Luka’s sloppy start
Last summer’s MVP favorite has been a turnover machine
BY DAVID THORPE
Legendary Madrid coach Pablo Laso cursed through most of the timeout. “One fucking play!” he yelled in Spanish. Twice. His team trailed CSKA Moscow, on the road, in the EuroLeague second round.
The direct challenge did something to his 16-year-old, 3-point-a-game scoring guard, Luka Doncic. They were down seven with under four minutes to play in the second quarter. Luka—not seen as a shooter at the time—had been open all career. With his coach’s words ringing in his ears “make a play!” he drained a 3. A minute-and-a-half later, he was open all alone on the right wing, and fired again. Bang!
Down by four, a play later, he played the “get game,” where the passer follows his pass to get a handoff back. CSKA played under the handoff, so once again Doncic was wide open.
Three critical 3s in a row can awaken things. Two years later, thanks to Luka, Madrid were the champs of the EuroLeague and the ACB. Doncic was the MVP of both at age 18. Soon he was NBA Rookie of the Year, First Team All-NBA in consecutive seasons, and, last summer, MVP favorite.
All of that put Luka ahead of LeBron in NBA accomplishments by age 22. Of his many exceptional talents, bravado is first on the list. But there can be such a thing as too much bravado.
When you serve as the primary playmaker for a team that has only two, you’ll rack up some turnovers. Still, Luka is turning the ball over far too often. Derrick Rose has a 5.8 turnover percentage. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 8.6. Chris Paul is 9.4. Ja Morant 10.1. Luka’s turnover percentage is 12.4. There’s a conversation to have about defense, and his shooting has been a bit off. But the low hanging fruit of getting Luka back on track is to reduce his career-high turnover rate, which is at nearly five per game.
I watched every one of Luka’s turnovers this season. Here’s how they break down:
Here’s the big takeaway: at least 90 of his 96 turnovers were his fault. Luka’s main problem is not that he’s a bad or reckless dribbler/driver. Rather, it often appears he just doesn’t give a damn about whether or not his passes are actually caught. Supreme confidence is required to just to make an NBA team, even more to star on one. But that amount of confidence has a tendency to ooze across the line to arrogance, and arrogance makes trouble.
One of the game’s best players is being undermined by thinking almost any pass he throws will be caught, or not caring if it isn’t.
Luka makes some amazing passes, but they only sometimes connect. It would be a cinch to point to games the Mavericks lost this year that would have been wins if Luka had been more careful with the ball.
Last November, I expressed grave concerns about LaMelo Ball's future. It wasn’t tied to his lack of shooting ability prior to his NBA career nor his poor shot selection. It was his complete disinterest in guarding anyone, and his awful shot selection. Disinterest doesn’t work in the NBA. Ball has turned into an excellent shooter, a more disciplined shot taker, and while he still has a long way to go on defense, he has clearly enhanced his physicalness as an athlete and learned to compete better on that end. Disinterest is no longer a word I’d use to describe his game, and his marked improvement is easy to spot.
But disinterest is exactly what I see in far too many of Luka’s passes.
The “bad pass” category is based on a number of mistakes: inaccurate passes thrown to open guys, passes made to well-defended players, and trying to throw a pass that has a very low chance of being caught–like a 50-foot pass up the court, or a low bounce pass through two defenders.
He inbounds a few feet too low, or dribbles into a crowd. Here is an example of the easiest mistake to fix—Luka making an inaccurate pass to an open teammate. He could have used both hands and fired a two-handed bullet pass. He could have dribbled once or twice to his left and made it a shorter pass. Instead, he made this lazy one-handed pass.
This pass is a little low, but not terribly inaccurate. The pace is OK. The problem is that Luka didn’t put any work into keeping Jonas Valanciunas from knowing what was coming. Luka is super tall, has a green light, and knows exactly how to occupy his big-man defender by threatening to shoot. He’s been doing it for years. Any number of shot-like moves would have occupied Valanciunas and prevented him from making such an early read on this pass and having time to backtrack for the deflection.
As the entire arena could see what Luka was waiting to do, no defender has an easier steal than this. For a nervous player—a rookie, someone trying to make a team—this kind of mistake is understandable. For someone as comfortable on the NBA court as Luka, you shouldn’t have more than a few of these per season.
This pass was high risk and no reward. The shot clock had reset and was wide open to his left. Instead … this is a pass thrown by someone who just does not care if the ball makes it where it needs to go or not. Behind his neck while on the baseline … to a player that was not in a position to catch or score … and poorly delivered? If he were my student postgame I would use my mean voice to say “no fucking way you can ever make this pass again. Period.” Luka essentially does not get benched for bad play, but here’s one that had to make Coach Kidd think about it.
I’m reminded of a story Udonis Haslem once told me. He and Rafer Alston teamed up to win the Shaw’s Summer league in Boston. Rafer was famous from underground videos for being a magician with the ball. Then they ended up together on the Heat. Haslem, just 23 and an excellent athlete, was trying to earn a long-term contract. He thought some lobs from Rafer might get him the kind of dunks coaches would notice. UD told me he one day he said“c’mon Skip, I’ve seen all your And1 tapes, I know you know how to throw lobs.”
But he told UD that he wasn’t in Miami to do that. He was searching for the high-reward, low-risk passes that pleased a man like Heat coach Stan Van Gundy. Those tapes were fun but he was now in the business of winning games, so he had to keep turnovers to a minimum. He was remarkable, averaging 4.5 assists a game in over 30 minutes to just 1.6 turnovers. After making about $2 million in his first four years, with a new reputation for discipline, Alston earned $26 million more over the next seven seasons. He didn’t need to improve his skills, only his decision-making. Less risk, more reward.
That same path is available to Luka. It’s easy to walk down. Step one: want to cut down his turnovers. Then make a few simple changes:
Reduce or eliminate long passes to slow-footed teammates. They often get stolen or sail out of bounds.
Stop making risky passes into traffic when there is lots of time on the shot clock. With time, there are many ways to move, pass, and get the ball wherever it needs to go without a crowd.
Try to get a five-second call. Players have five seconds to pass or shoot once they kill their dribble. It’s an eternity for players of Luka’s skill. With Luka’s size and strength, more jump stop/pivot reads will lead to far more completed passes. He isn’t going to be bullied into many mistakes like some smaller guards would. (I didn’t see any turnovers that began with his pivoting multiple times, looking for an open teammate. When he slows down, he’s accurate.) I ask every pro I work with “how many five-second violations have you been whistled for, in your whole life, after you pick up a dribble?” They all answer as one just did over the weekend on a call: They laugh and say “maybe one.”
Bottom line—care more about not turning the ball over. Make that the priority, and it will happen. Guaranteed.
More importantly, a sloppy, inconsistent effort from their superstar gives a team bad vibes, just as a dedicated, focused Luka sends positive messages. This wasn’t a Rick Carlisle problem and it isn't a Jason Kidd problem. It’s about Luka recognizing that he must put more work into helping his team. Dallas ranks 21st in offensive efficiency today, and turns the ball over less than any team. Everyone else gets it.
The difference between extreme confidence and sloppy arrogance is not a fine line, but Luka has crossed it anyway. He’s been out since December 10th with an ankle issue, and is due back soon. He’s had plenty of time to study film as I just did. It will quickly be clear, upon his return, if he has made any adjustments. The Mavericks play the late game on Christmas Day.
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