Gregg Popovich just couldn’t help himself.
After Luka Doncic returned from injury to lead the Dallas Mavericks to a commanding victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, Popovich compared him to a singular all-time great. Well, sort of. Popovich said of Doncic, per Sports Illustrated :
I hate to say this. He’s not Magic Johnson…but it’s Magic Johnson-like in the sense that he sees the floor in that same way. He’s got a real intuitive sense and you can’t teach that. He’s just got it and he’s great at it.
Doncic, the NBA’s breakout star, has been the recipient of similar adulation from opponents, analysts, and fans alike all season long.
A comparison to Johnson certainly makes sense, too. There are only so many players in history with Doncic’s court vision and passing flair, and a small minority among that group can match his size. Johnson is the forbearer of that exclusive club.
But he still isn’t the best comparison for Doncic.
There will never be another LeBron James. He may not be the best player of all time, but he’s undoubtedly the most groundbreaking. Until he came along, the very notion of a player combining Johnson’s playmaking prowess, Michael Jordan’s scoring production, and Vince Carter’s explosive athleticism was unfathomable.
James brought all those traits to the table during his prime and used his generational physical profile to leverage them into all-court dominance the game had never seen.
Doncic lacks the supernova athleticism that allowed James to thrive before the latter’s skill development caught up to his mind and body. But he regularly makes the jaw-dropping passes that only players with the size and genius of he, James, and Johnson can.
It’s no coincidence that James, even dating back to high school, has been most commonly compared to Johnson, too. But what separates Doncic and James from Johnson is their innate scoring gene the Los Angeles Lakers icon simply didn’t have.
Johnson never averaged more than 23.9 points and 16.9 shots per game in any season. James, meanwhile, is the NBA’s fourth all-time leader in points per game at 27.1. Doncic, still just 20 years old, is averaging 29.1 points per game this season.
Doncic is indeed cut from the mold Johnson created, but James’ scoring-based expansion of it more closely resembles his own.
Doncic is the only player in basketball capable of replicating James’ passing magic. Still, it’s remiss to suggest James is his only modern-day analogue. In terms of overall offensive effectiveness, a better comparison for Doncic might be James Harden.
The Houston Rockets’ franchise player launches 12.1 off-dribble threes per game, most in the league by a wide margin. Doncic ranks third in the NBA by attempting 7.2 pull-up triples per game, just short of Trae Young’s mark. But not even Young makes hay from three with the flair of Harden and Doncic.
Harden, the game’s preeminent step-back artist, has taken a whopping 252 step-back threes this season, hitting them at a 38.9 percent clip. Doncic is at 108 step-back tries from deep and 35.2 percent accuracy. No other player in the NBA has attempted more than 49 step-back triples this season.
The parallels between Harden and Doncic don’t end there. Both players base their shot profiles around the tenets of analytics, almost completely abandoning mid-range jumpers. Among the league’s top scorers, only Harden and Damian Lillard are assisted on fewer of their made baskets than Doncic.
Harden, like James, is truly without peer. But the league’s closest approximation to Harden is Doncic, further evidence he’s already on the road to basketball immortality.
And once it ends, the next generation will be drawing comparisons to Doncic – just like he is to Johnson and other future Hall-of-Famers.