The Kids Are Alright - Part Three - Take Flight, Zach LaVine


 

Source: FTW USA Today

Wide-eyed, and with a look of “terror” on his face—Zach LaVine of UCLA had just been drafted in the 2014 NBA Draft by the “dreaded” Minnesota Timberwolves. A team that missed the playoffs yet again with a 40-42 record, and with their best player in Kevin Love demanding a trade, the Twolves were yet again on the downward trend.

Putting his head down on the table he uttered two words that sent the Internet into a frenzy, “F*** me”.  And that was how this young pup started his career in the NBA, with a little profanity, and a whole lot of speculation that he did not want to play for the Timberwolves.

We of course now know the meaning behind his initial reaction. He was just in a state of shock, a feeling that only a tiny percent of people will ever experience in their lifetime. The feeling of having been selected to play professional basketball in the NBA, the dream of getting paid millions to do what you love, and the possibilities of endless fame. 

In an interview with the Star-Tribune, LaVine had this to say, When my name got called, I lost it. I put my head down, thanked God, and from there, I just lost it. I'm a very emotional person. I didn't mean anything, any disrespect, I'm the most excited person. It was almost in disbelief that I said that. I felt bad, because that's not the best first impression to give an organization.”  

I’m not sure if he was able to convince the masses of the true intent of his words, but with that being said, most of everyone was ready to move on into the 2014-2015 NBA season.

A Humble Beginning

Picked as boom-or-bust prospect, the expectations for LaVine’s rookie season were really low. Considered a slight after-thought, especially with the acquisition of the number one overall pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers from the same draft, Andrew Wiggins. He wasn't expected to contribute too much his rookie year.

LaVine did not even start for the UCLA Bruins during his lone freshman season, he averaged 9.6 points, 1.8 assists, and 3.8 rebounds in just about 25 minutes a game.

He was drafted on upside alone—an athletic specimen with a 41.5-inch vertical (unofficially 46 inches in a workout with the LA Lakers), a player who could slice and dice it to the rim, and someone with great shooting mechanics. Some GM’s envisioned a Russell Westbrook clone, a vision almost unattainable, but with his athletic ability, raw talent, and under the right direction; potentially, the sky could be the limit for LaVine.

As stated in the first part of this series, LaVine had an up and down rookie year. With Rubio injured most of the season from a brutal sprained ankle, LaVine was thrusted into the starting position at point guard. As the season was going poorly for the Wolves as whole anyway, tossing LaVine into the fire was a way for then coach Flip Saunders to create a learning experience for his young rookie.

Playing the point guard position, LaVine made too many mental errors. He turned the ball over too many times and didn’t seem to know when to run the offense or attack the basket himself. However, he made a name for himself in the 2015 NBA Dunk Contest. Showing off his great athleticism and spectacular dunks—LaVine crushed the field containing Victor Oladipo, Mason Plumlee, and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

After the dunk contest, many fans and media alike agreed that LaVine had single handedly brought excitement back to the competition once again. This was a great moment in LaVine’s very young career, and an exciting moment for Timberwolves fans everywhere.

As a known gym-rat and constantly striving to be better, LaVine definitely wanted to be known as more than just a dunker. Year two is where he would have to prove himself, and to show he wasn’t just a (very early in his career) Gerald Green clone. 

The Sophomore Ascension

With Sam Mitchell’s takeover of the team after Saunders’s surprising death, the start of year two for LaVine was a mixed bag. He had played well enough in Las Vegas during Summer League to be named the starter by Mitchell in preseason, but only a few games into preseason Mitchell decided to send LaVine back to the bench and to start Tayshaun Prince in his place—and up until All-Star break for that matter.

Mitchell continued to use LaVine as the backup PG to Rubio, leaving the more viable options in veteran Andre Miller and new rookie, Tyus Jones to become constant bench warmers. Leaving an opportunity for the former to provide stability when Rubio needed his rest, and an opportunity for the latter to develop as a viable NBA PG. 

LaVine averaged 24.3 minutes, 12.8 points, and shot 34.5 percent from three-point range pre All-Star break. He still struggled to find any rhythm at the PG position and if it wasn’t clear before (which it was), the PG position just did not suit him. 

There were moments of clarity though for LaVine. Near the end of the first half of the season, Mitchell started playing him more at the shooting guard position with Rubio at PG. He started closing out games with Gorgui Dieng, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Wiggins as well.

It looked like LaVine flowed more smoothly within the offense instead of running it while at SG. He looked more comfortable out there, hitting catch-and-shoot situations and driving to the basket more than he did at PG. However, his real rise didn’t take place until All-Star weekend in Toronto and beyond.

LaVine competed in two events: The Rising Stars game featuring rookie and sophomore players and the Slam Dunk Contest where he would have to defend his previous title against Andre Drummond, Will Barton, and Aaron Gordon.

What a weekend for LaVine and Wolves fans everywhere. LaVine ended up taking home the MVP trophy of the Rising Stars game and won the dunk contest in a highly contested matchup against Aaron Gordon.

Although everyone knows these games are just highlight reels to just be entertainment for the fine fans of the NBA, LaVine finished the game with 30 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. 

Continuing on into the Dunk Contest, LaVine and Gordon put on a show that had so many insane highlights. It definitely one-upped the year before and I'm unsure if the continual rise of the event can sustain itself. How much longer will LaVine compete in the event, will Gordon be back next year?

There were a lot of complaints that Gordon should have won, but both him and LaVine had outrageous enough and high-flying dunks that should have constituted as 10s like the judges gave them. Gordon just ran out of ideas as the rounds extended and that hurt him. LaVine did show some nice sportsmanship offering to share the trophy after the competition was decided.

After all the excitement of All-Star weekend, LaVine carried over that momentum into the 2nd half of the season and showed everyone why scouts were crazy about his potential.

His minutes rose from 24.3 minutes to 35 minutes a game, and he averaged 16.4 points while upping his three-point percentage to 43.7 percent.  

LaVine even showcased his ability to take over games multiple times during the second half of the season. His best clutch game was against the Washington Wizards when the game ended up going into double overtime and ultimately ending in a Wolves win.

Multiple times during the game the Wolves would be down by three or four, and LaVine would end up hitting some huge shots to keep bringing them back into it. In this clip, LaVine hits back-to-back three pointers to send it into its second overtime.

 

With the first shot, Dieng sets a beautiful screen to leave an open LaVine at the of the top of the key to hit the three. On the second shot, Dieng sets another screen, but this time Marcin Gortat is on top of LaVine to defend the shot. It was good defense by Gortat, but LaVine was shooting lights out all game and just hit another big shot with Gortat's hand in his face. LaVine ended the game on 10-17 shooting with five three pointers made. He had 25 points and four assists, including a nice assist to Dieng to close the game out as a win.

Here is a montage of LaVine scoring 35 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, watching his offensive skills at work is a real treat. I would love to see what he brings next season with new head coach Tom Thibodeau at the helm.

You can see the real offensive savviness LaVine contains within these highlight videos. He glides up and down the court with ease, has the ability to get to the rack whenever he wants, can create his own shot when needed, and obtains the best shooting mechanics on the team (in my opinion). With LaVine's willingness to always improve, and with the guidance of Thibodeau, he has an opportunity to really improve his overall game and become a dynamic two-way player.

The Offseason

A few items that LaVine should address this offseason should be:

Putting on some muscle: By adding a little bit of bulk to his frame, LaVine will be better at guarding bigger/stronger shooting guards, and getting through screens a bit easier. At 6'5 and 181 pounds, there is definitely room for him to add on some muscle without it hindering his leaping ability.

Improving his BBIQLaVine should take this time as well to watch tape of last season to see what he can improve upon. Whether it be too many questionable passes, taking ill advised long-twos, defensive rotational deficiencies, or just plain turning the ball over. He should review some of the problems that he was consistent with in game situations, and work to cut some of those mental errors down for next season.

Defensive Drills: Coach Thibodeau is known to really work his players hard in practice, and defense is his speciality. LaVine is a gifted offensive player and as time goes on he will be a super clutch scorer. However, defensively there is much more to be desired with LaVine. He should take this summer to learn Thibodeau's playbook and defensive strategy and implement it into his training regime. If he cannot defend, Thibodeau will not hesitate to keep him on the bench even if he very talented offensively. He clearly has the skill set to be a good defender, it's just a matter of him wanting to improve on that side of the ball.

LaVine has the tools to be a great player in this league. Just watch any highlight video of him (an archive of him, and other wolves players can be found here), he is quick, athletic, can create his own shot, and can be the go-to scorer if both Wiggins and Towns are being held down. He is only 21, but you can see that he is oozing with potential. The hiring of Thibodeau to lead this team will work wonders on LaVine (among others). He is still five/six years away from his prime, and in year three of his NBA career—expect to see mass improvements on both sides of the ball from him. 

 

*All statistics used within this article have been pulled from NBA.com/stats and basketball-reference.com

 

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