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Dallas Mavericks

Stat Just Happened: What's the deal with Luka Doncic's 3-point shooting?

"Stat Just Happened" is our new series where we'll pair an important stat with how it actually unfolded on the floor. Our aim? To answer key questions, uncover hidden truths and peel back the curtain on why some numbers matter more than others.

Today, Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic takes the spotlight.

31.8

That's Doncic's 3-point percentage this season.

Of the 85 players who are taking at least 5.0 3-pointers per game, only five have converted them at a lower rate than the 21-year-old. However, three of those players - Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry and Victor Oladipo - have missed most of the season with injuries and one of those players - Mychal Mulder - has appeared in only seven games.

The only other player who has made a lower percentage of their 3-point attempts than Doncic this season is Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, but Dinwiddie isn't taking them in quite the same volume (6.3) as Doncic (9.1).

All of this is to say: Doncic has been one of the worst high volume 3-point shooters in the league this season, if not the worst depending on your choice of parameters.

The majority of Doncic's 3-point attempts have come off the dribble. According to NBA.com, he's taking 7.6 pull-ups 3s per game, putting him behind only Houston Rockets guard James Harden (11.1) and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (7.7) for the most in the league. Doncic has made 32.1 percent of his 3-point pull-ups, a figure comparable to what Young is shooting on those same shots (33.5 percent), but his efficiency is brought down by him struggling to make catch-and-shoot 3s.

While they make up a much smaller portion of his 3-point attempts, Doncic has taken enough catch-and-shoot 3s for his percentage to be impacted by him making just over a quarter (26.9 percent) of those opportunities. For comparison, Young has made close to half (46.6 percent) of his catch-and-shoot 3s, doing so on basically the same number of attempts per game. That's dragged his 3-point percentage up to a more respectable 36.1 percent.

As you can see in the table below, it's a similar case with Harden.

Luka Doncic vs. Trae Young vs. James Harden 3-point shooting (2019-20)
Luka Doncic Trae Young James Harden
Catch-and-shoot 3PM-3PA 0.3-1.3 (26.9%) 0.8-1.7 (46.6%) 0.5-1.3 (36.4%)
Pull-up 3PM-3PA 2.4-7.6 (32.1%) 2.6-7.7 (33.5%) 3.9-11.1 (35.3%)
3PM-3PA 2.8-9.0 (31.3%) 3.4-9.5 (36.1%) 4.4-12.6 (35.2%)

Now for a scary thought.

If Doncic is already averaging 28.7 points per game, making him the league's fifth leading scorer in only his second season, while shooting as badly as he is from the perimeter, imagine what his numbers will look like when he becomes a more reliable 3-point shooter.

I say when, not if, because there are a couple of reasons why his 3-point shooting numbers should improve in the years to come.

First and foremost, it's hard to believe that Doncic's catch-and-shoot numbers this season are a reflection of his shooting ability. Not only because he looks the part of a shooter - he has smooth mechanics and the size to shoot over pretty much anyone he's going to be matched up with on the perimeter - but because he had far more success on those shots as a rookie.

According to NBA.com, Doncic converted 37.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts last season. For context, that put him on the same page as players like Lou Williams, Blake Griffin and Devin Booker, whereas the way he's been shooting catch-and-shoot 3s this season has him rubbing shoulders with the likes of Russell Westbrook, Eric Bledsoe and Markelle Fultz; the difference being that Williams, Griffin and Booker are players teams can't leave open and Westbrook, Bledsoe and Fultz are players teams choose to leave open.

Even if Doncic can't get all the way back to the number he posted as a rookie, somewhere in between would be a significant improvement over what he's shown this season. It would make him an easier person for the Mavericks to build around in the future because it would open the door for him to play alongside another creator, beit a fully formed version of Kristaps Porzingis or another All-Star calibre player somewhere down the line.

Stephen Curry is the perfect blueprint for someone like Doncic in that regard. Curry has long been one of the best scorers in the league with the ball in his hands, but he's arguably more dangerous off-ball because of the amount of attention he draws when he's spotting-up, running off of screens and setting his own screens. If he never developed that part of his game, he wouldn't have had as much success as he did next to Kevin Durant, not to mention Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.

Secondly, Doncic should continue to improve as a shooter off the dribble.

Some of that improvement could be as simple as him being more selective with his pull-ups, as he's usually good for at least one or two questionable shots per game - heat checks, if you will - such as this:

Where it gets tricky is Doncic can make those shots. According to NBA.com, around half of his 3-point attempts this season have been step backs. There's no way to filter 3-point attempts by step backs on NBA.com, but it's safe to assume that the only player who has taken more step back 3s than Doncic this season is Harden.

Doncic is listed as having converted 34.7 percent of his step back 3-point attempts - an impressive mark considering how difficult those shots tend to be - although there's only so much you can take away from that number because a fair amount of his step backs are miscategorized as simply "jump shots."

For example, this is listed as a 3-point jump shot, not a step back 3-point jump shot:

The same goes for this:

That only adds to the difficulty of evaluating Doncic's 3-point shooting ability. Is he capable of making tough shots off the dribble? Absolutely. Does he make a similar amount of those tough shots as some of the best shooters in the league? Yes. Do we know how good he actually is on those shots? We have an idea, but not really.

What we do know despite all of that unknown is Doncic is already someone opponents respect as a 3-point shooter, to the point where some teams resorted to giving him the Harden treatment this season by playing up on one of his sides to prevent him from getting to his step back. It makes you wonder what's going to happen when he does improve as a 3-point shooter off the dribble, whether it's because he is more selective with his pull-ups or because he becomes an even better tough shot maker than he already is.

That's the hope, anyway. For now, all we're left with is that one key, more-complicated-than-it-seems-on-the-surface number...

31.8

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