For the rest of LeBron James' career, it will be a marquee matchup whenever he faces off against Luka Doncic.
The two superstars are separated by 14 years in age and James is old enough to have been Doncic's favourite player growing up, but Doncic is doing things at the age of 21 that we haven't really seen since James first entered the league. He is well on his way in pursuing the title of best player in the NBA, and he may be on a faster track to claim that title than James was back in the day, believe it or not.
With a highly anticipated meeting between the two on NBA Christmas Day, our NBA.com Staff discusses which player we think was better at 21 years old.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I went into this fully expecting to say Luka and walk away, but I can't be the only one that completely forgot LeBron averaged his career-high of 31.4 points per game as a 21-year-old, right? Finishing second to Steve Nash in MVP voting, James nearly became the youngest to claim the award in NBA history - a title Doncic will be gunning for this year.
LeBron averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game as a 20-year-old. Something that's really only comparable to Luka's 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game last season at age 20. The way they both completely control a basketball game is uncanny for a player of that age and something I've only seen twice in my lifetime, with these two players as the only examples.
All of this is to say that there's really no right or wrong answer to this question, but I'm going to go with LeBron. No player has ever entered the NBA with higher expectations and he went on to somehow exceed those astronomical expectations by the end of his 21-year-old season. Without seeing Luka do the same just yet - although I think he will do that this year - I'm still going with James.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): I can confidently say that time has taught me this: When there's a basketball debate involving LeBron James, the correct answer is almost always LeBron James.
This debate is no different.
Seeing what Luka did during last year's postseason was incredible but I don't want to be a prisoner of the moment and put that over LeBron's body of work as a 21-year-old, either. LeBron made his first playoff appearance at 21 and got things started with a triple-double while appearing in all 48 minutes of action.
LeBron might not have had the iconic buzzer-beating game-winner on one bad ankle like Luka, but LeBron had TWO game-winners in his first-ever playoff series, both coming in 40-point performances. It's actually pretty eerie when comparing the moments that added to their legend by the age of 21.
As great as Luka is, looking back reminds me that LeBron was even greater at that stage, even if the difference is ever so slight. At 21, LeBron was arguably the league's best player while Luka is currently comfortably in the top six or seven but has yet to emerge to the top of the list.
Still, history repeats itself and these similarities should be a reminder to cherish what we see from Luka, because we're seeing a story of an all-time great unfold right in front of our eyes.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): I'm going to say Luka Doncic is better at 21 than LeBron James was.
First things first, this isn't a Greatest of All-Time debate, so let's not overreact. Kyle already pointed out that there's not much to choose between their numbers at the age of 21. Here's a closer look at their career averages in all regular-season games before they turned 21:
|Player||Games||PPG||RPG||APG||SPG||Game Score||Box Plus-Minus|
It's slightly unfair to compare them at 21 because James turned that old in his third season while Doncic turned 21 in just his second season in the league. Anyways, one thing's clear - before they were 21, both had won the Rookie of the Year and were voted as All-Star starters.
At 21, James was in his third NBA season (2005-06) and went on to finish second in the MVP voting behind Steve Nash. On the other hand, Doncic turned 21 in just his second season (2019-20) and went on to finish fourth in the MVP voting.
So, despite being a year younger on NBA experience at 21, the Slovenian has matched the King in pretty much all of the categories mentioned. So, it's by the slightest of edges, but it's Doncic's Game 4 performance against the Clippers in the 2020 NBA Playoffs that has me picking him.
It was arguably one of the greatest individual playoff performances in NBA history against a team that was considered to be the prohibitive championship favourite in the Clippers. Just take a look at the records Doncic set or broke as a result of his performance in that game:
» 3rd player ever with 40-15-10 in the playoffs (Oscar, Barkley)- Mavs PR (@MavsPR) August 24, 2020
» joined LeBron as only 21yo's to record a 30pt triple-double in playoffs
» only player with more than 1 triple-double in playoffs this year
» 2nd-longest postseason GW buzzer-beater (28ft), only behind Dame (37ft) pic.twitter.com/NVXQC8hOMk
Note: He did all of the above on a bad left ankle.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Yash made one hell of a case for Doncic, but I'm more on Gil's side in that in any basketball debate involving LeBron, it's probably best to go with him.
Plus, as Gil mentioned, LeBron had an absurd run in the playoffs himself at the age of 21.
In the first round, LeBron led the Cleveland Cavaliers past a very good Washington Wizards team with averages of 35.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. (That was a sneaky fun series, by the way, that featured a couple of game-winners, as well as some one-on-one battles between LeBron and Gilbert Arenas). He then helped the Cavaliers push the Detroit Pistons, who were coming off of back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals, to seven games in the second round.
Doncic could very well have a similar run this season ... but he'll be 22 years old if he does. So it's close, but I'm going with LeBron.
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