Each week during the 2021-22 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into some of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
Dirk is right: Luka is the NBA's next game-changer
Dirk Nowitzki changed the NBA in a 21-year NBA career that nearly touched four decades. Not only did the Dallas Mavericks legend raise our expectations for international prospects, he was the first player 6-foot-11 or taller to make 100 3-pointers in a single season in the 1999-2000 campaign, a feat he repeated another eight times before his 2019 retirement. As Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry broke the 3-point record on Tuesday, Nowitzki's 1,982 career threes make him the only player taller than 6-9 to crack the top 20.
Ahead of his jersey retirement ceremony on Jan. 5, Nowitzki was asked on a conference call this week who has the greatest potential to similarly change the NBA's style of play. His answer probably won't shock you.
"Luka [Doncic], of course, is the guy who's on top of my list, because he's only 22 years old," Nowitzki said of his successor in Dallas. "He still has so much upside and stuff to learn, and I basically get to see him every other night. His creativity, the way he reads the game, the way he spreads the ball, the way he can score from the post all the way out to half court, there are no holes in his game. That at 22 is unbelievable.
"To me, he, of course, has the biggest upside. But if you look at [Denver Nuggets center Nikola] Jokić, who's got an MVP season already, and [Milwaukee Bucks forward] Giannis [Antetokounmpo], who has back-to-back MVPs and a championship, there is great, great international talent in this league," added Nowitzki, the NBA's MVP in 2007. "But for me, if we talk upside, I think Luka has the best out of those at age 22."
Nowitzki may be biased, but Doncic clearly held that mantle at the end of last regular season, when he had established himself as a First Team All-NBA player and bona fide MVP candidate for a second straight year.
In the seven months since, Jokic received 91 of 100 possible league MVP votes and returned better this season, Antetokounmpo submitted an all-time Finals effort en route to his first title, Zion Williamson still has not taken the floor, a new generation has emerged, and Doncic reported to training camp out of shape.
Suddenly, it is not so obvious that Doncic is the NBA's highest-upside young star, even if he is on his way to becoming one of the greatest offensive players ever. With a ring in hand and a repeat within arm's length, Antetokounmpo at age 27 is now setting the pace for greatness reserved only for top-10 players in history.
Doncic can absolutely reach those heights. He is averaging a 26-8-8 through his first four seasons. With more accuracy from distance and a better supporting cast, it is easy to envision a scenario in which he averages a 35-point triple-double for an offensive juggernaut of a contender. The sky is the limit from there.
But that wasn't the question asked of Nowitzki. It was not "Who has the highest upside?" but "Who has the highest ceiling in terms of altering the NBA's style of play?" — like how Nowitzki opened the floor for bigs. Curry would be the easy answer, if his high-volume marksmanship hadn't already revolutionized the game.
Doncic is following the playbook James Harden employed as a one-man offense for the Houston Rockets, using 40% of his team's offensive possessions, primarily in isolation or as the pick-and-roll ball-handler at the top of the key. They treat the half court as their canvas, painting a shot chart with a mix of step-backs, prodding drives to the basket, kick-outs and, when all else fails, flailing attempts to get a referee's whistle.
It is not a revolutionary style of play. LeBron James has made a playoff career out of that same strategy.
Jokic, the league's first true point center, is much closer to a true unicorn. The 26-year-old's orbit is an advanced statistician's fantasy. His 26.6 points (59/38/75 shooting splits), 13.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game are translating to the highest single-season mark ever in multiple all-encompassing analytics.
The list of young NBA game-changers may actually be limited to one. Ja Morant is Russell Westbrook with a jumper. LaMelo Ball is skinny 6-7 Jason Kidd. Evan Mobley may be evolutionary Bill Russell. I don't know if any of them will make us rethink the game the way, say, Julius Erving popularized playing above the rim.
It is more likely Jokic spawns a new style of play than, say, Antetokounmpo. Good luck carving out a cross between Shaquille O'Neal and Magic Johnson in the body of an Adonis. The same can be said of LeBron or Zion or any other physical anomaly. Teams can't just replicate a 6-6, 317-pound dude with a 45-inch vertical leap, and the latest on Williamson's injury is perhaps reason for scouts not to go looking for one.
Nowitzki opened our eyes to 7-footers shooting threes. Since he sunk 116 triples in his second season, 17 more players 6-11 or taller have made more than 100 in a season. Curry carved a path for Trae Young shooting double-digit threes a night at age 21. Every team wants a version of Draymond Green, an undersized center who can switch across all five positions and steward the offense. They really did change the game.
In that sense, Jokic might be the better answer to Nowitzki's question. You can envision teams trading for Domantas Sabonis or Ben Simmons and running the offense through either at center because they've seen it work in Denver. Both would be more attractive on the trade market if they could shoot like Jokic, who is doing a Nowitzki impression over the past two seasons on top of his playmaking duties. Top draft prospect Chet Holmgren will be given free rein of whatever offense he joins next year because Jokic paved the way.
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