The Trait That Makes Luka Doncic So Hard to Guard

The 24-year-old phenom uses "eccentric force" to create separation. Here's how to replicate it.

Luka Doncic drives against Joel Embiid, preparing for his signature step-back.
Joel Embiid has four inches on Luka a 7′5″ wingspan. In order to take a shot, Doncic has to create space.
Getty Images

The NBA is officially back this week, and so is Luka Doncic’s step-back J. While the Dallas Mavericks superstar’s season scuttled to an early halt back in April, he still put together another dominant campaign, earning his fourth All-NBA First Team selection. (It’s hard to believe he’s even been in the league that long.)

Doncic has a lot working for him on the court: sneaky size, Magic-level court vision, and a tight handle with a low turnover rate. But it’s his ability to create separation seemingly at will that’s turned him into a 30-a-night guy — and could lead him to his first MVP award this season.

Luka’s Step-Back

The 24-year-old obviously didn’t invent the step-back, but he has absolutely perfected it. His success on step-back threes is hovering over 37%…while the rest of the NBA’s three-point percentage on normal attempts stands at 36%. In simpler terms, the guard finds way to score from places he shouldn’t be able to. At first, coaches bristled at this strategy — then they got out of his way. (Here’s a satisfying six-minute video of Doncic’s signature step-backs.)

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Why Does It Work So Well?

In general, it’s difficult to explain why professional athletes are able to do the things they do, and NBA players often make that prospect impossible. How can Steph shoot like that? Or LeBron chase down layups with ease? Or Wemby do whatever the hell this was to people? Who can say? Some otherworldly combination of god-given talent, training and skillset.

For Doncic, though, there’s a precise concept from the physical training world that explains his consistent success in creating space: eccentric force. Doncic is able to generate power when his lower half is lengthened. Like a gymnast finding an unlikely way to propel their body during a floor routine, the Mavericks star can jab forward, then leap into his step-back without losing his stability or strength.

It’s a mastery of “preparatory movement,” basically. Doncic drives (putting his defender on his heels), then abruptly decelerates (this is where the eccentric contraction happens), then pounces backwards into the contraction we’re all more familiar with (concentric; think leaping into the air or pushing a bar off your chest) and sinks his shot. Three points. Here is an excellent example of the eccentric phase that starts it all, courtesy of an article in The Athletic.

How to Train Eccentric Force

If relying on eccentric forces to score points — or accomplish anything in sports, for that matter — sounds a little risky, that’s because it is. Eccentric positions leave you vulnerable in the case of a collision (basketball players step on each other’s ankles all the time), while the contraction itself can put stress on the joints, strain tissue and even create microtears in the muscles.

Not to mention, Doncic is young, and players tend to lose their command of eccentric contractions as they age. They can even lose command of the maneuver over the course of a game due to fatigue. So it’s a strategy that necessitates a degree of care.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to think that Doncic is bringing the ball up the floor thinking, “I’ll dribble to my left, feint towards the lane, then execute a textbook eccentric contraction.” But it’s certainly possible that in his training regimen — with the Mavs, with Slovenia, with his offseason coaches — that he’s prioritizing the sort of exercises that will “bulletproof” his lower half, and allow him to be as creative on the court as he damn well pleases.

Eccentric-focused training emphasizes the slow and controlled lengthening phase of a muscle contraction. If you were performing an air squat, for instance, you would lower yourself into the squat position at a snail’s pace (taking up to five seconds), and then stand up quickly once at the bottom. This sort of “negative” training increases time under tension, encourages good form, strengthens mobility, streamlines neuromuscular adaptations and has been linked to increased hypertrophy, or muscle growth (relative to concentric contractions).

That’s a whole lot of good, and worth shooting for whether you’re an MVP hopeful or not. We recommend incorporating the following eccentric-focused moves into your training routine:

  • Nordic Curls: With your feet anchored by a partner or machine, kneel and gradually lower your torso forward with control, using your hamstrings, then use your hands to catch and push yourself back up.
  • Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts: Stand on one leg, hinge at the hips, and slowly lower a dumbbell towards the ground while extending the free leg straight back, then return quickly to the starting position.
  • Eccentric Box Drops: Step off a box or platform, controlling your landing by absorbing the impact through the legs as you lower into a squat.
  • Reverse Lunges: From a standing position, step back with one foot and slowly lower your body towards the ground, then push off with the back foot to return to the start.
  • Eccentric Leg Presses: Stand on the edge of a step, raise up onto your toes, then slowly lower your heels down below the step level, taking three to four seconds, and push up quickly to return.
  • Eccentric Calf Raises: On a leg press machine, push the weight up to straighten the legs, then slowly return the sled back over five seconds and push up quickly to start again.

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