No two NBA stars are as strikingly similar and distinctly different as Russell Westbrook and Luka Doncic. In some ways, the two seem like mirror images – stunning Western Conference point guards and triple-double machines; one a former MVP winner, the other a favorite to claim the award soon. In other ways though, they couldn’t be more opposite.
Where Westbrook has relied on his raw athleticism and explosiveness, Luka’s built his game around smart playmaking and high basketball IQ. Where Westbrook’s 6’3” build and quick driving prowess have earned him comparisons to Oscar Robertson and Derrick Rose, Luka’s size at 6’7” and incredible passing make him more akin to the great Magic Johnson. And of course, while Westbrook seems to be aging out of his true prime, Luka’s NBA career has just begun.
For every point of similarity, there is one of opposition. Inevitably, both players’ excellence and easy comparability have led to numerous side-by-sides. So how do the two stack up in each major category of their game, and as a whole? That’s what we’re here to find out.
Scoring - Luka Doncic
Starting out, this might come as the most shocking turn in this entire analysis. Westbrook is, after all, known more than anything for his highlight-reel finishes. He’s one of the modern era’s most dominant scorers in the paint, averaging 31.6 PPG in his 2016-17 MVP season. And yet, when you look at the numbers, Luka edges out the older star in a few key ways.
The first and most obvious is shooting. While Doncic isn’t exactly a leading three-point scorer, his attempts from beyond the arc are still notably more successful than Westbrook’s. It’s an area where Luka will likely keep improving over time, but even his distance percentage over his first two seasons (.321) exceeds Westbrook’s over his career, and far exceeds the veteran’s own first two years in the league.
That gap expands when looking at true shooting percentage – .566 for Luka’s career so far, and .530 for Westbrook. Plus, the young Maverick averaged 28.8 points this season – more than Westbrook has in any year of his career save his aforementioned MVP season. Part of that is surely due to playing alongside Kevin Durant, but most of Westbrook’s seasonal averages in PPG don’t come close to that number.
Athleticism - Russell Westbrook
This is an obvious call. Russell Westbrook is one of the most impressively athletic basketball players of all time and certainly beats out Luka in the category. With his previously mentioned lack of a three-point shot, Westbrook has established his scoring legacy almost exclusively off the potency of his explosive drives and flamboyant finishes. It’s that same athleticism that’s allowed him to be a killer on rebounds through his career and average a triple-double in 2016-17.
This is the biggest area where the two players differ. Luka’s scoring comes more from smart, calculated plays, versatility, and masterfully drawing fouls. His dominance on the boards comes more from his significant height at point guard than his magical ability in the air, and he’s shown himself to be more of a floor general than a rocket ship. In fairness though, that hasn’t slowed him down one bit.
Defense - Russell Westbrook
This one is so close it’s almost too tough to call. Both Luka and Westbrook have proven themselves capable defenders, but it’s also neither player’s true area of expertise. Westbrook’s averaged 1.7 steals per game through his career, but he’s never made an All-Defensive squad. Luka, similarly, has been effective in certain moments, but his dominance comes out when the ball is in his hands.
In defensive win shares and defensive rating, however, Westbrook edges Luka out. His tenacity and tendency to swipe the ball for big breakaways has remained a present threat during his time in the NBA, and his rebounding is a testament to that as well. Given time though, Luka could certainly catch him in that regard. It all depends on how he develops.
Clutch - Russell Westbrook
Despite an astounding sophomore season and whispers of an MVP campaign as early as next year, Luka’s struggled in one area in particular – consistency in the clutch. Despite heavy usage in the final minutes for Dallas last season, his numbers didn’t hold up consistently with his output the rest of the time. That changes a bit in the Orlando bubble, and it will hopefully continue to change, but it hasn’t fully changed yet.
Westbrook may not be the most successful star in the playoffs (the postseason remains the albatross around his neck), but he’s showed up repeatedly over the course of his career to score in big moments. In late-game usage and go-ahead buckets, Westbrook was always near the very top of the league during his peak years. Has that trend stayed as steady lately? Not necessarily. But for now, he holds the torch over Doncic.
Leader - Luka Doncic
Leadership is a nearly impossible thing to quantify, especially for a player as young as Luka Doncic. And yet, in just two seasons, he’s already left an indelible mark as a leader in the Mavericks’ organization. As a playmaker, he’s already established himself as one of the best in the league. And as a presence on the court, he’s proved himself to be touch, confident, and unafraid of big moments. If that’s all true at 21 years old, imagine what the man will be capable of as his career continues.
That’s not to say that Westbrook hasn’t shown strong leadership potential as well. Specifically, in the wake of Kevin Durant’s exit from OKC, Westbrook stepped up and received praise from the team’s other players and coaching staff for adapting to the new role. He’s a veteran and a superstar, and he’s leveraged that high-level experience in more recent years as a trendsetter on the floor. However, he’s also spent the vast majority of his career as an offensive weapon. Should that detract from what he has done as a leader? Maybe not, but it’s still true that Russ is a superstar for his solo game, not for his leadership – Luka on the other hand, just might be.
Basketball IQ - Luka Doncic
Again, giving this one to Luka shouldn’t be a knock against Westbrook – it’s just a fact. Russ has excelled on the merits of his athleticism. Luka has excelled on the merits of his decision making. He’s not the fastest, and he doesn’t jump the highest. But from his 6’7” perch he surveys the court from the point and makes the right calls. He shoots at the right times, he draws smart fouls, and he sets his teammates up for high success every time.
Of course, it’s reductive to say that Westbrook’s success is all due to his athleticism. He’s led the NBA in assists twice, and that’s nothing to gloss over. But still, a lot of that success came from his inherent position, the incredible wings he’s played with, and the defensive attention he demands inside. None of that should take away from Russ’s impressive career as a point guard; it just means that he got there by different means than Luka is.
Impact - Even
Another category that’s incredibly difficult to quantify, this one truly is too close to call. On the one hand, Russel Westbrook is an MVP, two-time scoring champion, and two-time assist leader. He’s played huge roles on serious playoff contenders throughout his career and always puts up massive numbers.
On the other hand, in just two years, Luka has turned the Dallas Mavericks into what could be a serious contender in the West for years and years to come. He impacts every aspect of the game, has a varied skill set that will continue to develop, and may be one of the defining stars of the next decade. Luka’s first two seasons have trounced Westbrook’s in win shares, but Westbrook edges him out in career win shares per 48 minutes (.160 vs. .151).
Unfortunately, both players also have some detractors in this zone. Westbrook, for all his impact, has never won a championship. He’s been to the Finals only one time. Two of the biggest stars he’s played with – Kevin Durant and James Harden – hit their peaks when they played on other squads or with other point guards. And for Luka, all of his promise doesn’t guarantee a career of immense success. He’s just too young to make that claim right now. So with all that said, this particular race ends in a tie.
1 on 1 Game - Russell Westbrook
Surprising no one, Westbrook wins in the one-on-one. He’s an on-ball master with one of the most explosive basketball motors of the 21st century. Sure, his lack of a distance jumper knocks the range of his threat down a peg, but given that Luka isn’t all that much better in that regard, it doesn’t hurt him so much in this particular comparison.
Like many other aspects of this side-by-side, Luka could certainly surpass Westbrook in this regard in the future. If he keeps working on his threes, his already dominant scoring output could become even more dangerous, and it should age well due to his style of play. But right now, what he’s done can’t beat out Russ’s peak years, when he was an unstoppable iso-ball threat.
Career - Russell Westbrook
For our final category, Westbrook takes it by virtue of his seniority. Love him or hate him, his resume speaks for itself: nine All-Star appearances, nine All-NBA selections, two scoring titles, and two-times the league’s leader in assists. If he can add a championship to that record before his career ends, Russ’s legacy will be complete.
No player at 21 can compete with that, but Luka’s certainly on track to possibly pass Westbrook in this category one day. He’s already claimed the Rookie of the Year award and made the All-NBA First Team in his second year, along with his first All-Star selection. If he keeps moving in the direction he’s set, it seems inevitable for him to attain and surpass nearly every medal Westbrook has on his wall.
Russell Westbrook vs. Luka Doncic 5-3
Westbrook’s seniority, experience, numerous accolades, and incredible athleticism put him over the young Doncic in our comparison. While Luka shows more overall scoring versatility and efficiency, a higher basketball IQ, and better leadership potential, his lack of an established record means he can’t compete with Westbrook in a career encapsulation just yet. However, the fact that it’s even close at this point is a testament to how good Luka already is, and how much better he’s getting at each stage. Over the next few years, NBA fans could be watching a changing of the (point) guard.