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We Haven’t Seen Anyone Like Luka Dončić Since LeBron James

Only two NBA players are averaging at least 25 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game this season. One of them — surprise, surprise — is the Lakers’ LeBron James. LeBron has had himself a long career during which he has dominated every inch of the floor for a very long time. He arguably has the most varied skill set in the history of the game, and it has earned him career averages of 27.1 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. This is just kind of what he does; it’s his version of normal.

The other player averaging at least 25, 7.5 and 7.5 is 20-year-old Luka Dončić of the Mavericks. That is not normal; that is special. The complete list of players ever to average 25, 7.5 and 7.5 over a single season looks like this: LeBron, Oscar Robertson (six times), Russell Westbrook (twice), Larry Bird, James Harden and Michael Jordan. None of those legends was as young as Dončić.1

Just about all of what Dončić is doing at his age is unheard of. His skill set is so versatile that after securing his seventh triple-double of the season against the Warriors on Wednesday night, he has already tied Magic Johnson’s all-time record for triple-doubles in an age-20 season2 — only 14 games into the year. He’s averaging 29.9 points per game; no other 20-year-old has ever done that. He’s averaging better than nine assists per game; no 20-year-old before him has ever done that, either. He’s also averaging more than 10 rebounds per game; only nine other 20-year-olds in history have ever done that, and unlike Dončić, who plays on the wing, all of them were big men.

Obviously, no 20-year-old has ever done all of those things at the same time, let alone while adding the 1.4 steals and 3.1 threes per game that Dončić has contributed so far this season. He’s the youngest player ever to carry his current usage rate (35.2 percent), and yet among the 28 seasons in NBA history in which a player has used at least 35 percent of his team’s possessions while on the floor, Dončić’s current 0.625 true shooting percentage is second-best.3

In other words, though the sample size is small so far, the argument could be made that Dončić is well on his way to the best age-20 season of all time. And by several measurements, he absolutely is. Among all the age-20 seasons in NBA history, Dončić’s 32.3 player efficiency rating (PER) already ranks first — and it’s not all that close. The same is true for his 13.5 Box Plus/Minus (BPM), as well as his average of 0.299 Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS/48). Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) is a cumulative stat, but as long as Dončić doesn’t miss extended time this season, he seems all but assured to set the age-20 record there as well.

Who’s first in age-20 VORP at this moment? Why, it’s LeBron James, of course. And given how well he is playing so far this season, it should not surprise you to learn that LeBron’s current 28.4 PER is the clear-cut best mark of all time for a 35-year-old; the same is true of his 0.274 WS/48 and his 10.5 BPM. And just like Dončić, he is on pace to break the all-time record for players his age in VORP, which is currently held by Jason Kidd. It could very reasonably be argued that James is well on his way to having the best age-35 season of all time.

The table below shows the all-time leader in each of the four aforementioned all-in-one statistics at each age from 19 (when James and Dončić both made their NBA debuts) through 35.4 One thing you can’t help but notice here is just how damn long James has been residing at the top of these lists.

Dončić is off to an even faster start than LeBron was

The best NBA player-season of all time by age in player efficiency rating (PER), Win Shares per 48 minutes, Box Plus/Minus and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)

Metric
Age per Win Shares/48m Box Plus/Minus VORP
19 McGrady Hayes* Dončić Dončić
20 Dončić* Dončić* Dončić* James
21 A. Davis M. Robinson* James James
22 O’Neal C. Paul C. Paul C. Paul
23 McGrady Abdul-Jabbar James James
24 James Abdul-Jabbar James Jordan
25 Antetokounmpo Abdul-Jabbar Antetokounmpo Jordan
26 Chamberlain Curry Westbrook Jordan
27 Chamberlain Chamberlain Curry Curry
28 James James Westbrook Westbrook
29 Harden Abdul-Jabbar Harden Harden
30 Harden* D. Robinson Harden* Bird
31 Bird C. Walker James Bird
32 Jordan Jordan Jordan Jordan
33 K. Malone Jordan James James
34 K. Malone Cervi K. Malone K. Malone
35 James* James* James* Kidd

*2019-20 players.

Player ages are as of Feb. 1 of each season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. LeBron James and Luka Dončić debuted at age 19.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

As you can see, he’s the all-time leader in at least one of these all-in-one stats at ages 20, 21, 23, 24, 28, 31, 33 and 35, and at least two of them at 21, 23, 24, 28, 33 and 35. LeBron’s not showing many signs of slowing down, so it seems pretty likely he’ll be atop one or more of these lists from now until whenever he decides to retire.

LeBron is ageless

All-time player-season rankings for LeBron James by age in player efficiency rating (PER), Win Shares per 48 minutes, Box Plus/Minus (BPM) and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)

Age PER WS/48 BPM VORP
19 6 20 3 2
20 3 4 2 1
21 4 5 1 1
22 13 24 7 3
23 4 10 1 1
24 1 2 1 2
25 3 3 3 2
26 10 18 7 5
27 4 8 2 8
28 1 1 2 4
29 4 8 6 7
30 13 43 10 14
31 2 8 1 3
32 3 10 2 3
33 2 7 1 1
34 2† 18† 1† 4†
35 1 1 1 45*

Player ages are as of Feb. 1 of each season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

*VORP is a cumulative stat; LeBron’s ranking VORP through his 14 games this season ranks 45th among players with full seasons at age 35.

†James didn’t quality for the minutes leaderboard during his age-34 season; the rankings are what his partial-season stats would have been.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

It’s also worth noting that even at the ages for which LeBron is not at the very top, he is pretty damn close. His 2004-05 season ranks third among all age-20 campaigns in PER, for example, as well as second in BPM and fourth in WS/48. That puts him in the top five in all four of our all-in-one metrics. Predictably, LeBron is ranked inside the top five in at least one of these all-in-one metrics at every age except for 30 and 34.5 He’s in the top five in all four categories at ages 20, 21, 24, 25 and 28; if he keeps this up, he’ll soon be adding 35 to that list.

James and Dončić are connected not just by their level of performance this season, but also by how quickly they managed to match or exceed the hype that surrounded them before they even entered the league.

James was the most-hyped prospect of the 21st century and almost certainly the most-hyped high school prospect in history. It can and has been argued he was the most-hyped phenom in any sport, ever. This is a guy who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior, behind the headline “THE CHOSEN ONE,” and the following year was on the cover of a SLAM magazine issue that declared he was about to rule the world.6 Expectations were not low.

He was just one of a long list of players hyped as the “next Michael Jordan,” but he’s the only one who has lived up to that billing. And that’s largely why nobody really gets hyped as the next Jordan anymore: We already found him. James won Rookie of the Year in his debut season, became an All-Star in his second and has been one every year since. He’s been the league MVP four times, the finals MVP three times and an All-NBA selection in 15 consecutive seasons. He has had arguably the longest-lasting prime in the history of the league, and it might not even be over yet. Go check any “best NBA players ever” list, and you will find him almost exclusively listed at No. 1 or No. 2.

Dončić, meanwhile, is the most-hyped European prospect ever, as well as arguably the most-decorated prospect to ever enter the NBA. He was the third-youngest player to ever appear in Liga ACB, and he was named ACB Best Young Player twice and EuroLeague rising star twice. In his final season in Spain, he was named the Most Valuable Player of what is widely considered the second-best league in the world (Liga ACB), at 18 years old. In that same season, he was named MVP of both the EuroLeague and the EuroLeague Final Four as he led his team to the EuroLeague title.

He somehow still slipped to No. 3 in the 2018 draft, but he has quickly made that look silly. It’s just his second season in the NBA, and Dončić already has opposing coaches declaring he will challenge former teammate Dirk Nowitzki for the title of best European player in the history of the league. Considering it looks as if no other has been this good this fast, that statement does not seem at all outlandish.

Declaring that Dončić will follow James’s path and dominate the league for a decade and a half is foolish. Pretty much nobody has ever done what LeBron has done. That’s what makes him one of the all-time greats. But pretty much nobody has ever done what Dončić is doing, either. So perhaps he’s on his way.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The youngest to accomplish the feat was Robertson, who got there in his age-22 season.

  2. A player’s age in a season is the age he was or would be as of Feb. 1 in that season, according to Basketball.Reference.com.

  3. The previous youngest players to use at least 35 percent of their team’s possessions were Michael Jordan and Tracy McGrady, who each did so in their age-23 season. Jordan (0.562) and McGrady (0.564) were far less efficient than Doncic has been this y ear.

  4. Players from the 2019-20 season are denoted with an asterisk.

  5. LeBron’s age-30 season was his first back in Cleveland, when he took a couple of weeks off in the middle of the year to go train in Miami, seemingly to motivate the Cavs to make roster-improving trades. He did not qualify for the minutes-per-game leaderboard during his age-34 campaign last season because of the injury issues that caused him to miss 27 games. Had he qualified, his PER would have ranked second all-time, his WS/48 18th, his BPM first and his VORP fourth.

  6. Along with Sebastian Telfair, which is odd to look back on.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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