If Luka Doncic ends up winning the Kia Rookie of the Year -- and, let’s face it, he’s pulling away right now – we’ll cite his performance on Dec. 8 as his defining moment.
The "HalleLuka" game. The 11-0 run game.
Whatever you want to call it, it was a memorable moment that solidified him as the rookie to beat this season and proved he’s a superstar in the making.
In case you missed it, Doncic was struggling against the Rockets, starting the game 3-for-13 as Dallas trailed 102-94 late in the fourth.
Then magic happened. Luka came to life.
Luka would score 11 straight points, starting with a routine 3-pointer in the corner. The Slovenian would give a slight shrug as if to say “finally” and continue to knock down another stepback 3-pointer, a floater in the lane and one last insane stepback 3-pointer over 7-foot Clint Capela to cap off the 11-0 run that electrified Dallas fans and stunned the Rockets.
"It was special," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said afterward. "It's pretty clear that he's got a flair for the moment. He's unafraid. You don't see that every day."
Doncic is winning over teammates and fans with his level-headed approach to the game, and that midseason night in December will be Exhibit A for Doncic keeping his cool.
"He's not an ordinary 19-year-old, we'll say that," Mavs guard Devin Harris told ESPN.com. "He's got a next-play mentality, doesn't get hung up on what happened earlier in the game. With the way we play and our profession, you've got to have that quick amnesia. He has that, and he showed it tonight."
So with the entire world raving about Doncic’s heroics, what did the 19-year-old think of his performance?
"It's just basketball," said Doncic. "If you're going to make shots there in Europe, you're going to make shots here. It's just confidence. This gives me a lot of confidence -- believe in me a little more. I'm just glad my team believes in me."
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1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last week: No. 1
Doncic came down to earth a bit after his 11-0 run game. In a 101-76 rout of the Magic, Doncic scored just seven points on 2-for-11 shooting (missing all five 3-point attempts) while fellow rookie Jalen Brunson erupted for 17 points in his first career start. Doncic did notch season highs, though, with 11 rebounds and nine assists. Doncic then capped off his week with another solid performance against Trae Young, scoring 24 points with 10 rebounds and six assists as Dallas beat Atlanta for the first time since 2013.
2. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 4
Sexton is proving he’s the real deal. The 6-foot-2 point guard with the unique braided rat tail has been the hottest rookie of late, leading the Cavs to wins against the Wizards and Knicks this week. The victory against John Wall and the Wizards might be his finest moment to date. Sexton scored 29 points with a season-high six assists while holding Wall to one point on 0-for-5 shooting in the Cavs’ 116-101 win. "This kid doesn't back down from a challenge," coach Larry Drew said afterward. "I don't care who it is. He's had some pretty tough matchups thus far through the course of the season and whether win, lose or draw in those matchups, I can always say at the end of day, he has never backed down and tonight was another example playing against a guy like John Wall who is as tough as they are from a talent standpoint. He accepted the challenge tonight and he played a phenomenal game on both ends of the floor and it says a lot about who he is." Sexton has scored in double-digits in 18 straight games and shows no signs of slowing.
3. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Last week: No. 2
The Suns keep losing (10 and counting), but Ayton keeps putting up huge numbers. Ayton has notched double-doubles in three straight games, averaging 16 points, 11.3 rebounds and two blocks per game while shooting 65.7 percent. Ayton reportedly exchanged words with injured star Devin Booker after Tuesday's blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, but brushed it off as two “winners” trying to right the ship. "That’s just two guys that want to win, to be honest,” Ayton said after Monday's shootaround. “We just want to be winners. We are winners. It is what it is.”
4. Kevin Knox, New York Knicks
Last week: Not ranked
Knox continued his resurgence this week, averaging 15.8 points and 7.5 rebounds over four losses. Coach David Fizdale is clearly giving his young rookie the reins, as he’s seen his playing time surge since missing seven games early in the season with a left ankle injury. Knox’s week was highlighted by a monumental 26-point, 15-rebound outing in a 119-107 loss to the Hornets in which he was 10-for-25, going 4-for-8 from beyond the arc. Knox became just the second teenager with a 25-15 game, joining LeBron James. Overall, Knox is still shooting 35.8 percent, but has improved in December to 40.4 percent (38.9 percent on 3-pointers). Knox jumps into the Top 5, and could stick around with more weeks like this.
5. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Last week: No. 3
The Grizzlies’ rookie disappeared a bit this week. Jackson started the week with a quiet outing, notching three points and zero rebounds (his first time being shutout this season) in 15 minutes of the Grizzlies’ 107-103 win against the Pelicans. Jackson finished his week with a 14-point, six-rebound, two-block outing in 31 minutes of Memphis’ 92-83 win against the Trail Blazers, but he needs to show more consistency if he doesn’t want to fall out of the Top 5.
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Just missed the cut:
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Young climbs back to just outside the Top 5 after a week with some solid performances. In his most recent meeting with Doncic, Young put up 24 points and 10 assists as Atlanta fell 114-107 in Dallas on Wednesday. It was one of Young’s best shooting nights of the season, as he finished 11-for-20 from the field (2-for-6 on 3-pointers).
Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings
Sacramento has won three of its last four, and Bagley has been a big reason. In those three wins, Bagley averaged 16.7 points and 4.3 rebounds, capped off by Wednesday’s 17 point, 10-rebound performance in a win against the Wolves. In the Kings’ lone loss? Bagley had just four points and fouled out in just 10 minutes.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clippers
He continues to run a tight ship and is drawing rave reviews from around the league, despite putting up solid (but not staggering) numbers. One star whose been impressed so far is Golden State’s Kevin Durant, who raved about Gilgeous-Alexander on Bill Simmons’ podcast when asked which young player has impressed him most. “We played against them earlier in the year, and man… He got the midrange down. His midrange is so good. He’s shooting with a high release so it’s hard to block at 6-6 when a point guard’s guarding him, so you gotta put a two guard on him. And he still shooting over two guards. So I’m like, man, that size at that age … And once you learn how to shoot the midrange, I feel like the 3-ball is gonna be easier for you to shoot. He’s knocking them down consistently. I like that he’s tall, too, for that position. He’s probably the guy that stood out the most because I never watched him in college. He got confidence in him.” To date, Gilgeous-Alexander is shooting 47.3 percent overall and 35.9 percent on 3-pointers while averaging 10.6 points for the 17-10 Clippers.
Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs scored with Luke Doncic, but they may have found a gem with their second-round pick. Brunson, the No. 33 pick, stepped in this week with Dennis Smith Jr. nursing a sore wrist and proved he’s the real deal. In four games as a starter, the Villanova product has averaged 11.8 points and four assists while shooting 66.7 percent. Brunson scored a career-high 17 points in a 101-76 win against the Magic on Monday and drew rave reviews after his third straight game scoring in double-digits. “This is another Donnie Nelson home run. This guy is terrific,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, referencing the GM’s history of successful Drafts. “He plays a very steady game, a very mature game for a guy who is a first-year player in the NBA. He’s earned everything he’s gotten here.”
Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls
Carter came back down to Earth this week. He hasn’t scored in double-digits in his last three games, averaging 5.7 points and 4.7 rebounds and one block in just 21.4 minutes per game. With the coaching shakeup and turmoil surrounding the Bulls, now would be a good time for Carter to establish himself as a leader and increase his production.
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(All stats through Wednesday, Dec. 12)
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