In the first few games of the young season, we are witnessing something that will be confirmed in retrospect - the dawn of prime Luka Doncic. You may have seen the social media posts and talk show segments focusing on Luka’s scoring streak of 30 points or more through the first eight games. Only Wilt Chamberlain has started a season that way - rarified air to be sure.
While impressive, this level of scoring is far from the only reason to believe that Doncic is unfurling a new level of greatness right before our eyes. This shift is beyond statistical. Luka is raising his intangibles to match his basketball prowess. When a player is heralded as having nearly unlimited potential and begins to fully realize it, a level past greatness emerges. Like an animal in the wild taking his place at the top of the evolutionary food chain, Luka has become the NBA’s apex on-court predator.
Efficiency in attacks
Luka is scoring near the basket at a rate usually reserved for the very best frontcourt players. Through the first seven games, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player with at least 8 attempts per game inside of 8 feet with a better percentage (75.0) than Luka at 69.1. Extend that same question from the 8 to 16 foot range and Giannis' FG percent drops to a paltry 27.3 on just 3.1 attempts. Luka from the 8 to 16 range on 3.6 attempts? An ultra-efficient 64 percent.
Let that sink in. So far this season, Luka is better inside of 16 feet than any other qualifying NBA player regardless of position. This is a huge part of why Luka (37.06) sits atop the Player Efficiency Ratings. With a slow start from behind the arc happening alongside this close-range supremacy, a key question is whether Luka will continue to attack the basket with this volume and efficiency even after the outside shots start falling. If Doncic simply adds his career average long-range percentage to sustaining his reign of terror inside 16 feet, he can begin to write the MVP acceptance speech now.
Relentlessly stalking his prey
Focusing on inferior defenders to create mismatches is no longer enough. Luka regularly makes a point to target opposing superstars. In this interview clip, Luka told JJ Redick that his reasons for going on players like LeBron and Giannis are so that they will have to expend energy and will be unable to utilize their savvy as premier help defenders. Yet, it is clearly more than that. Luka makes a statement in those matchups as if to tell the world that even the biggest names in the game cannot guard him man to man.
No sharing with other tribes
Go get your own kills. No freebies here, says the apex predator. Through the first seven games, Doncic is being stingy with the ball. After turnover rates in the mid 4’s the last three seasons, Luka is averaging 3.4 turnovers a game while averaging 9 assists a game. Luka is keeping his village fed with minimal waste.
Leading the pack
The loudest, clearest voice belongs to the apex predator. Ignore the “aww shucks” self-effacing answers he gives during media interviews, Luka knows he is a bad, bad dude.
This season Luka is using his voice for much more than complaining to the refs. Head coach Jason Kidd told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, “You hear more from Luka as a leader on this team, and it started to come out last year when they went to the Western Conference Finals, but it is really coming this year. If you’re going to be the MVP frontrunner, you can’t just be a good player. You’ve got to be a great leader.”
Luka is also leading by example. He has acknowledged in multiple interviews that his conditioning to start last season was - in his view - unacceptable. He arrived this year in great shape which has fueled his historic start.
Apex predators are never shy about taking from others. Luka is reaching into passing lanes and generating steals at a considerably higher rate. Through eight games, Luka is in the top 10 in the NBA’s steals per game with 1.9 after finishing last season with 1.2. If he keeps this up throughout the season, it must be factored into the MVP conversation. Defense is about more than pure lateral quickness, never a Doncic strength. The anticipation and pure guile required to muck up passing lanes can end an opposing team's run or sustain one of your own.
Apex predator vs champion
Remember how downtrodden Dirk looked accepting the 2007 MVP award after getting bounced in the first round? Remember the elation he felt in the immediate moments following the buzzer of game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals. Those two images, side by side, tells us everything we need to know about what Luka is really after.
Is Luka producing at this level because the team needs him to? Is he simply gunning for the MVP? An apex predator sits atop the food chain out of dominance - not desperation or the mere pursuit of accolades.
There will only be so many bites at the championship apple for the Luka-led Mavericks. These prime years are numbered by fate. A player can influence the length of their apex window based on dedication and lifestyle choices but uncertainty and cruel happenstance can interfere rather cruelly. This is why every single fan of the Mavericks should savor Luka’s amazing year as it unfolds. Every time this lion tracks down another proverbial gazelle, realize you are watching something incredibly rare.