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Even when struggling, Luka Dončić is expanding his game

How Maverick’s star is making adjustments and growing his game.

Miami Heat v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s January 1, the first day of 2021, and the Dallas Mavericks are warming up for their game against the Miami Heat. The Mavericks are off to a disappointing 1-3 start and their star player Luka Dončić amid the biggest shooting slump of his career. In his first four games of the season, Dončić was 2-of-21 from beyond the arc, astonishing 9.5%.

With Dončić, struggling with his shooting, it seems like the Heat’s game plan will be much easier tonight. Pack the paint, prevent Dončić to drive to the basket, and dare him or others to shoot threes.

Yet Heat coach Erik Spoelstra knows better. While you see Dončić’s signature step-back threes or his fancy passes in the highlight reels, it’s his ability to adjust that makes him a great player.

His ability to read defenses is what’s exceptional. He’s seen every coverage already at this point in his career. Literally every coverage teams have tried to throw at him, just to slow him down a little bit, but nothing seems to work at a super-high efficiency level.

Dallas wins the opening tipoff of the game, and Miami has veteran Andre Igoudala guarding Dončić. Igoudala is the long-armed defender that could be a problem for Dončić, especially if he can stay a step back since Dončić is not hitting from long distance.

As a counter, in the first possession of the game, Dončić does a move that he used rarely during the last season — the post up. Dončić backs down Igoudala who’s only option is to foul.

A lot was written about Dončić conditioning, or really about the lack of it, to start the 2021 season. Dončić himself admitted he didn’t come to training camp in optimal shape. He looks a bit heavy and his first step looks a bit slower than it did last season. However, Dončić adjusted to added weight by bullying people in the post.

It’s still early in the game, 8:48 left in the first quarter as Dončić drives again against Igoudala. He is not blowing by him for a layup, rather slowly working towards the paint. As he gets to his spot, Dončić uses his body to create enough separation to get his shot off. Igoudala reaches in, foul and one, Igoudala goes to the bench with two fouls.

How Dončić is bullying people on post-ups and in the paint

Per Synergy data, Doničć posted up on 3.4% of his plays during the 2019-20 season. His 1.02 points per possession ranked as “very good”, and per NBA stats he was in the 80% percentile of all players on post-ups.

In his first six games this season, Dončić is posting up on 9.2% of his possessions, generating an absurd 1.33 points per possession. It’s a small sample size (only 15 possessions), but for comparison, the Mavericks are generating 1.14 points per possession in transition. Even more, Dončić leads the league by generating free throws on 46.7% of his post-ups. It seems like Dončić either scores, gets fouled, or both when he is in the post this season.

Dončić seems much more aggressive this season, looking to get to the post when he sees a smaller defender switched on him. Here is an example from a clutch play in the season opener against the Suns. Dallas runs an early 21 side screen action to get Booker switched on Dončić, Dončić gets to his spot in the paint and bullies Booker for a bucket and one.

Because Dončić is so good at drawing fouls, Dallas likes to call for Dončić post-up plays early in the quarter to try to get teams into the penalty. Many of the Dončić post-up plays presented here happened in the first four minutes in the quarters.

Here is a play against the Clippers, early in the third quarter. Dallas runs a 21 side-screen play again, Richardson slips early, so Luke Kennard switches on Dončić. Dončić then backs down Kennard and you can see the only option Kennard has, is to foul in frustration.

Dončić is not only bullying smaller defenders in the post. He is using his size and footwork against bigger defenders as well. Here you can see him bullying Mikal Bridges who is one of the best one-on-one wing defenders in the league. Notice a small push off with a left hand to get the space between him and Bridges.

More and better from the mid-range

Last year Dončić was an elite scorer at the rim. 33% of his shot attempts were at the rim, and he made 72% of them. This is Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis territory of rim attacking. Last season Giannis and Davis made 74% of their shots at the rim, Lebron James made 68%, Kawhi Leonard 65%, and James Harden 64%.

This season Dončić’s finishing is worse, he is currently 64% at the rim, and it looks like his shots at the rim are more difficult. Most of his shots are contested, with almost no easy layups. One reason for that is Dončić is a bit slower to get by guys and beating them to the rim for an easy layup. Another reason is that the Mavericks’ spacing is much worse than it was last season. Dallas is missing Kristaps Porzingis and Seth Curry, who were stretching opposing defenses beyond the three-point line. See this play from the bubble against Phoenix and watch Ayton and Rubio on defense. As Dončić drives, Ayton stays high above the free-throw line guarding Porzingis, while Rubio is keeping attention on Curry in the corner.

Now, check how the Suns defended Dallas when the teams played this year. Ayton is in drop coverage, waiting for Dončić at the free-throw line. Dončić scored anyway, but he had to make a more difficult mid-range turnaround jump shot.

Dallas replaced Curry with Richardson in the past offseason. Richardson is a great addition to Dallas’ defense and is great in transition. Dallas is currently second in the league in transition offense. The downsize of the Curry/Richardson swap is that Richardson’s gravity can not compare to Curry’s. Opposing teams often help off Richardson on Dončić’s drives to the basket. Teams don’t treat Richardson or Finney-Smith as knockdown shooters and without Porzingis in the lineup, this leaves Tim Hardaway Jr. as the only shooter with real gravity. Dwight Powell is filling in for Porzingis at the center position, while Porzingis is recovering from his knee injury. The problem is, Powell is trying to get back to form after his Achilles injury and is not close (yet) to the elite rim-roller he was last season. Teams drop their big man when Powell set screens or even double Dončić hard in the pick and roll. Look at this action and see where Powell’s defender Bismarck Biyombo is. He is completely ignoring Powell in this pick and pop situation.

Things looked better against the Rockets, with Doncic and Willie Cauley-Stein connecting for some nice plays around the rim. Hopefully, that can continue for Dallas.

How Dončić is adjusting his shot diet

Because of Dončić’s current physical limitations, the limits of the Mavericks’ offense, and his struggles at the three-point line the Dončić shot diet changed significantly compared to last season.

Source: Cleaning the Glass data

As per Cleaning the Glass data, Dončić took 33% of his shots at the rim last season. This number decreased to 28% thus far this season. The big change is the frequency of Dončić’s mid-range shots. Last year 29% of his shots came from mid-range, this year this increased to 42%. Mid-range shots came at the expense of three-point shots which decreased from 39% last season, to 31% this season.

The good news is his mid-range accuracy increased, helping off-set his decrease at the rim. He’s more efficient at both short mid-range shots and long mid-range jump shots.

Source: Cleaning the Glass data

Because his driving lanes are not as open, Dončić is taking more mid-range shots, as you’ve seen in the clip against Ayton. This season Dončić also looks more determined and methodical at getting to his spot in the paint. If he gets a smaller defender on him, he usually tries to punish them with his post-up game. If a big is switched on him, he either tries a fade-away jump shot or tries to trick them with his great footwork.

This move against one of the league’s best defenders Bam Adebayo is borderline illegal.

Here is another example of Dončić backing his defender down to get to his sweet spot, then punishing him with great footwork.

Can Dončić develop a Kawhi-like go-to move?

Dončić was always a good post player and relied on his footwork to get shots around the basket. However, this season he added another move to his mid-range game that might have the biggest impact in the big picture. I’m talking about his turnaround jump-shot. Mavericks fans would probably like to see flashes of Dirk in Dončić turnaround jumper. Most other NBA fans compare Dončić to Lebron James, but I see glimpses of Kawhi Leonard. Dončić doesn’t rely on his athleticism or speed to get to his spot, but like Kawhi he uses his strength to bully and move defenders on his way there.

Here is Dončić using his strength to get into the paint against Paul George, then finishing with a turnaround jump-shot.

This is a similar play, against another elite defender Jimmy Butler.

If Dončić continues to hit these mid-range turnaround jump-shots at the current rate, it could be a game-changer for the Mavericks. For all his brilliance one could say that Dončić still lacked another go-to move in the clutch.

In clutch situations last season, Dončić either tried to drive to the basket, but most defenses would collapse in the paint in closing moments. So, his only counter move was his step-back three. When these shots fall it can look amazing, like the incredible game-winner against the Clippers in the last play-offs.

But in reality, the step-back three is a difficult shot, which Dončić didn’t hit at a high rate, especially in the clutch last season.

Imagine the same situation as the last season's game-winner against the Clippers, but with a simpler solution. Here is Dončić against the same defender Reggie Jackson in an end-of-quarter situation. Dončić used his size and strength to move Jackson to his spot in the paint, then finishes with a nice fade-away jumper.

Of course, defenses are more focused in the playoffs, and making such plays isn’t as simple. The point is, that if Dončić can make such shots on a consistent basis, he can add a Kawhi-like move to his arsenal which could make him a deadly mid-range scorer.

A step-back for Dončić could be a huge step forward for Dallas

Yes, Dončić is struggling with his three-point shooting. Yes, his conditioning doesn’t look great at the moment. But things will get better soon for Dončić and Dallas on offense. According to Carlisle, Dončić is working hard to get into optimal shape. Porzingis should return and play sometime in January and he will replace Powell in the starting lineup. This will give Dončić a competent pick and roll partner and open his driving lanes to the basket. Kristaps gravity on the court makes huge of a difference.

But as Mavericks fans panic on social media, some of the adjustments Dončić is making in the meantime might be great for Mavericks in the long run. If Dončić develops a true go-to move in his third NBA season he can take another big step towards becoming an MVP in the league and playoff success.

Smarter people than me know that betting against Dončić on making adjustments is never a smart thing to do.