Why we've never seen a player like Luka Doncic

NEW YORK — Quit searching for a comparison for Dallas Mavericks wunderkind Luka Doncic. 

At this stage of his career, you won’t find one. 

Because no NBA player has ever put up these type of numbers in his age-20 season

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Not LeBron James. 

Not Kevin Durant. 

Not even Michael Jordan, who debuted with the Chicago Bulls when he was 21 after spending three years at North Carolina. 

In the time it took for New York executives Steve Mills and Scott Perry to perhaps set up coach David Fizdale to take the fall, Doncic has kicked off his sophomore campaign by averaging 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and 9.1 assists over the first 11 games for the Mavericks (6-5). 

Plug those stats into basketball-reference.com’s database for all 20-year-old players in the sport’s history, and only Doncic’s name appears. 

LeBron James averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists in his age-20 season, finishing sixth in the MVP voting as the Cleveland Cavaliers nearly qualified for the playoffs, going 42-40 in 2004-05. 

Fifteen years later, Doncic is hoping to get the Mavericks over the hump and into the postseason — and he’s going to have a legit shot at winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award if he does. 

“I don’t think so,” Doncic (sixth in scoring, 15th in rebounding, second in assists) replied when asked about his MVP chances on Wednesday. “There’s a lot of great players, amazing players. I don’t care about that. It’s nice to hear. But I want to get in the playoffs. It would be so much fun to play in the playoffs.” 

On Thursday night, Doncic became just the second player to record a triple-double at Madison Square Garden before turning 21, joining Magic Johnson (18 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists per game at 20). He finished with 33 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, but the Mavericks lost to the Knicks 106-103 in teammate Kristaps Porzingis’ return to New York. 

“It means nothing,” Doncic said. “I played bad — especially on the defensive end. I’d rather have the victory.” 

The Knicks' Dennis Smith Jr., right, tries to defend Luka Doncic on Thursday night. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
The Knicks' Dennis Smith Jr., right, tries to defend Luka Doncic on Thursday night. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Doncic already has that rare blend of attitude, skill and seemingly limitless potential. In his first season, he won NBA Rookie of the Year. In his second season, he’s taken the next step, evolving into a franchise cornerstone. 

“It’s fun,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told Yahoo Sports of watching Doncic stuff the stat sheet. “We want to win more games because you don’t want them to be empty stats, but what the guy is doing at 20 years old is incredible. More importantly, he’s maturing so quickly. He’s recognizing the discipline and work required. He’s always working on his game and looking to get better. That’s the most exciting part.” 

The Mavericks were already fortunate to have German star Dirk Nowitzki, who spent all 21 of his seasons in Dallas. Nowitzki captured MVP honors in 2006-07, along with the franchise’s first and only championship in 2010-11. And Cuban said in not so many words he hopes to make Doncic the next Mav for life. 

“He’s a keeper,” Cuban told Yahoo Sports. 

Asked to compare Nowitzki and Doncic, Cuban replied: “They’re totally different. Dirk would never smile on the court. Dirk was so emotional. He had language barriers at the beginning that Luka doesn’t have, so he had different types of challenges. Luka just comes out like we’re playing pickup at the gym. He’s having fun. He’s loving it. Being 20 and having [veteran mentors] J.J. [Barea] and Courtney Lee around him, he’s evolving.

“Luka does stupid s--t like any 20 year old does, and that’s a good thing. He’s still a kid at heart, but he’s also a professional at the same time and he’s smart. You don’t realize how smart he is until you’re around him a lot.” 

Doncic is fluent in four different languages: English, Spanish, Slovenian and Serbian. He eases back and forth in three of them during his postgame interview on Thursday night, much the way he eases around opposing defenses before delivering his next highlight-reel pass or bucket. 

“His passing is incredible,” one NBA coach told Yahoo Sports. “You can’t keep giving him the same looks.” 

The Mavericks need Doncic at his best basically every night. Their supporting cast lacks firepower. Johnson went on to win a title and NBA Finals MVP in 1979-80 with the Los Angeles Lakers when he was 20, though he was fortunate to have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar by his side. Porzingis is far and away Doncic’s best castmate, but he’s still rounding into form after missing all of last season due to an ACL injury. Then there’s Tim Hardaway Jr. and a bunch of other guys looking to prove themselves in the league. 

“He’s a great player. One of the best players on the planet,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of Doncic. “I don’t know how many times you’re going to need me to say that.” 

According to Carlisle, Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson envisioned as much well before Dallas acquired Doncic in a 2018 NBA draft-night trade that sent Trae Young to Atlanta. 

“Donnie told me flat out he was going to be the best in that draft, and it wasn’t close,” Carlisle said. “That’s how he felt about it. We’re thrilled that we’ve had the chance to get him to Dallas and work with him. He’s worked hard. Each week he’s gotten better and better and better and going forward, I’m watching his workload closely, his minutes, those kinds of things. It’s important that we look out for him, too.” 

The Mavericks started by playing Doncic off the ball before moving him to point guard when they dealt Dennis Smith Jr. in the deal for Porzingis. 

Now, Carlisle gives Doncic free rein to run the offense to his liking. 

“He’s doing the majority of the play-calling,” Carlisle said. “He looks over from time to time, and I’ll give him something if he wants it. But we function best when our point guards do the play-calling and when we’re playing out of a more random mode. Keeping the game moving is a big part of what today’s game is about anyway. You want to keep guys like Luka moving in a play-making mode throughout the game.” 

Doncic has excelled in his playmaking role with the Mavericks. 

Maybe he’ll lead them to the playoffs. Maybe he’ll win MVP. 

Either way, he’s already in a league of his own.

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