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Deep Dives

How Much Can Luka Doncic Improve in 2020-21?

by Mike Gallagher
Updated On: May 22, 2020, 1:18 am ET

Luka Doncic was coming into the 2019-20 season as one of the best under-21 players in NBA history, winning Rookie of the Year and sweeping the Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards in his phenomenal 2018-19 season. Since the NBA started doing Conference Rookie of the Month in 2001-02, the only player who was younger than Luka at the time to accomplish all of those feats was LeBron James. Not bad company. Luka took his game to another level to start his sophomore campaign to earn an All-Star Game starting nod over some first-ballot Hall of Fame players. Here’s a look at his season stats over the first two years of his NBA career (via NBA.com, stats in this column via NBA stats unless noted).

Just ridiculous counting stats in 2019-20, including his 52.5 DFS points per game to rank third in the league (Giannis, Harden; FanDuel scoring). From a nine-category fantasy perspective, Luka hasn’t been as valuable as just the 100th best player per game in standard leagues during his rookie season and even just 24th per game in his All-Star 2019-20 campaign. Most fantasy owners know that his value took a hit because of FT% and turnovers, and even in eight-cat leagues he was still 12th in 2019-20.

In 2019-20, Luka had been on a roll to start the year as the No. 4 eight-category player before his first injury (seventh in nine cat). We’ll get into some details on where he slowed down a bit, but let's go over his injuries in his career before we dive in.

  • In his rookie year, there were a lot of bumps and bruises with 10 games missed. He played through a back issue in October, was able to play through an ankle issue in November, played through a knee contusion in November, a right hip flexor cost him his first NBA game in December, he had a scary fall on his hip but was OK in January, another minor toe injury in January, a left ankle sprain cost him his second NBA game, X-rays were negative on his left hand in February, his right ankle cost him two games in late February, a right knee contusion kept him out for one in March, and he missed three of the last four games due to a left thigh/knee bruise.
  • In his second season, two multi-game stints and two singles to keep him out for 13 games, but not as many minor issues. He was cruising until a right ankle sprain cost him four games in December, he played through wrist and back issues as the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, he was probable for a right thigh contusion in January, the big one was missing seven games for a right ankle sprain in practice on Jan. 30, right ankle soreness cost him one more game after playing in two, and he played through a left thumb sprain in February/March with one missed game. Luka was also listed for a right wrist issue in March, but didn’t miss time.

That is a whole lot of injuries with Doncic missing 15.4% of his games, and appearing on the injury report for another 5% or so. As we go through this column, you’ll see a whole lot of trends on how he kind of fell off in the second half of the season. The aforementioned “cruising” part before he started getting hurt was after 25 games played, so there’s a bit of a built-in excuse here for those who want to say Luka just wasn’t 100% for most of the second half of his 54 total games.

As mentioned, Luka’s second campaign was a bit of a tale of two halves of his season from a nine-category perspective. Over his first 27 games, he was the fourth-best player per game among those with 12-plus games played (Harden, AD, KAT), but he struggled in his last 27 at just 76th per game among those with 12-plus games (still just 34th in eight cat). We’ll get into why a little later and it’ll be mixed in throughout, but let’s dive in on what makes Luka who he is.

In his rookie season, Luka really wasn’t an elite fantasy asset because he couldn’t make free throws, he turned it over a lot, and he was a killer to FG%. That changed significantly in 2019-20 because he managed to improve his FT% by 3.9% and his FG% by 3.4%. Luka didn’t increase his shooting on 3-pointers with a 0.9% decrease and he was taking two more of them at a subpar 31.8 3P%, but Luka’s 2P% had a monster increase from 50.3% in 2018-19 to a big-man like 57.4% in 2019-20 (55.8% of shots were twos in 2019-20, 56.7% in 2018-19). Not a big difference, and obviously the massive increase explains how Luka could still be over 46 FG%. That 57.4% put him third among qualifying guards with at least 75 2PA (Norman Powell (!), Ben Simmons). Let’s take a look at why.

Doncic needs a car endorsement ASAP because that dude can drive at just age 21. Baby Driver 2? From a daily fantasy perspective, he produces more DFS points off drives per game than anyone else at 14.9 (points are one point, assists are 1.5, turnovers -1). Doncic led the NBA in assists off drives per game at 2.5 and he was third in points off drives at 12.3 (Harden, DeRozan). He ranked fourth in the NBA on drives, but on a per-minute basis he was driving more than the three guys ahead of him (Westbrook, DeMar, Trae). As the season was winding down, Luka was driving at a ridiculous 22.7 drives per game over his last 10 with 2.9 dimes off those drives to 1.0 turnovers with 12.7 points.

Breaking it down a little further, here’s a look at how Luka progressed on drives from the first half of his rookie year to the second half of his second season.

The first thing to jump out here is that Luka’s drives per game in the second halves of his seasons blew away the first halves. He was also taking massive steps forward on efficiency on drives, but did regress a bit from the 62.9% in the first part of the second season to the second half. Still, 51% on drives is slightly above average, and he doesn’t get to the line too much off these drives. Among the top 50 drivers per game, Luka ranked just 19th in FTAs per drive in 2019-20. He’s already one of the most valuable drivers in the league, and adding more success at the line could help him even more (more on that later). The 62.9% over his first 27 is probably unsustainable, but even something like 57% on huge volume would be a major plus to his fantasy value.

As you’d imagine, Luka thriving on drives led to some outstanding at-rim output. As a rookie, he was a tick below league average at 62.0% with those shots accounting for 25.3% of his shot total. In 2019-20, he rose to elite efficiency of 72.8% at the rim with those shots accounting for 29.2% of his shot total. As mentioned above, Luka was ultra-efficient on drives to start the year, so you’d think he’d decrease at the rim later, right? Well, he was at 74.0% at the rim (28.3% of shot total) in his first 27 and only a slight dip to 71.8% (29.9% of shot total). That suggests his shot quality on drives was a lot better, but he did struggle a little more on his longer/tougher twos. That led to a slight decrease in 2P%, and Luka’s FG% dropping from 47.7 FG% in his first 27 to 44.6% in his last 27. He was also better on 3-pointers (33.2% first 27, 30.3% in last 27).

Luka also basically scrapped his mid-range game entirely to finish the season. Over his last 20 games, he had zero mid-range makes in 18 of them and went just 3-of-15 from mid-range (3.6% of his shot total). Luka’s two-point jumpers didn’t really drop off from 44.6% in 2018-19 to 43.9%, which were pulling his 2P% down a bit. However, two-point jumpers accounted for just 24.6% in 2019-20 and 28.9% in 2018-19. If the rate of his two-point jumpers continues, Luka’s 2P% should be more slump-proof going forward. 

As mentioned above, he did take a step back on 3-point efficiency, and that makes his 46.1 FG% even more impressive when you factor in that he’s taking 11 shots a game at a 31.8% clip. Here’s a look at some stats on his catch-and-shoot treys, pullup treys, and some wide-open info:

So he basically did a skydive on the catch-and-shoot treys in 2019-20 with a massive 10.5% decrease on his 3P% on those, and it’s rare for big-volume guys to be so bad on catch-and-shoot treys compared to pullups. He was also just as bad on one-dribble treys at an identical 26.8%. Being so bad on these is actually a positive because there’s really no way he can be under 28% over the course of a whole season. In the second half of his season, he was somehow just 6-of-31 on catch-and-shoot treys (19.4%) and 63-of-200 (31.5%) on pull-up treys. Additionally, he was just 7-of-43 on tightly-contested treys in his last 27 games. Not great, but the Mavs likely know this is a weakness and they can address it in the offseason. If you remember, coach Rick Carlisle had said that Luka worked a lot on a big weakness last summer, his FT%, and he really came through. Oh and did you know he's just 21?

Oh hey, speaking of which, how about that FT% boost? In his first 27 games, Luka made a shockingly impressive 80.6% of his 247 attempts (9.1 per game). However, he really fell off after that at just 69.7% of his 244 attempts (9.0 per game). So is there anything specifically that caused him to fall apart? Well, he shot slightly better at home, but he was 5.0% better in the second half compared to the first. He really struggled in his 14 January games at 66.7% to really pull him down. It’s fair to say he was overperforming a little to start the year, but another year under his belt could get him in the 76-80 range next year. If he can somehow repeat that 80% run at his big volume, that’ll give him an excellent floor in standard leagues.

One interesting part of Luka’s first/second half splits is Kristaps Porzingis. While Luka was smashing to start the year, KP wasn’t quite showing up. On the other hand, KP went nuts while Luka’s fantasy value slid in the 2020 part of the season. On the whole for the year on some on/off splits, Luka shot 1.6% better from the field with KP, had a 1.0 eFG% increase with KP, and had a 2.5% usage rate boost without him (34.5 with, 37.0% without). There’s hardly anything to adjust value. If we just looked at the second half when efficiency was an issue, Luka had a 53.1 eFG% with KP (49.7 without), a 36.7 usage rate without him (33.5 with), and was 2.8% better from the field with KP, too (46.4 with, 43.6% without). Luka’s steals per minute were also more two times better with KP, and he assisted at an identical rate. A very clear bottom line here is that KP getting hot was not the reason why Doncic slowed down, and it’s clear Luka had better value with KP on the floor.

Luka found himself in one of the best fantasy systems with the Mavs leading the NBA in offensive rating by a lot (115.8, Rockets second at 113.4), and they were still decent in pace at 18th to put them in the top three for points per game (Bucks, Rockets). They were also second in 3-point attempts to be the only non-Rockets team ever to clear 40 per game (also trailed Rockets in 3PM by just 0.1 per game in 2019-20). Luka was second in assist percentage among high-volume dime guys (LeBron James), and obviously the drive-and-kick game was a pet play for coach Carlisle. Luka is also tied for the lead in secondary assists with James Harden at 1.2, and he’s just 0.1 dimes per 36 from Trae (Trae played more minutes, of course). If the minutes go up, Luka could go from being fourth in dimes to being the top guy.

Luka was also among the leaders in touch time per game to tie James Harden for second at 8.7 minutes per game (Trae Young 9.1). Doncic was able to tie Harden despite getting 3.5 fewer minutes per game and was 2.1 minutes behind Trae, so Luka actually had a slight edge on Trae for touch time per minute. While Trae was a monster in the time per touch, Luka was just getting an absurd about of touches at 94.3 for second in the league (Nikola Jokic 97.6). That’s just total ball domination at a slower-than-average pace and Luka ranking just 35th in minutes per game. You’d think that type of output isn’t going down with the Mavs outperforming expectations, and it might even go up. Plus, his minutes may see a slight boost, too. All these chances with the ball in his hands are one of the main reasons why Luka was third in DFS points per game in 2019-20.

At this time last year, Luka was expected to need at least another year before he really became a fantasy monster. He arrived away ahead of time as one of the best players in the league to start the year, and he has clearly found his identity as an NBA player. Of course, we can’t entirely dismiss his lackluster second half, but his role is encouraging, it wasn’t because of KP getting hot, and of course maybe being hurt affected him a tad after he was healthy for the first 25 games when he was en fuego. If you’re drafting in a points league, you can consider Luka in the top five and it wouldn’t be a hot take at all.

In standard leagues, Luka is a bit of a tougher sell given some of the late-season concern and all those injuries that have limited him. Meanwhile, Trae Young is just ridiculously durable with even bigger overall volume, and Trae bounces back from injuries a lot faster. I’ll be taking Trae over Luka in any format, and it’s an easy call for me in eight- and nine-category fantasy leagues. Luka is not quite in the top tier of guys you can consider after Harden and I’d even take Tatum ahead of him. For nine cat, I still have Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal ahead of him, but it’s still really tough to pass on him if you’re picking 11th or 12th because the PG well is really going to dry up by the time you pick again in the third round. If we're going through mocks and I find myself being short on PG a lot because I'm passing on Luka for Tatum, Beal and KD, it's possible he can crack the top 10.

Mike Gallagher
Mike Gallagher has covered fantasy hoops for eight years and this season is his second with Rotoworld. You can find him on Twitter talking about a player's shots at the rim.