It's incredibly rare for an NBA player to follow the 3-step career arc of 'Rookie Sensation, All-Star, and Superstar' in only his first three seasons, and yet Luka Doncic did just that.
In recent memory, who else comes to mind?
Only a handful – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O'Neal, and Michael Jordan. I may have missed a couple names due to my personal standards of what qualifies one to be a 'superstar' but you'll be surprised to know that even Kevin Durant didn't make the All-Star team until his 3rd season. Same goes for Giannis Antetokounmpo, who made the Eastern Conference starters in his 4th.
Luka's stardom has risen so high, so fast that it's comparable to how Michael Jordan took over the NBA in the mid-80's and how LeBron made his presence felt during his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their rise was meteoric. And this early, it isn't such a crazy idea anymore to think that Luka Doncic might just achieve GOAT status before the end of his career.
Similar to Jordan and LeBron in their younger years, Luka's game isn't perfect. There's still so much room to improve (which is scary). But Luka has already shown us qualities that make him a realistic contender for Greatest Basketball Player of All Time. Here are seven reasons why I think Luka Doncic has GOAT potential.
1. Killer Confidence and Clutch
If there's one quality that Luka has enough of, it's confidence. Luka averaged a 35-point double-double in last year's playoffs, plus the fact that it was against two fellow All-Stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The only stinger for Luka in that series was the same one as the year before – the lack of help. But in back-to-back series against a championship contender LA Clippers, Luka has shown that he shows up in the biggest moments and he doesn't shy away when facing big names.
The NBA's two GOAT contenders Jordan and LeBron also made their names in big playoff moments. Michael Jordan's 63 points against Larry Bird and the eventual NBA champion Celtics is an iconic moment. LeBron's scoring his team's final 25 points en route to a win against the Pistons will also never be forgotten.
And there's a good argument for Luka's game winner against the Clippers in the bubble for belonging to this category. What's the common theme for these three performances? Each player carried their team throughout the series, made clutch plays, and they all did it under the age of 23.
2. Produces at an All-Time Level
I have this habit during lunch time of looking at the box scores for the day's NBA games. And when I come across the box score for the Dallas Mavericks' game, the stat sheet for Luka Doncic is often unbelievable.
Like Jordan and LeBron, Luka has also averaged at least 20 points per game in each of his first three seasons. With the exception of Jordan (who in his 2nd year had a major injury), they all improved upon their rookie scoring average by more than 30 percent. And for the sake of comparison, let's just say Jordan's real follow-up season was season number three, in which case he would show us the same year-to-year improvement (from 28 PPG to 37!).
And these three NBA stars don't just produce in terms of points. For Luka and LeBron, they also ranked high in assists. For Jordan, it was in steals.
I've gotten used to Luka Doncic dropping 30-point triple doubles at this point that it's surprising if he falls short. Whenever that happens, it's usually because his teammates couldn't convert on their shots. Jordan, LeBron, and now Luka, have spoiled us with their consistent high-level production.
3. Basketball IQ: Off the Charts
There's a reason why they call Luka Doncic, 'Baby Bird.'
Larry Bird was one of, if not the smartest basketball player who played in his era. Basketball instincts, court vision, and ability to exploit the opponent's defense were only a few of Larry Bird's best assets.
We've seen these same assets from Luka Doncic, who has averaged 6.7 to 9.1 free-throw attempts in his first three seasons. The eye test quickly shows you that Luka's game is based on a lot of savvy, and not necessarily speed and athleticism. Not being elite in these two categories, Luka has leveraged his basketball IQ and skills unlike most NBA stars.
Becoming a smart basketball player is something you only develop through time and repetition, and it's crazy that early in his career, Luka already looks like one of the highest IQ basketball players in the world.
4. Elevates Teammates and the Team
NBA analysts, especially those who were formerly prominent NBA players, have a term for individual performances that don't necessarily translate to having a winning team. 'Empty calories' is what they call it when an NBA player fills up the stat sheet and yet is unable to carry the team to victory or to qualify for the playoffs.
This term is however not applicable to Luka Doncic, whose performance in the stat sheet has thus far translated to the Mavs winning and qualifying for the playoffs.
While Kristaps Porzingis has not yet been back to his former self, there's a lot of hope for him to finally become that fellow co-star whom Luka Doncic has always needed. The past two years for Kristaps were times he was riddled with injury, and with the NBA finally having a proper-length offseason, the Mavs fanbase is optimistic that he'll return to his old self.
As much as some people have been selling the idea that Luka and Kristaps just doesn't work on the court, we are still quite early in this process. Our hope is that this won't turn out to be like the situation with Embiid and Simmons.
5. Unlimited Offensive Arsenal
The step-back three isn't only patented by James Harden. Luka has laid valid claim to this lethal move that's a constant threat for a four-point play.
Aside from Luka's go-to move, he has a wide arsenal of floaters, pull-up jumpers, and post moves that have led to him being a top-five scorer in the NBA. The NBA postseason often exposes the lack of offensive variety for players who played well in the regular season. But such is not the case for Luka Doncic, who has averaged more points in the playoffs than the regular season for back-to-back years.
Luka's offensive ability doesn't just make use of a single, overpowering characteristic. There are times when he capitalizes on his ballhandling skills and footwork to make the craziest shots. There are also instances where his strength becomes pretty obvious, when he drags smaller guards to the basket ala LeBron James.
6. Strong Signs of Durability
Availability is often the best ability, and this really showed during this year's playoffs, where the healthy teams met up in the NBA Finals. Several favorites fell early, all because of injury to their superstars.
Luka is yet to show us he can play the full 82 games, and even on shortened seasons like the past two years have been, he still missed some games. But the good news is, he hasn't missed major time. And he shows up ready and healthy in the postseason.
While the eye test will show that Luka can show up in better shape (and his max contract over the summer will probably steer him towards that), even in relatively bad shape, the Luka Doncic that plays the games looks good and durable.
Both Jordan and LeBron showed in their careers that they were extremely durable players despite their play style and the heavy minutes that superstars played in their eras. Luka Doncic doesn't play above the rim like them and he hasn't played as much minutes, which might bode well for him in the long run.
7. Playing for a Supportive Franchise
Last, and definitely not least, Luka Doncic has a supportive Dallas Mavericks franchise on his back. This is something that's not in his control, as this was something LeBron struggled with early in his career. Thankfully, the Mavs are a big market team, and high-level talent often only comes to big markets.
We saw in the Last Dance documentary how the Chicago Bulls were also always making moves in the front office to add more talent to the roster. The Mavs have never been one to tank, as Mark Cuban has always tried to assemble a winning team every year. And it's difficult not to tank when you're a team in the middle of the pack. With the grace of the ping-pong balls, the Mavs landed a lottery pick that would ultimately get them Luka Doncic, a generational talent.
Imagine if Michael Jordan didn't have a front office behind him who constantly recruited key players. And imagine if LeBron had always stayed with the Cavaliers. Luka Doncic is with a franchise that never slacks, and they showed that when they gave him the max over the summer and having surrounded Luka with talented players like Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, and Trey Burke.