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The Five Plays That Explain the Luka Doncic Phenomenon

The Mavericks rookie has torn up the NBA, but you can’t fully appreciate him by simply looking at box scores. Doncic shines when you put him under the microscope of the eye test.

Luka Doncic dribbles the ball Getty Image/Ringer illustration

Mansions have been purchased with “eye test” money. Players like Al Horford and Taj Gibson make a living off the eye test, Shane Battier used to, and Derek Fisher did before him—these are glue guys whose play transcends their stats. The eye test is administered to superstars, as well; it’s used to defend Russell Westbrook—sure, the stat sheet says he’s missing four-fifths of his 3s, but he hits the clutch ones—as often as it’s used to crucify him: OK, so he’s averaging a triple-double. But have you seen his stat-padding?

The eye test can get a relatively unexciting player (again, like Horford) voted into the All-Star Game (mind you, only in the Eastern Conference). It’s often used as justification for holding out hope for unproven young players. Ask a Knicks fan why they believe in Frank Ntilikina even though he’s averaging fewer than seven points per game. Or, better yet, make a New Yorker fall in love in just five words by repeating after me: He passes the eye test. That simple phrase can bring any argument over a player’s worth to a stalemate, whether it’s pre-draft Lauri Markkanen or 2018 Will Barton. There’s no countering a gut feeling with logic; telling someone a player passes the eye test is the adult version of yelling “TIMES INFINITY” to close a debate. Take your pride and your win shares and don’t let individual defensive rating kick you on the way out.

Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic is the latest player to earn a passing grade on the eye test. That’s not to say his stats are lacking. Twenty-four games into Doncic’s NBA career, he’s averaging 17.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.1 steals while shooting 37.1 percent from 3. In fact, his 17.8 points are more than the past six Rookie of the Year winners were averaging in their initial 25-game stretch. (Damian Lillard in 2012 averaged 18.8 through 25 games.) But the phenomenon of Doncic isn’t about his stats. It’s about the eye test.

At 19, Doncic moves like a star and thinks like a veteran. Here are five plays that show why Doncic is a Slovenian phenomenon, the subject of a megahit rendition, the future of the Mavericks, and worth the hype:

Stepback 3 Against Portland

Doncic is, as the song goes, white and thicc. His 218-pound frame means he can’t blow past defenders with sonic speed. He doesn’t zoom, there isn’t another hidden gear, and I’d bet the future of everything I love on Mavs teammate Dennis Smith Jr. taking Doncic in suicides 10 out of 10 times. Doncic isn’t slow, but he’s not hyperathletic. And he doesn’t need to be.

Before Dallas, Doncic spent three years playing professionally in the EuroLeague. He already has a feel for how to use his body to his benefit, a sixth sense that rookies often have to grow into after transitioning to professional ball. Doncic can change directions with his body against a defender like a car manned by an inexperienced stick-shift driver. He’ll hesitate, jerk his head, and jab with conviction. Before a screen taking him left, Doncic will convulse right, shaking his man off with ease and sending him back a couple of feet. Which brings us to this play against the Blazers:

The highlight reel of Doncic stepbacks is already long and full of secondhand embarrassment, but this possession is still my favorite because of its timing: With a minute left in the fourth, Doncic aced that night’s clutch section of the eye test.

There are five seconds left on the shot clock when Doncic catches Smith’s drive-and-dish. Evan Turner rushes back to the arc to contest; because of the space he’d given Doncic and the time remaining, a catch-and-shoot would’ve been understandable. Instead, Doncic takes Turner left, rocks forward to plant the fake with his right foot, and steps back to the perimeter.

The shot left Doncic’s hands with 3.5 seconds left on the shot clock and closed out Portland in the same swift motion it did Turner.

Inside Pass Against Chicago

Part of what gives Doncic a veteran air is his poise as a distributor. His patience in the clip below created an opportunity that otherwise could’ve ended in a forced shot. Doncic is on the ground at the baseline, having just dribbled into what appears to be a closeout, with three Bulls in prime position to move over to trap.

Doncic pumps the rock to the left of his closest defender, Justin Holiday, faking out both him and his second line of defense, Robin Lopez. As they bite on the fake, Doncic steps right, leaps, and tosses the ball underneath the rim to DeAndre Jordan. Lopez, Jordan’s man, is still turned around from Doncic’s initial move.

Doncic has shown he can make such reads from across the court, but there’s just something about duping a veteran less than a foot away from him that’s extra special.

Floater Finish Against Golden State

Doncic is already a master of the floater. He can clearly stop on a dime (or, let’s be respectful here, €0.10) to make space and is a talented cutter, but Doncic shouldn’t try to outpower or outjump planted opposing centers unless necessary. After changing direction on Jonas Jerebko below, he releases the floater before hitting the restricted area and Kevin Durant.

Dime Against Brooklyn

Doncic loves to find his teammates while mid-jump. Here he curls around Jordan’s screen above the break, pauses for an instant, and leaps upward after spotting Maxi Kleber in the corner. Doncic is midair by Kleber’s second step toward the basket, and, after flying over three Nets defenders, the lob connects.

These two-handers seem like they could so easily be disasters in the moment, Doncic a foot in the air with no choice but to pass. Especially since his passes tend to be drifters rather than darts, good touch and accuracy are crucial. But in slow-mo (and sometimes only in slow-mo), you can see exactly what Doncic saw. Doncic can wander about in the half court like a heavier Steph Curry—weaving, twitching, lurching with the dribble—almost like he’s making it up as he goes along. Then he pulls up, the pass lands, and you realize what he was building up to all along.

Closing Against Houston

OK, so I’m cheating a bit here. This isn’t one play, but a stretch of them. Doncic went 11-0 in two minutes late in the fourth quarter after a 3-for-13 start against the Rockets last Saturday. He single-handedly won the game 107-104, and was given every clutch moniker possible after getting worked on defense and scoring only 10 points beforehand. The routine of it all—another stepback, another juke, another 3—was the ultimate passing of the eye test. He looked so comfortable winning, even with only 12 NBA victories to his name.

Doncic, times infinity.

Stats current through Monday’s games.