An early Friday night edition of the Game of the Week marks a chance to witness the top two scorers in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague as Khimki Moscow Region hosts Real Madrid go against each other in the only matchup of this round between teams currently in playoff positions.
For Khimki (9-7), which won in the Spanish capital earlier this season, a victory would mean jumping past the visitors in the standings. For Madrid (10-6), a sixth consecutive win would mean taking aim again at the top places in the table just a month after having lost six of seven games due to a string of injuries.
Considering those significant implications for the standings, all eyes will be on the home team's pyrotechnic scorer, Alexey Shved, as he battles the top young star to come along in years, Luka Doncic, because the winner of their duel might well put his team over the hump in this game.
It is hard to overstate how important either star has been to his team's fortunes so far this season.
Shved is not only the EuroLeague's leading scorer at 21.8 points per game, but you have to go back more than 15 years – all the way to the late, great Alphonso Ford – to find any player with a higher scoring average through 16 games. What's more, Shved has been utterly consistent, downing at least 16 points in each of those games, a streak that marks a first within a single EuroLeague season. Not even Ford did that in his only season that went so long, when he was averaging 24.8 for Olympiacos back in 2001-02.
None of last season's top three scorers – Keith Langford of UNICS Kazan, Nando De Colo of CSKA Moscow and Andrew Goudelock of Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv – lasted more than eight games in a row with 16 points or more. Anthony Parker, with 13 games scoring 16 or more to start the 2004-05 season for Maccabi, and Ford, with 11 in a row for Olympiacos, came closest – which puts Shved in pretty good company.
Shved has made more three-pointers than any EuroLeague player this season, 47, while on record-pace for attempts from the arc, with 9.2 per game. He is also a top-10 performer in both assists (4.4 per game) and steals (1.4). Shved also leads the EuroLeague with 32.2 minutes played per game, so you can be sure of his protagonism from game to game.
The same is true of Doncic, who despite his youth, leads the EuroLeague in performance index rating, with a 25.1 average, while ranking second behind Shved in scoring with 18.1 points per game.
Doncic owns three of the six best-rated performances of the season, and seven of the top 21, which proves that he can explode at any time. But Doncic, too, has been remarkably consistent, with just two single-digit scoring games and one with a PIR below 12 all season.
What's more, at just 18 years of age, Doncic is threatening to break the EuroLeague record this century for per-minute PIR, which translates as overall productivity while on the court. He is currently at 38.1 per 40 minutes, ahead of Boban Marjanovic's 37.6 for Crvena Zvezda in 2014-15 and Arvydas Sabonis's 37.2 for Zalgiris Kaunas in 2003-04. Again, flattering company.
Where Doncic separates himself most from Shved is in rebounding, where his 5.6 average is among the best ever for a guard, and in shooting, which he does a lot less but at higher percentages, the main difference being his 16% better accuracy on two-pointers. Doncic also gets to the free throw line more despite drawing fewer fouls and turns the ball over less than Shved.
There is no guarantee that either star will defend the other head-to-head in tonight's game, with defensive specialists like Charles Jenkins of Khimki and Jeffery Taylor of Madrid likely to take aim at shutting down the other team's best scorer. There is little chance of either succeeding completely, of course, but look for both teams to array their defenses in ways that either keep the ball out of the hands of Shved and Doncic or force them to pass it.
If those plans work, Madrid has better chances due to its greater experience and depth, even without its injured big men. Shved is playing at home and probably has more pressure than Doncic to lead his team night-in and night-out.
Regardless, one common factor that makes both players exciting is they betray no fear of mistakes, which along with the trust of their coaches and teammates gives them the freedom to create opportunities from the flow of the game using their considerable instincts. They are often unique in that regard, making opponents react to them more than the opposite. But tonight, they will be like two positively charged ions frantically repelling one another, most likely until sparks fly.
With two ultra-talented free spirits like Shved and Doncic on the loose, fans are in for a rare treat.