Luka Doncic checked his phone at halftime Sunday. Someone sent him a picture of 17-year-old Doncic and Russell Westbrook in an exhibition game between Real Madrid and the Thunder in 2016. Now, Doncic was playing with Westbrook in the NBA All-Star game.
“It was kind of amazing,” Doncic said.
Doncic has been playing professionally since he was 16. He came to the NBA as EuroLeague MVP. Now, he’s an NBA MVP candidate. It feels like he has been on this level a long time.
But Doncic’s Most Valuable Player campaign has obscured a bid for an award that fits him even better: Most Improved Player.
Voters are reluctant to pick second-year players, especially highly drafted ones like Doncic, who was the No. 3 pick in 2018. There’s a notion those players are “supposed to” improve.
But we don’t do this for any other award. Imagine not voting a No. 1 pick for Rookie of the Year because he’s supposed to be good. Nobody will refuse to vote Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP this season because, as reigning MVP, he’s supposed to be good. It’s a silly argument.
Besides, this far more than typical second-year improvement.
Doncic has increased his box plus-minus from +4.1 last season to +11.4 this season. That’s the biggest jump ever for a Rookie of the Year into his second season. Only LeBron James is even in the ballpark.
Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus by Rookie of the Year winners into their second season. Players are listed by their rookie year:
LeBron finished sixth in 2005 Most Improved Player voting. Bobby Simmons, who increased his box plus-minus by just 2.5 (-0.8 to +1.7) won the award.
Again, it’s hard for second-year players.
But again, this is not just some predestined natural improvement. This is one of the biggest leaps of all-time.
Here are the largest-ever increases in box plus-minus from a previous career high (minimum: 500 minutes each season)
Again, LeBron is Doncic’s only peer on that leaderboard. They’re the only two to start with a positive box plus-minus.
But Doncic’s rookie-year plus-minus was even higher than LeBron’s.
It’s harder to go from good to great, and that’s what Doncic has done – unlike anyone else ever.
Doncic has taken total control of the Mavericks’ offense. He creates for himself, for others. And he even improved his efficiency while shouldering the extra burden.
Among players who had a prior high of at least +3.0, Doncic has increased his box plus-minus FAR more than anyone else (minimum: 500 minutes each season):
Box plus-minus probably tends to overrate players who contribute across the box score, like Doncic. That stat is just one of many considerations.
I’m not totally convinced Doncic should win Most Improved Player, though he was my midseason choice. Hornets point guard Devonte' Graham has gone from out of the rotation to quality starter. Brandon Ingram blossomed just in time to get paid. Trae Young, another highly drafted sophomore, is having a breakout year. There are plenty of other candidates, too.
But Doncic – regardless of his experience and draft position – absolutely belongs prominently in the discussion.