Entering his second season, Zach LaVine is a national attraction due to his stunning performance in the 2014-15 Dunk Contest. LaVine is a young, athletic freak who can be a highlight reel in every game. While expectations were quite low for the 20-year old after being drafted 13th in the 2014 draft and didn’t start for UCLA in his single season there, opportunities arose through multiple injuries and a youth movement last season. LaVine showed flashes of amazing and terrible.
Last season, LaVine averaged 10.1 ppg but over the final 18 games of the season averaged 18.7 ppg, 5.4 apg, and 4.9 rpg. He managed to score 37 points against the Warriors where he made 6 3-pointers. Statistically, he managed to have a solid season. LaVine came in without much experience or identity outside of his athleticism and personality, so he was a blank canvas for Coach Flip Saunders. He primarily played shooting guard making a living off of scoring in transition and making the occasional open three in college but in the NBA he would be asked to play point guard. It was something that would be much of an experiment because he offered a height advantage against point guards and matched their weight. At the beginning of the season, it was probably expected LaVine wouldn’t play much behind Ricky Rubio or the newly acquired Mo Williams. But injuries and trades happen. The opportunity presented itself. Before we knew it, the 19 year old Zach LaVine was the starting point guard.
Zach LaVine as the point guard started with Flip. LaVine proved he was an electric player that could give you highlight reel dunks, but his decision making has been questionable throughout his career. He takes midrange shots very early in the shot clock without passing a lot, which is probably the most inefficient thing to do in basketball. 29% of his shots were between 16ft and the 3-point line, accounting for the largest amount of his field goal attempts. He turned the ball over enormous amount as well, about 2.5 times a game last season, making his assist-to-turnover ratio really close to 1. That is bad for a point guard, and anyone really. Lastly, his defense was terrible. He gets stuck behind picks, is too weak to guard shooting guards, and can’t stay in front of point guards.
But there was hope. He showed he has the ability to score, athleticism that makes him difficult to guard, and a decent shooting stroke that teams have to defend. His ability to get to the line and finish around the rim made him valuable on the offensive end. The other thing that is impressive about LaVine is his demeanor. He has a wonderful work ethic, as he has visibility put on weight this season. He has a love for the game and confidence in his ability. He has shown that he can hit some big shots and doesn’t back down from a challenge.
As Sam Mitchell took over, he gave the starting 2-guard role to Zach LaVine in the preseason and said it was his position to lose. Unfortunately, he lost it rather quickly and was benched by the time the season opener came along. He looked extremely inefficient as a starter and just couldn’t keep up. So as the season started, LaVine found himself in the backup point guard role where he has also struggled early on in the season, but not as bad as the preseason. He still lacks the fundamentals, basketball IQ, and defensively ability to really be effective. But he has shown promise in some games this season.
Zach played what many called the best 11 minutes of his career (which I personally disagree) against the Hawks where he scored in double figured and ran the offense effectively as the Wolves pulled out to a 34-point lead. He then was benched for giving up that lead in the second half. He started the first game of the season last night in a loss against the Hornets where he showed signs of greatness and terribleness with 20 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, and 8 turnovers. He made some amazing plays to the basket but then also took terrible shots and made some terrible passes.
But at the end of the day, Zach LaVine is unfortunately the 2nd best point guard on this roster. The Wolves will have to live and die by his play. While as some point it may make sense to play him at shooting guard, right now the way he is going to see minutes is by playing point. What will really help his game is when he will be able to play alongside Rubio, who has made everyone play better when he is on the floor this season. But instead LaVine is on the floor with the ball-stopping Kevin Martin, the struggling Shabazz Muhammaed and Dieng, and the star rookie-vet Bjelica.
This season and next will truly determine Zach’s career projection. The Wolves will likely need to trade Kevin Martin in order to open up minutes for LaVine at the shooting guard position. LaVine will need to immediately stop taking mid range jumpers unless they are wide open and start playing better defense. He also will in time naturally add body weight so that he can compete physically in the NBA. There should come a point where LaVine will force himself to the line when he is on the same physical level as most of the players in the league. But the most important that I believe is being overlooked on LaVine is the 3-point shot. If he can develop a good consistent 3-pointer, which he is more than capable of, he will force himself onto the floor for the unique ability to get to the rim and shoot the 3.
I am a true believer Zach LaVine has the capability to be an All-Star in the NBA but the concern now is his relationship with Sam Mitchell. My worry is that Mitchell isn’t going to place LaVine in a position to succeed. While Prince is here to mentor Wiggins and KG for Towns, LaVine seems to be the forgotten child on the roster. LaVine has an incredible amount of upside, it is just beginning to look like it may not be fostered appropriately in Sam Mitchell’s coaching style. As mentioned earlier, this season and next will be defining for Zach LaVine. He will determine in the next two seasons his career projection. He could end up anywhere between a mix of Russell Westbrook athletically mixed with Jamal Crawford’s skillset, or a combo guard version of J.R. Smith.
In assessing the Wolves current inventory of players, he serves as an insurance policy to Ricky Rubio and capable of playing big minutes. Tyus Jones seems to be like the future backup point guard if Ricky does remain healthy. As for shooting guard, it depends on what Andrew Wiggins becomes. Shabazz Muhammed is also still defining himself in which position he will play. But LaVine could grow naturally as a combo guard for the Wolves as roles are defined in these next two seasons. The hope would be he plays more shooting guard than point guard when its all said and done. But for now, we are left with a guy playing point guard who has all the potential of a superstar without the fundamentals or IQ.