A little more than a year ago, a still sweaty Luka Doncic hung around the outside of a Staples Center locker room, waiting on a gift from LeBron James.
James, Doncic’s idol, had just signed a jersey for the heralded rookie, inscribing the back with a personalized message — “To Luka D., God Bless & Continue To #StriveForGreatness.”
Well, it hasn’t taken Doncic long to get there.
As teams begin to cross the 20-game mark this season, when the sample sizes in the NBA are no longer deemed too small, Doncic is one of the biggest stories in the league.
He’ll be back in Los Angeles on Sunday to face the Lakers at Staples Center for the second time — and for the first time since a terrific Mavericks-Lakers game from earlier this season in Dallas — as a front-runner for the league’s most valuable player.
Doncic shouldn’t be in awe of James anymore. Right now, they’re on the same level.
There’s a sense around the league that sample size doesn’t even apply to him — that in the season-and-a-quarter that he’s been in the NBA, he’s a star and the teams that didn’t draft him will regret it for years.
Phoenix and Sacramento both passed, and Atlanta decided they’d rather have Trae Young, allowing Dallas to move up and take a player who could end up being the first player to finish in the top three in MVP voting in his second season since Tim Duncan in 1999.
The numbers themselves are ridiculous. In November, Doncic averaged 32.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 10.4 assists. He’s one of only three players to ever average a 30-point triple-double for a month, with Oscar Robertson (five times) and Russell Westbrook (two times) the others.
Dallas is firmly in the Western Conference playoff picture, they’re running the league’s most efficient offense, and they’re fourth in the league in net rating, ahead of the Clippers while trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Lakers.
“And Kristaps (Porzingis) isn’t even playing that well yet,” one Mavericks staffer told The Times.
It’s been a quick turnaround for people who doubted Doncic heading into the 2018 draft, whether it was a bias against European players or concerns about his lack of a vertical game.
But in season two, he’s shut up doubters by devastating the league with an amazing all-around offensive arsenal. He’s got James Harden’s step-back jumper, Manu Ginobili’s Euro-step and James’ court vision all in one 6-foot-7, 20-year-old package.
Reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Harden and James all have claims as the NBA’s best player through the season’s first 20 games, but Doncic is with them, if not a smidge ahead.
Some other observations from the first six weeks of the NBA season:
The West isn’t as good as expected
A former All-NBA player shook his head when he thought about it. Maybe the Portland Trail Blazers could get their act together and overcome the injuries. Maybe the San Antonio Spurs would do what they always do and start winning. Maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder would start winning close games. Maybe the New Orleans Pelicans would find the right mix with the return of rookie Zion Williamson. Maybe some of the teams, he said, that we expected to be in the playoff hunt would start hunting.
New Orleans, Portland and Golden State have all suffered key injuries, with Williamson expected back in mid-December. The Spurs? They’ve been wildly inconsistent, prompting league-wide questions about the team’s — and organization’s — future. And the Thunder? Well, nobody is sure about them.
What this has meant is that the West hasn’t been the minefield people thought it would be, the door swung open for a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves, which finished 10 games under .500 last season, to be in the playoff mix. It’s also helped the elite teams in the lead pack put distance between them and the field.
Toronto has been a revelation
The Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, replaced them with a bunch of underachieving wings and lost key veterans Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to injury. Yet they’re the second-best team in the East.
Credit goes to second-year coach Nick Nurse, the Raptors’ terrific front office and Pascal Siakam, who is cementing his place as the Raptors’ best player.
One name that has scouts around the league buzzing? Undrafted rookie Terence Davis. The 6-foot-4 guard is in some of the Raptors’ best lineups.
Andrew Wiggins is here
Wiggins has been stuck in mid-range purgatory so long that it’s easy to forget that the former No. 1 pick is only 24.
But in his sixth season he is averaging career highs in points, three-point attempts, field-goal percentage, rebounds and assists. Along with Karl-Anthony Towns, Wiggins’ resurgence seems like it gives Minnesota the star power necessary to compete with the top teams in the West.
The Knicks are a predictable mess
Instead of landing stars this summer, they only signed power forwards, and it turns out that redundancy isn’t a strength.
They’re last in the East, and unless some superstar takes pity on them two summers from now, their future is full of the same.