he was, by far, the best roll man in the league.
As mentioned earlier, we’re already starting to see what could eventually become a special connection between the duo begin to form:
When a 6-foot-8 ball-handler with supreme passing vision, who can see over most of the guys who will be defending him, is feeding dishes to a 6-foot-11 behemoth with soft hands, who can soar over foes in the paint, one question becomes abundantly prominent: How are opposing teams supposed to stop that?
Put simply: It won’t be easy.
Attempt to trap Doncic with both defenders and he’ll use his height and length to go over the top of the defense to feed either a rim-diving Jordan or a wide-open teammate spotting up for three. Try to hedge and he’ll get a step on you and finish in the paint with ease. Go under the pick and he’ll bomb away from deep.
So yeah, with an all-pro talent like Jordan helping free him with bone-rattling picks, Doncic’s outrageous playmaking abilities will get every chance to shine. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Slovenian floor general run away with Rookie of the Year because of the duo’s synergy.
They won’t be Shaq-and-Kobe 2.0, but Doncic and Jordan are set to create beautiful pick-and-roll music together in 2018-19, and that tandem’s growth will decide whether the Mavericks can make an unexpected push for the playoffs this season.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.