Top 50 NBA players from last 50 years: Luka Dončić ranks No. 20
Editor's Note: As part of a new series for his podcast, "What’s Wright with Nick Wright," FOX Sports commentator Nick Wright is ranking the 50 best NBA players of the last 50 years. The countdown continues today with player No. 20, Luka Dončić.
Luka Dončić’s career highlights:
- Three-time All-Star
- Three-time first-team All-NBA
- 2019 Rookie of the Year
Kevin Durant and Tim Duncan were 23 when they made their third All-NBA first team. LeBron James, Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson were 24. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain were 25. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Hakeem Olajuwon were 26. Shaquille O’Neal was 28.
Stephen Curry and Bill Russell, if you’re wondering, were 30.
Luka Dončić just did it by his age-22 season.
"[Dončić] is going to be the single-most controversial inclusion," Wright said. "Folks will say he does not even belong on the list. I feel like I might have him too low."
Ranking the Mavericks' offensive prodigy four years into his career makes it more of a projection. But there is historical precedence. In 1996, a 24-year-old O'Neal was included on the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team. Like Dončić, he’d played just four seasons.
"Shaq did not have the résumé to be included," Wright said. "But it was so clear he was changing the game. It was so clear how dominant he was. He was already, almost from the moment he walked into the league, an MVP candidate."
Sound familiar? Dončić’s prodigious start puts him in the same paragraph as the greatest players of all time. The numbers — and the eye test — confirm that he's headed in their direction.
His regular-season averages are 26.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists. That’s LeBron territory. They’ve earned Dončić fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place finishes in MVP voting the past three seasons. His best work, of course, has come in the playoffs.
While it’s only a 28-game sample size, nearly all of it is elite.
Two years ago in his postseason debut, the precocious point forward went for 42-7-9 against the Clippers. A week later, he dropped 43-17-13 and hit a game-winning 3 at the buzzer in overtime to even the series. L.A. eventually advanced, but Dončić, with averages of 31-10-9, had arrived.
The two teams squared off again in 2021, with Dončić outdoing himself in a second bout against premier wing defenders Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. After directing the Mavs to a 2-0 lead, Dončić posted 44-9-9 in Game 3 while shooting 54% from 3 and overall. The more complete Clippers still won by double digits.
In Game 5, Dončić went for 42-8-14 to give Dallas a 3-2 lead. In Game 7, he put up 46-7-14 in a losing effort. For the series, he averaged 36-8-10.
Dončić missed the beginning of the ’22 playoffs with a calf injury but averaged 29-11-6 over the final three games of a first-round series win against the Jazz. It stands as his most modest playoff production. The Mavericks were heavy underdogs entering their conference semifinals matchup with the Suns, who had definitively been the best team in the league over the previous six months.
They just didn’t have the best player in the series.
Dončić scored 80 points through the first two games — he had 45-12-8 in Game 1 — before rallying his team back from an 0-2 deficit. With Dallas facing elimination in Game 6, the Slovenian superstar delivered 33-11-8. In Game 7 at Phoenix, he matched the Suns’ entire first-half output by himself with 27 points and finished with 35 and 10 in just three quarters of a blowout win.
Dallas’ Cinderella run ended in the conference finals against the Warriors, but not before Dončić dropped 40 in two of the five games. He has hit that mark eight times in the playoffs, topping the likes of Curry and Dirk Nowitzki. Only 12 players have done it more.
"Luka Dončić is already one of the greatest playoff performers ever," Wright said.
Dončić’s 32.5 points per game in the postseason trail only Jordan (33.4). His average line is 33-9-8. For comparison’s sake, Jordan’s is 33-6-6, James’ is 29-9-7, and Bird’s is 24-10-7. Dončić has amassed 16 double-doubles and scored at least 20 points in all but two contests.
In six elimination games, he’s averaging 35-10-8.
Such individual excellence is historic. Whether Dončić, who's yet to play with an All-Star, becomes an inner-core Hall of Famer will ultimately depend on how much he wins. His track record, if the company he already keeps is any indication, suggests titles will materialize when he’s surrounded by a better supporting cast.
"He’s going to go down as one of the 10 greatest players ever," Wright said. "It is not too far to say he’s already one of the 20 greatest players of the last 50 years."