25-under-25: Luka Doncic at No. 1

25-under-25, Dallas Mavericks

How can we measure Luka Doncic’s greatness against expectations when he just keeps smashing them each season?

Much of an NBA player’s reputation rests on what is expected of them, and whether or not they meet those expectations. If fans assume a player will offer very little and they then display consistent competence, it may not be long before that same player becomes a fan favorite on the mere basis of their being better than imagined. Of course, the problem is that these outlooks shift all the time. What was surprising and satisfying soon becomes inadequate. The player may remain the same, but their reputation nevertheless falls as a greater burden is placed upon them.

With this in mind, Luka Doncic enters his fourth season perched on a precarious ledge. Already, at just 22 years old, Doncic has established himself not only as one of the best young players in the NBA but as one of the best, full stop. And for many, it will no longer be enough for him to be merely great anymore. Considering his age, some who believe in the inevitable linearity of progress will imagine there is another leap ahead. And if he struggles to match the output from the last two seasons (or simply reproduces it) there will be inevitable talk of if he’s stagnating or relapsing. We can find any number of ways to avoid looking at greatness head-on.

How can Luka Doncic improve when he’s already so good?

Only the most contrarian analysts expected Doncic to struggle or fail in the NBA. Most believed that he was instead the top prospect in the 2018 Draft, yet not even the most optimistic Doncic supporters could have predicted how great he has been throughout the first three years of his career. He almost unanimously won Rookie of the Year and appeared to have the makings of a future star, though few would have expected him to become one so soon.

Doncic joined the Mavericks as a teenager, but he had already accumulated a staggering list of accolades that none of his contemporaries could match. Before joining the NBA, Doncic had been named EuroLeague MVP and then MVP of the Final Four while leading his team to a championship. Players have entered the NBA Draft immediately after winning an NCAA title, but such an achievement feels a bit less impressive compared to being the best player on a title team in the second-best professional league in the world.

Since arriving in Dallas, Doncic has become a one-man offense. He could be surrounded by replacement-level players and still be able to make them a positive unit with his rare blend of scoring and playmaking ability. He dominates the ball in a way that few ever have. His closest stylistic analog may be James Harden, especially considering Doncic’s embrace of the step-back 3, though Doncic plays at a less laconic pace than Harden. He is exciting to watch, though, at this stage of his career, much of that thrill comes not only from seeing what he does now but also from wondering what may come in the future.

Most of the time, when evaluating players as young as Doncic is, we talk about their potential, on how good they could be someday. We imagine that the rough patches in their game will be smoothed, that new skills will be developed and present ones further honed. Fans say things like “just imagine how good he’ll be once he can shoot from three!” or “if he can be a better perimeter defender, he’ll be the total package” over and over in the hopes that their wishes can become realities. It doesn’t always work that way though. Progress is not guaranteed and potential remains theoretical more often than not.

That is why watching Luka Doncic at 22 is so staggering. We have seen what he is already capable of. We have watched him be the best player in a playoff series that also featured Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. We have seen him become the youngest player to be named first-team All-NBA. We have seen him string together more consecutive games with 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists than anyone since the NBA/ABA merger 45 years ago. There’s no need to speculate or imagine what we could be. We already know.

There are sure to be speedbumps lying ahead. Luka is now expected to play like a superstar every night and there is little margin for error, no room for excuses. He exceeded expectations and so the proverbial goalposts must now be moved. It happens to every star as fans seem to say “What you have been is no longer enough. Now, you must be more.” Entering his fourth season, there is still room for growth, but already any improvements are likely to be refinements rather than wholesale changes. But even if his game never develops any more than it already has, if he remains where he is today, he will still be one of the league’s best players — and not just among those under 25. I remember thinking to myself, as he almost beat the Clippers singlehandedly in the Bubble, I know he’s going to get better though I can’t fathom how. It’s going to be a joy to find out.

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