Luka Doncic’s arrival as a rookie phenomenon is now complete. Not because of his monstrous play in the clutch, those groin-stretching step-backs or the generally indomitable confidence that defines the Dallas Mavericks’ 19-year-old star.
No, Doncic has arrived because he’s played well enough through half of his first NBA season to invite a special comparison. If there are levels to talent verification, being likened to LeBron James has to be one of the last thresholds to clear. So before we get to answering the question posed up there in the headline, just appreciate the fact that we can ask it with a straight face.
Of course, you probably also want that answer too.
If you start simply with traditional counting stats, you get a quick and easy validation that Doncic stacks up against James:
We’re trafficking in arbitrary cutoffs and tiny samples here, so maybe it’ll help to broaden the scope of our investigation. If Doncic’s averages of 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists hold, he’ll do something Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson did…but not James. Those numbers are still a bit cherry-picked, though. James’ rookie averages of 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists put him in a group with Jordan and Robertson that excludes Doncic.
James and Doncic are both in the 20-5-5 rookie club with Jordan, Robertson and…Tyreke Evans. If for some reason this serves as a tiebreaker, James is the youngest player to score at least 40 points in a game, which he did at 19 years and 88 days. Based on these numbers, the best we can say is that James and Doncic performed very similarly as 19-year-old rookies.
That points, rebounds and assists don’t clarify this comparison is no surprise. We’ve reached (or at least should have reached) a point where we know those counting numbers don’t paint a finished picture. We need to know about scoring efficiency, global impact and even some intangibles to sort this out.
Doncic tops James when we consider those elements, starting with scoring efficiency.
|Doncic and James Shooting Splits
Sure, Doncic arrived in an NBA vastly changed from the one James joined in 2003-04. Math is king now, and it’s impossible to acknowledge Doncic’s superior shooting numbers without noting that the league as a whole is scoring more efficiently. In James’ rookie year, the leaguewide three-point attempt rate was 18.7 percent, and the average effective field-goal percentage was 47.1 percent. Now, those figures are 35.2 percent and 52.2 percent.
If James had attempted as many threes as Doncic this year (6.6 per game), he would have ranked fifth in the league. But if James had matched Doncic’s difficult shot mix—step-backs, contested looks, particularly deep heaves— it seems like he would have converted at an even lower rate than the 29.0 percent he managed from distance.
It’s not just different eras. It’s not as simple as saying “if James had been a rookie in 2018-19, he would have matched Doncic’s efficiency.” James was significantly below the league average in that regard as a rookie. Doncic, despite a diet of extremely tough looks, is much closer to the median in that statistic. He’s simply a more skilled shot-maker than James was.
|James and Doncic vs. League Averages
Another stat combo that sets Doncic apart: He’s in line to finish as the third rookie to ever post a usage rate of 28.1 percent and a true shooting percentage (which is different from effective field-goal percentage because it includes free throws) of 56.4 percent.
James isn’t in that club. And yes, six-time All-Star Walter Davis was very good in the late ’70s and early ’80s. We’re getting distracted, though.
LeBron’s absence from some of these all-time rookie leaderboards brings us to another consideration: James, though an undeniable megastar now, wasn’t overwhelmingly great as a rookie. In his own class, Carmelo Anthony edged out James’ 20.9 scoring average with his own 21.0 figure, and he did it with a slightly higher usage rate and true shooting percentage. Dwyane Wade was also a more efficient scorer than James. So were David West and Chris Bosh.
James led his rookie class in box plus-minus, but he only ranks seventh among rookies in that stat since 2003-04 (among first-year players who got 25 minutes per game and had a usage rate over 20 percent). Doncic is third in that group, behind Chris Paul in 2005-06 and Ben Simmons last year.
Paul, for what it’s worth, dominates in rookie box-plus minus at plus-6.1. Simmons only reached plus-4.6, and Doncic is at plus-3.2 so far. James only managed a plus-1.9.
Let’s also remember Blake Griffin, who posted a plus-3.2 BPM in 2010-11 that matches Doncic’s figure this season. Griffin averaged 22.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists as a rookie while taking the league by storm with his 214 dunks. If we’re going to use less quantifiable factors to split hairs, Griffin single-handedly making the laughingstock Clippers interesting and unmissable has to be worth something. Note, too, that Griffin—not James, not Anthony, not anybody since Yao leveraged votes from China in 2003—made the All-Star team as a rookie.
Lest we forget:
Doncic might very well join Griffin in that All-Star honor this February, and the way he’s captivated the league with highlight plays and a self-assured air that often wades into flat-out cockiness feels a lot like what Griffin did almost a decade ago.
In terms of overall production, CP3 and Simmons have stronger rookie resumes than Doncic and James. But if we consider the narratives and hype attached to those two, there’s a fascinating contrast to explore.
James’ high school games were nationally televised. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he ever played an NBA game. He was the Chosen 1 before the Cavs chose him first overall. Doncic arrived this year with little more than a whisper campaign to his name. He was like a secret only a few informed observers knew about, a grainy video clip from halfway across the world.
He was a teenager destroying professional adults, winning MVPs and championships in a league better than the NCAA James bypassed. It’s bizarre to frame it this way, with James anointed for dominating acne-ridden, curfew-having teenagers while Doncic slipped to third in the draft after crushing a league of grown men paid to play basketball.
James’ hype preceded his NBA debut. Doncic created his after the fact.
I’m not sure how much that matters, because we’ve got to credit James for performing under such crushing pressure. At the same time, there’s something to be said for Doncic forcing doubters to convert.
Statistically, Doncic has been better as a rookie than James was, and their origin stories, so to speak, are as fascinating as they are distinct. But if there’s a claim to the title of “Best Rookie Since LeBron,” it probably belongs to Paul or Simmons. Or even Griffin. Doncic could do enough in the second half to surpass those guys. He’s that good.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Jan. 15.