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The One Thing Missing From Luka’s Can’t-Miss Game

For the third straight season, Doncic’s 3-point shot is off the mark. Will being one of the league’s worst volume shooters from long range keep him out of the MVP discussion and the Mavs out of the title race?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Luka Doncic is the most accomplished young player in NBA history. He’s the only player ever to be named first team All-NBA by age 20; he entered this, his age-21 campaign, as the MVP favorite; he’s projected as the league’s most valuable player, regardless of age, over the next half-decade.

But that prospective MVP campaign is not yet materializing, mainly because, after Doncic showed up to training camp out of shape, he is in a shooting slump. Through six games this season, Doncic is shooting just 19.5 percent (8-for-41) from 3—93rd among 94 players with at least 30 attempts.

Such a small sample is no reason for alarm. But there is ample evidence to suggest that Doncic’s struggles from beyond the arc are not a blip but a trend. Among 160 active players with at least 1,000 career 3-point attempts, Doncic ranks 153rd in accuracy.

Or, put in another context: Since the start of last season, Luka’s shooting 30.8 percent from distance. Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose 3-point struggles have spawned bushels of takes, is at 29.9 percent over the same timeframe.

If these shooting struggles sustain any longer, they may well stall Luka’s ascendance. Consider his figures when compared to those of other high-volume creators like James Harden and Damian Lillard, his peers at the league’s highest level. This graph includes one dot for every player who’s taken at least six 3s per game (and at least 100 3s total) since Doncic was drafted. He’s the least accurate by 2 full percentage points.

So Luka is taking a lot of 3s, and he’s not making that many of them. But the issue is more nuanced than it seems—a byproduct of Doncic’s role in Dallas’s offense is that he often takes incredibly difficult 3-pointers.

The league as a whole shot 35.8 percent from distance last season, but not all 3-point attempts are created equal. Wide-open 3s (defined by NBA.com/Stats as shots with the closest defender more than 6 feet away) are easier than more closely guarded attempts. Catch-and-shoot 3s are easier than pull-up attempts. And 3s from the short corners are easier than above-the-break attempts.

Yet out of 189 players who attempted at least 150 3-pointers last season, Doncic ranked:

  • 186th in the proportion of his 3-point attempts that were wide open;
  • 188th in the proportion that were catch-and-shoot attempts;
  • 189th, absolute last, in the proportion that came from the corners.

In other words, Luka rarely had the opportunity for an easy 3, which explains a bit of his accuracy lag.

Using these three factors, we can calculate an expected 3-point percentage for every player based on his shots’ difficulty. (Second Spectrum calculates a stat called “quantified shot quality” that does something similar with more information, but because that metric is private, this simpler model with publicly available data will have to do.) This chart shows the five players with the easiest 3-point looks last season, and the five with the hardest. Doncic is a fraction of a point away from the bottom. (A full list is available here; only players with at least 150 attempts are included.)

Highest and Lowest Expected 3-Point Percentages, 2019-20

Player Team Expected 3P% Actual 3P%
Player Team Expected 3P% Actual 3P%
P.J. Tucker Rockets 37.5% 35.8%
Maxi Kleber Mavericks 37.1% 37.3%
Dorian Finney-Smith Mavericks 37.1% 37.6%
Royce O'Neale Jazz 37.0% 37.7%
Patrick Patterson Clippers 36.9% 39.0%
... ... ... ...
D'Angelo Russell Warriors/Timberwolves 34.6% 36.7%
Kemba Walker Celtics 34.5% 35.6%
Luka Doncic Mavericks 34.4% 31.6%
Damian Lillard Trail Blazers 34.4% 40.1%
James Harden Rockets 34.0% 35.5%
Minimum 150 attempts

Another issue for Doncic is how many of his shots came late in the shot clock. This is the burden of a star, who must, a few times every game, create something out of nothing and force a jumper against a set defense. Shooting percentages plummet in the last four seconds of the shot clock, per NBA.com: On 3-pointers in that span last season, the leaguewide figure was a Barkley-esque 26 percent.

Luka’s number in that split was even worse—unimaginably terrible. He made just four of 58 3s in the final seconds of the shot clock, the worst single-season mark on record for any player with a decent number of attempts. (On the other end, Duncan Robinson made 55 percent of his late-clock 3s. Outrageous.)

By any measure, then, Doncic’s distribution of 3-pointers is among the most challenging for any player, and that pattern has persisted this season, amid his slump: He has yet to take a single corner 3 this season, and just six of his attempts are catch-and-shoot tries. He still shouldn’t be launching more bricks than makes, but it’s not hard to understand why he’s struggling to find a rhythm.

Compare Doncic’s 2019-20 3-point shot chart …

3PA for Luka Doncic during the 2019-20 regular season
NBA.com/Stats

… to Steph Curry’s 2018-19 chart, and look at how much more space Steph covers, with all those corner tries—both stretching the defense in different ways and giving him easier looks than if he took all his shots above the break. (That season, Curry hit 42.9 percent of his above-the-break 3s and a ridiculous 50.4 percent from the corners.)

3PA for Steph Curry during the 2018-19 regular season
NBA.com/Stats

Of course, the Warriors and Mavericks run very different offenses: Curry enjoys more off-ball activity than most point guards, while Doncic regularly handles the ball himself. Luka ranked second in the league in average time of possession last season, and he’s first in the early going this season, too. The only other Maverick in the top 100 is Jalen Brunson, and he and Doncic have shared the court for all of 15 minutes.

Here is as good a place as any to note that the Mavericks’ offensive system works! Dallas set a league record in offensive efficiency last season, and Doncic averaged 29 points and nine assists per game. Notice that while Doncic is near the bottom of the expected 3-point percentage chart, his teammates rank no. 2 and no. 3—meaning he’s creating easy looks for others, while sacrificing his own efficiency. Despite Doncic’s struggles, the Mavericks still ranked 10th in 3-point percentage as a team last season, while placing second in made 3s per game.

Doncic has so many other skills that his subpar long-range shooting doesn’t hamper his overall stat line. Shots at the line and at the rim are the most efficient looks available, even more than 3-pointers, and Doncic excels in both areas. He averaged 9.2 free throw attempts per game last season, fourth in the league. He shot 73 percent in the restricted area, the best mark for any guard with a decent volume and one of the best in the whole league. (For context, Giannis, Rudy Gobert, and Anthony Davis were all at 74 percent.) He’s one of the league’s most efficient scorers in both isolations and pick-and-rolls. And that’s to say nothing of his passing.

Even in a slump, he could still win MVP based on all those other abilities; Giannis himself is a testament to the idea that, even in the modern NBA, a player can win the award (twice!) with a rickety jumper.

Unlike Giannis, moreover, defenses at least respect Doncic’s shot—there’s a reason so few of his 3s were wide open—and that shot-making gravity is almost as important as the actual shot-making itself. If Luka can generate open looks for his teammates and still find ways to score nearly 30 points a game by himself, all while sitting around 30 percent from distance, all the better for Dallas.

But if he’s playing at a near-MVP level with an erratic jumper, imagine how his overall game might level up if he reaches even a league-average percentage. Harden’s 3-point attempts are just as tough—last season, he had the lowest wide-open proportion and the lowest catch-and-shoot proportion of any volume shooter—and he’s still 5 percentage points or so ahead of Doncic in accuracy. Lillard is one of the best 3-point shooters in the league despite his difficult diet. Luka, conversely, underperforms even his low “expected” 3-point percentage.

With Doncic slumping, Seth Curry traded, and Kristaps Porzingis injured, the Mavericks as a team have fallen to 17th in offensive efficiency and 28th in 3-point percentage this season. Even if those figures bounce back to last regular season’s blitzing pace, the playoffs could apply increased pressure to this wound. Might defenses intently game-planning against Doncic’s strengths and weaknesses limit his output by shading him into lesser looks from range? Will an extra 3-point miss here or there mean the difference between a playoff win and a playoff loss?

Doncic should improve in part from pure randomness, and regression to the mean. While he shot just 4-for-58 on 3s very late in the shot clock last regular season, for instance, he went 4-for-6 in the same split against the Clippers in the playoffs. He’s not the NBA’s Captain Hook, who folds when he hears a ticking clock.

But Doncic, and coach Rick Carlisle, can also take proactive steps to help bump up his figures toward the average. Contrary to some belief, stepbacks are not the problem. Oh, he takes a bunch. Over the first two seasons of his career, Doncic took 440 stepback 3s; according to data supplied by NBA.com/Stats, besides Harden (all the way up at 1,059 stepbacks), nobody else is even halfway to Luka’s total. This graph is a work of absurdist art.

But stepback 3s are actually more accurate than other varieties, even though they send the shooter’s momentum away from the basket at the moment of release. That’s true leaguewide (38.4 percent the last two seasons) and for Doncic individually: Over the past two seasons, he’s converted 35.0 percent of his stepback 3s versus just 30.1 percent of non-stepbacks.

Luka shouldn’t excise stepbacks from his shooting diet—but he should, perhaps, move off ball a bit more to generate easier looks. That thought applies both in the long term, as the Mavericks contemplate where to invest their future cap space with Giannis off the free-agent board, and in the short term: Notably, Doncic played his best game of the season against the Rockets on Monday—a 33-16-11 triple-double—while also playing next to Brunson more than he had in any other game so far. There’s a happier medium between Harden’s heliocentrism and Steph Curry’s helter-skelter sprints around the perimeter. There’s no reason Doncic can’t pop into a few more corner 3s.

They’re a large part of Dallas’s broader offensive system: Every other Mavericks perimeter player took at least 20 percent of his 3s from the corners last season. (Porzingis was also in the single digits with Doncic, but for a number of reasons, big men tend to take more of their 3s above the break. Last season, Nikola Vucevic, Joel Embiid, and Nikola Jokic were all below 5 percent in their proportion of 3s from the corners.)

Mavericks’ Corner 3s, 2019-20

Player Corner 3 Proportion
Player Corner 3 Proportion
Dorian Finney-Smith 51%
Maxi Kleber 39%
Tim Hardaway Jr. 25%
Justin Jackson 25%
Jalen Brunson 24%
Delon Wright 21%
Seth Curry 20%
Kristaps Porzingis 5%
Luka Doncic 3%

Doncic can also simply pick some of his spots better. Nobody hovering around 30 percent—or lower—from distance should take eight 3s per game. While it’s still very early, Doncic’s 3-point attempt rate—the proportion of all his shots that are 3-pointers—is down to 34 percent in the 2020-21 season, from 43 the first two seasons of his career.

Finally, Doncic can rely on continued skill development: It’s important to remember that despite his immense production, he is still a month shy of his 22nd birthday, and younger than some rookies.

On the one hand, Luka’s shooting has always trailed his other abilities. His 3-point shot was also in the low 30s, percentage-wise, in Europe before he came to the NBA. The Ringer’s 2018 NBA Draft Guide praised Doncic’s “Harden-like upside on jumpers off the dribble” via his stepback ability, but cautioned that, overall, his “jumper needs some slight adjustments.” (That Kevin O’Connor knows what he’s talking about.)

But on the other hand, shooting percentages of all kinds improve as players age, and Doncic has years to go until he reaches his presumed peak. And if the best way to improve is through practice and experience, Luka’s in good shape: Jamal Murray is the only player in NBA history with more 3-point attempts through his age-21 season.

Even without that final developmental step, Doncic is already a franchise player with a polished offensive repertoire; if he avoids injuries, he’s destined for Springfield. But it’s hard not to dream about what’s possible for his career, and the Mavericks’ future, with a few more makes and better decisions behind the 3-point line.

Leaguewide stats through Tuesday’s games.