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Luka Doncic Is Already a Killer in Crunch Time

Not impressed yet with the Mavericks phenom’s rookie season? Try this: Doncic is having one of the best clutch-shooting seasons in recorded history.

Elias Stein/Getty Images

With his Mavericks tied with the Warriors in Dallas on Sunday and 1:05 remaining, Luka Doncic sized up Draymond Green from the top of the key. The former Defensive Player of the Year had just switched onto the rookie after a DeAndre Jordan screen, and Luka bided his time before springing an attack. He dribbled once, then twice, then a third time toward Green, crossed from right to left, and hopped back into his now-trademark 3-point form. The go-ahead shot arced toward the hoop—and hula’d around the rim before spinning out.

On the Warriors’ ensuing possession, Steph Curry attempted a nearly identical procession of moves. His shot found the bottom of the net; the Warriors clinched the comeback win 42 seconds later. It could have been an easy symbol of the difference between the champions and the wannabes, the two-time MVP and a mere rookie who thought he could play the hero.

But Luka’s rimmed-out attempt was more surprise than symbol of inexperience, after he spent the first half of his first season collecting late-game heroics—including single-handedly outscoring Minnesota in the final 90 seconds last Friday. Luka is not only the best rookie from the 2018 draft class, and perhaps the best in years, but he is already a dominant force in crunch time. Doncic leads all players this season with 16 shots to tie or take the lead in the final five minutes, and in overall clutch situations (defined by as in the last five minutes with a five-point margin or less) he’s shooting 24-for-46, including 8-for-21 on 3s. That’s good for a 60.9 percent effective field goal percentage—which gives proper weight to 3-pointers—and places him in historic territory.

If the season ended today, Doncic would hold the seventh-best clutch shooting line in a single season dating back to 1996-97 (among players with at least a 30 percent usage rate in clutch situations and as many shots as Luka), which is as far back as the split goes on

Clutch Shooting Since 1996-97

Player Year eFG%
Player Year eFG%
Kevin Durant 2017-18 66.7
LeBron James 2016-17 64.4
Carmelo Anthony 2008-09 64.1
Steve Nash 2007-08 61.9
LeBron James 2017-18 61.2
LeBron James 2008-09 61.1
Luka Doncic 2018-19 60.9

That’s impressive company—one possible GOAT, two MVPs, and a future Hall of Famer alongside the 19-year-old Slovenian. And it’s even more impressive considering that clutch shooting would have seemed a particular challenge for Doncic, whose lack of obvious, off-the-charts athleticism led some scouts to question his ability to score against engaged NBA defenders. Well, there’s no more engaged NBA defender than an NBA defender with a game on the line, and Doncic is scoring against them better than almost any other player in recorded history.

Even if Luka scored as efficiently in clutch situations as he did in non-clutch situations, that would be a remarkable achievement. Clutch shooting is hard. Every season, the league overall shoots about 4 percentage points worse (by eFG) on clutch tries, compared to non-clutch attempts. In five of the past six seasons, in fact, the whole league’s collective clutch performance was worse than the worst single team’s performance in non-clutch situations.

Yet Luka has shot better in the clutch than at any other time. The varied tricks he’s used to score 20 points per game have granted him a special knack for toppling late-game defensive structures. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he can scoot both ways around a screen, and his stepback—or the threat thereof—allows him to absolutely feast when faced with a center after a switch.

If defenses respond by overplaying his shot, he can drive, and while he doesn’t always reach the rim on these forays—that’s a charitable assessment; he usually doesn’t reach the rim on these forays—he compensates with soft touch from the midrange and closer, and he scores effectively from awkward angles. His tempo can tilt a touch arrhythmic when he needs to nudge a defender off balance; he takes an extra beat in the air before lofting a floater, or else releases a half-step early while rising off the wrong foot.

He even has the miracle shot in deep reserve if needed, which might not be a sustainable skill but is a joy to watch regardless.

And he’s accomplishing all that with almost no help from his teammates. The table from up above—the one with Durant, LeBron, Melo, and Nash—includes only players with at least a 30 percent usage rate in clutch situations because efficiency and volume often diverge. That’s especially true at the end of games, when defenses can prepare for specific sets and key on stopping a team’s go-to scorer. Opponents know, already, that Luka, who rocks a 35.8 clutch usage rate compared to a 27.2 overall usage rate, is Rick Carlisle’s man in must-score possessions. He has to be; the Mavs have no other options.

Dennis Smith Jr. is 6-for-15 this season, including 1-for-7 on 3s, in the clutch. Wesley Matthews is 4-for-14 (all 3s). Harrison Barnes is 12-for-32, including 3-for-14 on 3s, and the former Warrior enacted a bit of symbolic tomfoolery against Golden State on Sunday: With less than 10 seconds left and the Mavs down three, the Warriors played prevent defense on Doncic—and Barnes dribbled off his foot and lost the ball out of bounds.

That sequence provided a fittingly summative note to Dallas’s late-game dependence on its star rookie. So does this stat: Luka is 8-for-21 on 3s in clutch situations. The rest of the Mavericks combined have shot 9-for-42 in that split.

That the ball is typically in Luka’s hands at the end of games actually might deprive him of some easy looks. A whopping 87.5 percent of Doncic’s clutch makes have been unassisted, placing him in the Harden range near the very top of the league. (In all situations, for comparison, only 66.1 percent of Doncic’s makes are unassisted.) Luka commands the ball so easily at the end of games that he’s tallied eight assists in the clutch, while no other Maverick boasts more than three.

His teammates might do a bit better to create open shots for him, as opposed to asking him to create all by himself. As skilled as Doncic is in one-on-one matchups, and as unblockable as his stepback is, it’s not as if he only makes shots after dribbling a bunch: He’s shooting 37.6 percent on pull-up 3-pointers and 37.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s this season.

But even if Dallas can squeeze out a few more easier looks for Luka at the end of games with more creative sets, there’s a lot more room to decline than to improve. Unfortunately for Doncic and Dallas, clutch performance is terribly fluky and therefore not too predictive of future clutch performance. That’s not true of all players—LeBron consistently ranks at or near the top of clutch shooting leaderboards, while John Wall, for instance, routinely does the reverse—but the vast majority evince no obvious pattern. Looking at all players who have attempted at least 40 clutch shots in consecutive seasons, the correlation between eFG in clutch situations from one season to the next is very small (only about 0.18, on a scale from 0 to 1). The relationship between a player’s clutch eFG in one specific season and his clutch eFG over a full career isn’t much more robust, either.

Upon close scrutiny, Luka’s record to date does bear out some evidence of flukiness. His clutch numbers comprise such a small sample—if he had missed just two more 3s in clutch time this season, his eFG would be 54 percent instead of 61. Still special, still outrageously good for a rookie, but not quite in the same conversation as Peak LeBron, either.

So of course, Doncic’s clutch numbers are likely to regress as the season—and, perhaps, his career—continues. More misses like the one Sunday against Golden State will come. But Luka has also exhibited enough late-game prowess even in a small sample that more heroics are bound to follow. He’s already one of the most dynamic players in other facets of the sport, after all; why should the end of games be any different?