In the midst of losing to the Clippers on Thursday night, a team whose seeming inevitability as a first round match up grows more troubling by the game, TNT commentator Stan Van Gundy compared Luka Doncic’s three point shooting to that of Houston star James Harden. This is not shocking — Luka’s play style has been compared to Harden’s in a number of ways, especially because of their matching step back three point shot.
Van Gundy’s point was that, like Harden, Luka may well develop his long distance shot into a reliable weapon, but it’s unlikely that he’ll come to be considered a truly “elite” shooter from three. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton picked up on Van Gundy’s line of thinking as well, and expanded on it in a tweet.
I'd expect Luka Doncic to improve his 3-point percentage, but think the volume/difficultly of his attempts will probably keep him from ever being a high-30s% 3-point shooter as SVG just predicted. I think he's more likely to land in the Harden range (36% career).— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) August 6, 2020
Harden, as Pelton mentions, has plateaued as a career 36% shooter from three; essentially league average and a far cry from the league’s truly elite three point specialists like J.J. Redick (45% on 6.4 attempts per game), Seth Curry (45% on 5 attempts per game), and Duncan Robinson, who has exploded in his sophomore year (44.6% on 8.3 attempts per game, up from 28.6% on 2.3 attempts).
Where Harden completely eclipses everyone else, though, is in sheer volume. He takes a league-leading 12.5 threes per game. Damien Lillard takes the second most with 9.9, leading a slew of three-point happy players in the modern NBA who take between seven and nine shots per game from three.
Doncic looks every bit the Harden disciple in many ways. A volume three-point shooter (he takes 8.9 per game, good for 6th in the league) who almost exclusively works to get his points either from beyond the arc or driving to the rim for a lay up and hunting for contact along the way. However, what Doncic lacks compared to the NBA’s other volume distance shooters is… actually being a good three-point shooter.
It’s been one of the few frustrating aspects to an All-NBA caliber second season. In fact, of the NBA’s top 20 players in threes attempted per game, only two shoot below the league average of 35%. Those two players? Luka Doncic and, unfortunately enough, fellow Maverick teammate Kristaps Porzingis (34.4% on 7.1 attempts per game, 19th in the league).
So how does this relate to Harden? Well, it’s not just the volume of three pointers that draw the Doncic/Harden comparisons. It’s the way they generate all those attempts. Harden and Doncic lead the league in percent of three-pointers made unassisted — Harden at a league-best 84.2% followed by Doncic with 75.8%. Damien Lillard and Trae Young, themselves also known for their penchant to hoist a three, are the only other players in the league above 70%.
All that to say, Luka and Harden are almost exclusively creating their own three-point looks without the help of an assist from a teammate creating an open look. It’s a very hard way to generate a shot, and that’s reflected in the step back dyad’s less-than-elite three point percentage.
What’s more, the cherished corner three — prized for its shorter distance to the basket than a straight on shot — is all but absent from Doncic and Harden’s game entirely. This entire season, Doncic has taken just 13 corner threes versus 501 attempts above the break. Similarly, Harden has just 36 corner three attempts; a number dwarfed by his 771 attempts above the break. So, while the corner three has helped Luka’s teammates like Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber set career highs shooting beyond the arc, (both of whom see around 50% of their three point attempts come from the corner and is almost always assisted) Luka has no one setting him up with an open look and the shot he winds up creating for himself is just fundamentally more difficult than a look from the corner.
Luka’s game, aesthetically, is an easy comp to Harden. Doncic’s step back three pointer, while sure to become ever-more popular as a go-to move in a league becoming more reliant on the three, is basically patent infringement on James Harden’s most frequent highlight-making shot. But this comparison speaks to a deeper way the two players are used on their squads, and how the team has been built to play around them.
However, if Luka is going to continue on the path James Harden has created, he may find himself reaching a similar plateau. Simply, it’s incredibly difficult to be tasked with creating your own three point shot 70-80% of the time and never getting easy looks from the corner. Perhaps this adds more fuel to the fire for those wanting to see Luka play off the ball more, or maybe it’s just an unavoidable reality based on the way he plays that can only be improved with time and practice. It’s going to happen, a boost to his three point percentage might be the next big step that pushes Luka, and this team that rests so squarely on his shoulders, to a new level of contention.
And, let’s be honest, if Luka Doncic shot 36% from distance like Pelton suggested, we would all be dancing in the streets.