"The league is in good hands with people like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Trae Young or Jayson Tatum. And the list goes on and on," LeBron James stated after the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans a few days back. And it's true.
The NBA is loaded with young, promising talent with limitless capabilities.
But the two names that stand above the rest are Luka and Zion.
In the modern NBA, where basketball is different that it used to be in every which way, Doncic and Williamson manage to produce at high levels at such a young age. In each of their style are true features of the sport. Links of the evolutionary chain of the game.
With their first meeting ahead of us, we break down the catalyst behind each of the special player's games.
Luka, a magician with the basketball
"Talent develops in quiet places, character in the tumultuous course of life," said Goethe, German writer of the 19th century.
Luka's talents were born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, developing with his first steps in the Union Olimpija, continuing to the lower levels of Real Madrid. He was born with the talent, although the hard work he put in at a young age brought it out of him.
He developed his skills overseas, forming the player we see dominating the NBA today at the young age of 21 years old. He himself admitted last season that the spacing he has to work with in the United States gives him much more opportunity to create than he had in Europe. "It's easier to score in the NBA than Europe," Doncic plainly stated. The reality is that the NBA is made on matchups.
The Slovenian has all the tools he needs to succeed. For years, his training, coaches and organizations overseas helped him in his development, both mentally and physically, to prepare him for the NBA. He averages 28.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in just his second year in the league - his first with a talented team built around him.
But what does Luka do that makes the NBA game so easy?
His most used, favourite weapon.
He admitted during All-Star weekend that he "likes to play with a big man" when Movistar asked him about the small-ball experiment in Houston. The Mavericks do rely on big men that can shoot the 3, but that also relies on how extraordinary Doncic is in the pick-and-roll.
The pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop game is one of the more frequently used in today's NBA. The way teams defend these types of situations are different compared to what Luka was used to overseas. Which is why in the NBA, with much more space, mastering the pick-and-roll the way he does allows him to destroy defences with ease.
He knows when to attack the hoop or when to settle for a 3. He knows how to find the right passing lane or deceive the defence with ball fakes. Doncic's fundamentals shine when he gets to run these scenarios with athletic bigs like Dwight Powell - who is now injured - but provided a lob target when diving to the basket.
Luka averages 12.9 pick-and-roll possessions per game, third-most in the NBA, while also averaging a third-best 1.05 points per pick-and-roll. Only Damian Lillard averages more pick-and-roll possessions and points per game (13.8 possessions, 1.13 points per game).
3-point shooting threat and decision making
The reason for Doncic's successful second season is the way the Mavericks are using him. He's playing with the ball in his hands and he's surrounded by talented players. The Mavericks line up shooters all around him, including Kristaps Porzingis, who has been the perfect fit alongside Luka.
His supporting cast has played a huge role in his successful 2019-20 season. Now with the ball in his hands more than ever before, he has weapons around him that make both him and the team better. His usage rate ranks second in the NBA behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, ahead of James Harden, Trae Young, Bradley Beal and Kawhi Leonard.
The table shows his impressive improvements across the board along with his increased usage rate. Despite handling the ball much more, Doncic's turnover rate has decreased while dishing out assists at a higher rate. While Luka - and his decision making - deserves the majority of the credit, having a better team built around him helps on that front as well.
He is also second in the league in touches per game, trailing only Nikola Jokic who the Denver Nuggets run their entire offence through. Even with a different offensive scheme, Doncic is still up there with the All-Star centre.
His ability to read the defence is pure. Outside of his sometimes inconsistent outside shot, Luka's offensive game is near-perfect. His 3-point shot would be the one nit-picking outlier of his offensive arsenal. As a rookie, he shot 32.7% from 3 on 7.1 attempts per night. This season, he's shooting 31.5% from beyond the arc on 8.9 attempts per game.
For the Mavericks the 3-point shot is essential, ranking second in attempts per 100 possessions, and it doubles its purpose. On one hand, it's Luka working on his range and consistence. On the other hand, it's forcing defenders further out on the perimeter to guard Doncic, giving head coach Rick Carlisle more to work with in creating offensive schemes.
Body use and rhythm
The most shocking aspect of Doncic in the NBA is how easily he controls the pace. Everyone plays to his speed.
With more spacing, a bigger court and a faster pace compared to Europe, Luka can apply each of his individual techniques - the cerebral reading, his body control and his control over the pace of the game above all.
These elements give him comfort on the court, wearing that smile he seems to always have on the floor, simply enjoying playing basketball. Within coach Carlisle's simple and effective gameplans, Luka knows exactly how to make his game work. Whether it's attacking at full speed like that beginning of that video, or a step-back jumper to catch a defender off. It's a continuous game of chess between him and his opponent to keep them off guard.
It's very clear his game is made for the NBA. For his impact in the media and the history of the game in Europe, too. For his size, his fundementals and work ethic he's instilled since he was younger. Doncic is an extraordinary player set to dominate the league, doing it with a smile from ear-to-ear.
Zion, the ultimate modern player
"The kid's special....In today's game, where it's a track race, it's fast-paced, high tempo, it fits his game perfectly and the way that they play fits his game perfectly cause in the first eight seconds, they're trying to score and score and score." Those were LeBron James' words after his first meeting with Zion Williamson in February.
There is no one better than LeBron, the most dominant player of the last decade and one of the few great superstars who has already faced Zion, to describe how good the rookie is and how good the landscape of the NBA is today, with an increasingly fast-paced game.
Zion's dominance in the paint
In a league ruled by ball-dominant players, such as LeBron, Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo or James Harden, Zion thrives as a relentless scorer who does not need to have the ball in his hands to make an impact.
In fact, almost half of his attempts at the hoop (45%), come without the rookie making a single dribble and in doing so, he been nothing short of devastating, converting 71% of these shots.
With the Pelicans' spacing, the paint is open wide for Williamson to dominate inside. In the restricted area, the 19-year-old is converting 63% of his attempts.
That's where Williamson is going to do the bulk of his damage. He knows what works for him and isn't forcing any inefficient shots and rarely seeks to shoot from three. He has attempted 12 in his 15 games, with four of those coming in his debut.
That giant green patch shows the danger that Zion represents for rival defences - a player who presents a coaching headache as opponents try and find ways to slow him down.
While his handle has proven better than expected in the NBA, he still has a long way to go creating for himself, but right now, without the ball in his hands, Williamson is already elite.
The king of offensive rebounds
Williamson is undersized for his position at 6′ 6″ but his current haul of offensive rebounds (3.1 per game) is the best for a rookie since Blake Griffin in the 2010-2011 season. No rookie at that height has done that since Larry Johnson, (1992-93).
He becomes an offensive threat from the second a shot goes up. Williamson zones in on the ball and seems to have a natural instinct to hunt the ball in the air, rising above players much taller than him and using his huge physique to gain position.
He is currently hauling in 11.8% of the possible offensive rebounds while on court, which places him 14th in the league, just ahead of Rudy Gobert, who stands at 7'2". Of the 13 players ranked higher than Williamson, the shortest player is Wendell Carter Jr. at 6'9".
Alongside, Derrick Favors, another offensive rebound machine, (averaging 3.2 per game), New Orleans ranks top 3 in offensive rebounds. This penchant for crashing the boards is extremely useful for a team that plays at breakneck speed, ranking third in the NBA in pace at 103.83 possessions per game.
Against the Boston Celtics on January 26, Williamson missed seven shots, but got the offensive rebound on six of them, finishing with his first double-double of 21 points and 11 rebounds in just his third NBA game.
"I think I'll credit it to my second jump," Williamson told ESPN. "I'll miss a shot, and I'm thinking, 'I'll try to get this rebound,' and I'll actually get it, so I'll try to go back up quick. ... Even when I think I'm gonna make [the shot], I still kinda get in my second jump."
Attacking early and often
23.2% of Williamson's shots come within the first six seconds of possessions and he's converting 65% of them. The transition game is where he thrives and has many simlarities to LeBron - both freight trains that are nearly unstoppable when they get going.
Williamson is less of a coast-to-coast player, but more finding the best lanes to the rim to catch lobs. While the fast-breaks create the most highlights, his ability in the post is just as damaging. He quickly gets position on his man and before you can blink, one of his teammates has already launched the ball sky-high for a dunk.
Zion posts up on 20.7% of his offensive actions, getting 1.01 points for each post-up, a number that matches Domantas Sabonis, Karl-Anthony Towns and LeBron James, all members of the top 10 of the most efficient in the post.
On top of that, the rookie is in the top 15 most efficient players in transition.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.