Luka Doncic can’t really jump. Even after a summer spent honing his body, he remains noticeably fleshy. He doesn’t have especially long arms and doesn’t regularly knock defenders off balance with natural strength.
The Dallas Mavericks superstar, by most every objective measure, possesses an average physical profile at best. But through the first two months of the regular season, he’s functioned much more like a true physical freak than a mediocre NBA athlete.
And just as much as his ridiculous step-back jumper, genius passing instincts, and dynamic ball-handling fair, it’s what’s propelled Doncic to the front of the MVP race.
Doncic dropped another 40-point triple-double during his team’s blowout win over the Detroit Pistons on Thursday, becoming the only player in league history younger than 21 with multiple such performances.
He shot 14-of-24 from the field, 6-of-13 from beyond the arc, and 7-of-12 from the free throw line, varied effectiveness from all over the floor that pushed his efficiency even higher.
But most impressive about Doncic’s play against Detroit was his finishing at the rim. He went a perfect 8-of-8 in the restricted area on Thursday, weaving his way between defenders for easy scores again and again and again. The Pistons aren’t a great rim-protecting team, or even a solid one. They rank below league average in both opponents’ frequency and accuracy at the rim this season.
Doncic, though, has enjoyed a similar degree of effectiveness there since 2019-20 tipped off. He’s shooting a remarkable 74.6 percent in the restricted area, third in the NBA among high-usage players.
Long, high-flying big men like Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, and Rudy Gobert all lag behind Doncic. LeBron James, broadly considered the best perimeter-based finisher of all time, is shooting an awesome 66.7 percent at the basket. The only players better from the restricted area than Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jarrett Allen, have combined for a whopping 159 dunks this season – 152 more than Doncic.
That rare level of accuracy from a ball handler who doesn’t play above the rim would normally serve as a surefire outlier of small sample size. There’s definitely a chance Doncic regresses. He shot 62 percent in the restricted area as a rookie, and just in general, it almost seems impossible he’ll continue playing so well over the season’s remainder.
But there’s also ample reason to believe Doncic’s newfound dominance in the paint is real.
He’s been blowing by defenders with frightening ease all season long, using a dose of extra burst and defenses’ imminent fear of his pull-up three to get wherever he wants on the floor. Dallas never plays more than one non-shooter at a time, either, keeping the floor perfectly spaced to make it more difficult for help defenders to close off driving lanes.
Neither of those realities will change anytime soon, and it’s not like the additional touch and nuance Doncic added over the offseason will, either. He’s shooting an 49.5 percent from floater range, too, top-five in the league among non-bigs.
At 6-foot-8 with broad shoulders, he’s plenty big to finish through and over the top of most primary defenders and has routinely proven he doesn’t need to. Up fakes, step-throughs, push shots, one-handed scoops, and more easily compensate for his lack of athletic oomph.
The strides Doncic has taken this season are layered. There isn’t one development that’s the driving force behind his meteoric rise to legitimate MVP contention. But his historic proficiency at the rim and in the paint at large has gone most overlooked and is at least the main reason why his overall efficiency has reached an elite threshold.