Luka Doncic has altered his game for the better

The Dallas Mavericks have struggled this season but Luka Doncic is continually improving and refining his game with versatility and focus.

For a bevy of reasons — injuries, health and safety protocols, poor roster construction, underwhelming personnel — the Dallas Mavericks have not been good this season. At 13-15, they’re 10th in the West, 2.5 games ahead of 14th and 5.5 games back of fourth, well behind pace of hosting a playoff series like many deemed possible entering the year.

That letdown, however, is not, by any means an indictment of Luka Doncic, who is piecing together another All-NBA-caliber season to further solidify his standing among the league’s top-eight superstars. Perhaps the MVP coronation was premature, yet Doncic, once again, looks the part of someone on track to retire as a historically great player.

Most importantly, he’s diversifying his offensive game for the better and taking strides defensively, underlining there remains room for improvement, regardless of how polished his game has looked from the outset.

The 21-year-old has significantly tweaked his shot profile to showcase a practical intermediate game, while tapping into a savvy post-up arsenal. Both of these additions expand his scoring and creation avenues as an initiator.

Shots at the rim and 3s will always be optimal, but those shots are not always available. Defenses can play to prevent them and not every attempt holds the same success rate. Just because someone shoots 65 percent at the rim and 35 percent from deep, for example, does not mean the expected value of any attempt in those regions is 1.30 or 1.05 points per possession.

What’s changed for Luka Doncic this season?

In understanding the benefits of a varied distribution, Doncic has drifted away from his relatively binary approach of last year. Whereas 73.3 percent of his shots came in the restricted area or beyond the arc last season, that number is now down to 59.4 percent. Over 14 percent of his shots are in the mid-range, an exponential spike from 4.5 percent in 2019-20. In fact, he’s logged 80 mid-range shots in 27 games, already exceeding the 57 attempts he had in 61 games last year.

His .340 3-point rate is the lowest of his career, a considerable decline from .432 over the first two seasons. Finding the specific threshold to still pressure defenses as a shooter without tossing up too many ill-advised triples is a delicate line to throttle, but his newfound mid-range proclivity has not altered the respect he garners behind the arc.

He’s not necessarily seeking out mid-range looks in the way someone like Chris Paul or Kevin Durant does. Instead, he’s capitalizing on them when available, aware how worthwhile open shots are for a scorer of his ilk, or intermittently leveraging his size, footwork and touch for buckets without relying on them too often.

If defenders blitz him on the perimeter and a rim protector awaits him inside, he’ll saunter into a pull-up. If he drives and locks his man onto the hip, with a big preparing for his arrival, he’s comfortable kissing a jumper off glass to avoid an attempt over a double-team at the cup.

With a high release point and often a substantial size advantage over defenders, Doncic is capable of getting to his spots for good looks whenever he pleases. The best looks are usually 3s or rim attempts, but not always. He’s applying his skills and physical tools to seize ideal opportunities all over the floor.

His touch is exquisite and pristine. He embraces the art of the bank. His footwork is among the NBA’s best and helps him generate separation off the bounce. His wealth of shot-making moves inside the arc is extensive. Anything ~20 feet and in is his calling card. He’s converting 47.5 from mid-range, the 22nd-highest clip among 81 players with at least 40 attempts this season.

Again, Doncic is not suddenly some mid-range maven. Triples and rim forays are the main courses of his diet, though he’s far more adept this season sprinkling in something new when his preferred options are neutralized. Mid-range has become a viable alternative for him, no longer avoided to the point of stalling possessions or bypassing too many shots derived from his 3-point and rim gravity.

He’s not solely hoisting mid-range jumpers via pick-and-rolls or isolation off the bounce. Some of these occur with his back to the basket, where Doncic is weaponizing many of the same traits in his multifaceted shot profile. His post-up frequency is a career-high 6.4 percent — 6.1 percent including passes, also a career-high — and he ranks in the 73rd percentile. A season ago, those marks were 3.4 and 2.8 percent, while they were at 5.1 and 4.8 percent during his rookie campaign.

This year’s frequencies don’t represent a dramatic increase from 2018-19, but it’s more salient to gauge the differences between 2019-20 and 2020-21. During that span, Doncic has become a bona fide All-NBA ball-handler rather than a rising rookie star whose touches were sometimes deferred in favor of Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes. The offense is his to dictate in a way that it wasn’t two seasons ago.

An assortment of moves are holstered on his tool-belt, including a feathery turnaround fadeaway — even if he bails guys out a bit too much using it. His footwork and guile dupe defenders to manufacture space. The range of motion with his pivoting is elite. He tilts opponents off-kilter with footwork, strength or ball/body fakes before pouncing.

In three seasons, he’s graded out in the 72nd percentile or better on post-ups in a limited sample (nearly 200 total possessions). There is clear utility on the low block for him, given his size, interior touch, manipulation and dexterity. All of those assets empower him to reach desired spots on the floor and shine as a scorer.

Tapping into this wrinkle enough to spur double-teams could unlock his passing, though overindulging and reducing his ball-screen volume is probably getting too cute. Yet the most pertinent angle remains Doncic embedding greater diversity in his offensive philosophy. If a team employs stout pick-and-roll or isolation coverage, he can lean on this part of his offense to yield value.

These stylistic deviations have not (yet) resulted in an offensive improvement among impact metrics or scoring efficiency. His Offensive Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) is plus-5.4, down from 5.8 last season. His 58.6 percent true shooting is 1.5 points above the NBA average, down from 2.0 points last season.

As his career progresses and he leads teams deep into the postseason, these novel avenues to creation shall prove fruitful. They’re secondary pitches in the arsenal. Title-caliber offensive engines are typically versatile. That’s what Doncic is emerging as this season, emphasizing his destination to alpha star on a championship winner in the future.

Offensive modifications are not the only differentiators between 2019-20 Doncic and 2020-21 Doncic. He is a better defender this season. His motor flips to engaged more commonly. He’s stymieing drives with his frame and strength. His activity as a playmaker, whether it’s rotations or quick hands, has ratcheted up.

Although his 1.4 percent steal rate is marginally lower than his 1.5 percent career clip, his block rate of 1.8 percent is more than double his first two seasons (0.8 percent). He is not a help-side rim protector. Instead, most of his “blocks” are a product of pinball-flipper reaction times, swiping the ball free before his man can gather for the shot. On a few blocks, his motor has shined, while his steals are wide-ranging in nature, manifesting in the passing lanes and through on-ball blockades.

Doncic carries flaws. His closeouts are erratic. A lack of lateral foot speed leaves him susceptible to dribble penetration. He still tunes out of plays too regularly. But his motor has genuinely revved up to a degree it did not consistently before, and that’s fueling this growth.

His Defensive EPM is a career-best minus-0.1 and ranks in the 51st percentile — glowing improvements in contrast to 2019-20 (minus-1.5, 13th percentile) and 2018-19 (minus-0.9, 30th percentile). Any connotation of him as a conspicuous negative is outdated. He’s turned a corner.

Similar to most young players, Luka Doncic is not a carbon-copy of his first couple of seasons. Adjustments to his shot profile and scoring approach, along with a leap in defensive engagement, make him a different player.

The challenge is shifting preconceived notions after a superstar ascension surfaced. These revamps have not thrust him into the MVP spotlight as so many expected. Doncic is not quite there, but his embrace of refinements is critical. It will be prominently displayed whenever he climbs another step in his development, whether it’s an MVP trophy, historic playoff run or whatever the “next step” qualifies as.

Just don’t be surprised if it features a post-up, quick-witted swipe for a steal or mid-range off the window at a vital inroad. Because they’re all components of Luka Doncic’s third-year ethos, facilitating an evolution for the long haul.

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