The game of basketball has been witnessing a transformation for over 20 years. The game has become quicker, higher scoring, and more focused on pace. In 2000, the average pace was 90.3. The metric ended this season at 100.3, meaning teams have nearly 10 more possessions per game than they did 20 years ago.
As the game has seen an increased emphasis on speed, so has its players. Russell Westbook took over the league with his ability to go coast-to-coast. Stephen Curry rewrote the rules of the game when he was able to pull-up from three while going downhill. De’Aaron Fox holds a world of promise with the way he can dust anyone on a fast break. Then, there’s Luka Doncic.
Let’s call it how it is – Doncic is much closer to being defined as slow than he is to being fast. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a force in transition. He’s quick in the open court and can burn you if you try to press him. Where things slow down a bit is in the half-court. But do not mistake his lack of speed for a lack of athleticism.
Doncic has become a maestro of the pick-and-roll. According to NBA.com/Stats, he averaged 1.04 points per possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler this season. That’s fifth in the league of players among ran the play more than eight possessions a game. His offensive production numbers are competing with some of the best guards the league has to offer in Damian Lillard, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving.
A common note of praise for Doncic that has followed him since his EuroLeague days is that the game moves slow for him. The game is slow for Doncic because he makes it slow. He slows the game down, allowing him to pull off incredible passes and carve defensive coverage on his way to the basket. He uses his speed in bursts to force his defender into the spots he chooses. Doncic has mastered the technique of deceleration, and it has become nearly impossible to defend on the pick-and-roll.
In pick-and-roll coverage, there are a few simple options a defender has. First, the defense can run drop coverage. This is where the defender of the screen-setter simply backs away from the play to protect the paint. This can work if the ball handler isn’t a great shooter, but isn’t a great plan against a mid-range shooter like Chris Paul.
But as someone who is shooting 37.3 percent from mid-range in his career, Doncic doesn’t have the luxury of taking pull-up jumpers. Instead, he typically just drives straight at the defender in drop coverage. With his incredible ability to finish at the rim, this is usually successful for him.
The defense also has the option to go under the screen. This prevents the ball handler from having a clear path to the basket. The only downside is that attempting to go under a screen usually leaves the shooter wide open.
This is true for Doncic as well. Although his range might not be as polished as guys like Damian Lillard, giving him this much space is a mistake that will cost you a bucket.
The defender has a final option to go over the screen. Even though Doncic is a below average three-point shooter, his defender typically tries to go under the screen to avoid a step-back three. Doing this hands Doncic the keys to the game. If you go over the screen, you’re forced to play catch-up to make sure Doncic doesn’t get a clear path to the basket. With his defender in pursuit, Doncic will often put the game in slow-motion and take over.
The deceleration is not always obvious. Here, Mikal Bridges goes over the screen but instead of running himself into a trap, Doncic stays behind the arc. This forces Deandre Ayton to switch and defend him on the perimeter, which is something he’s just not capable of.
Kristaps Porzingis sets a screen here that forces Wesley Matthews way behind the play. Even though Doncic’s defender is lost, a drive would’ve led him right into soon-to-be All-NBA defender Brook Lopez. Instead of trying to outmaneuver the elite shot blocker, Doncic lets Matthews come right back onto his hip. This is key because it leaves Dorian Finney-Smith wide open at the top of the key. Doncic smartly notices this and fakes a behind-the-back pass to him, which Lopez bites on as he’s expecting to close out. This gives Doncic an easy and-one layup.
Other times when Doncic decelerates, it’s clear as day what he’s doing. After a screen, Doncic just stops at the elbow here. He takes three dribbles with Brides on his back before deciding where he’s going. This puts Ayton in a defensive disadvantage as he’s now responsible for defending both Doncic and Boban Marjanovic. There’s almost an identical result here as there was with Lopez: Doncic fakes the pass to Marjanovic, Ayton takes the bait and Doncic has an easy bucket.
Doncic uses this tactic to create offense for his teammates as well. Again, even when it’s not a lot, it can be incredibly effective. With Jevon Carter on his hip, Doncic slows down to force Frank Kaminsky to come help off of Porzingis. The rest is history.
You can see here how much defensive attention Doncic draws. After forcing George Hill to go over the screen, Doncic gets settled at the free throw line. At that point, he has the full attention of three Bucks defenders. The defenders in the corner are also ready to come over and help. With Giannis Antetokounmpo fully interested in Doncic, Porzingis smartly cuts to the basket for an easy flush.
Doncic has found yet another way to create success in the league. The next time he doesn’t win a foot race to the basket, remember, he’s found yet another niche to dominate.