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Inside the Upside: Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine has been knocked for his passive playing style, and his physical attributes don't define the type of player LaVine represents. So, what type of player is he? What does the data tell us about him? How about the eye test?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Because of the Kevin Love saga that has now continued beyond draft night, I slacked rigorously when scouting draft prospects and simply made peace with the idea that the Minnesota Timberwolves would take Adrian Payne with the 13th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. In the days leading up to Thursday's draft.

At some point, Gary Harris illuminated as the crowd-favorite-- more or less, drafting Harris would upset the least amount of people. He would have filled the Wolves backup point guard vacancy and Harris embodies the profile of a two-way player. Flip Saunders and Milt Newton oft used this term to describe who they coveted entering the draft, subsequently; drafting Harris would have been a logical, safe selection made with transparency. Instead Saunders, to the dismay of many, shot from the hip and presentably made a decision that is best justified using everyone's favorite, unquantifiable attribute: upside.


It seems as if Flip can't control himself, and Glen Taylor, a team owner who exhibits little-to-zero interest in basketball operations, has abandoned any sort of proverbial leash or electric boundary for the one he appointed into power. Within a year, Saunders committed over $115 million dollars signing players that appease Love's skill-set and appointed himself as head coach. Thursday, Flip committed what some believe to be a cardinal sin; drafting an athlete based on potential.


Obviously, a number of words have been written about the Wolves decision to draft LeVine. He possesses a freakish leaping ability and a lanky, athletic body that gives LaVine a passing grade on nearly any eye-test. Everybody has been burned by the eye test at some point or another, but advances in analytic evaluations, such as VJL's data and the stuff at Andrew Johnson's blog, represent how NBA executives are minimizing the risk when making draft selections and other personnel changes.

There's reason to believe the Wolves ignored or neglected data exposing LaVine's difficincies.

In VJL's post yesterday, he states LaVine's most concerning flaw is his inability to get to the basket. "His 1.5 attempts at the rim every 40 minutes are very low, and even when he got there he only converted at a terrible 46% rate. This inability to get to the rim is also captured in his lowly 2.8 free-throw attempts per 40, a rate that is outlier low among fellow guard prospects. I worry whether we should care about LaVine's athleticism if he can only get himself to the rim when there is nobody in front of him." Building onto this, according to DraftExpress [using 9.7 possessions per-game] LaVine ranked as the lowest usage player among shooting guards, and is the least efficient scorer in both one-on-one and pick and roll situations, to be selected in the draft.

The situations where I thought LaVine thrived were not one-on-one or isolation chances-- this is consistent with VJL's concern about his inability to get to the rim. Conversely, LaVine struck me more as a slashing off-ball guard with an ability to connect in catch-and-shoot situations. Most high percentage looks at the basket were created by LaVine's movement away from the ball. He seems to possess a knack for making shots, albeit the term shot maker is a broad, oversimplified descriptor  I prefer it may actually apply with LaVine-- he scored 1.15 points per possession in catch-and-shoot situations last year at UCLA.

Here are some examples.

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Because there are unavoidable caveats that come paired with a 19 year old prospect, sometimes LaVine is unable to create separation from defenders and he must improvise off-the-dribble to create space to attempt a shot. The convincing data presented by DraftExpress and VJL allows for us to expect little, to no production from LaVine in pick-and-roll and isolation situations. Instead what you're stuck with are pull-up jump shots that should be considered bailout field goal attempts, such as this one.

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LaVine starts the possession with the ball on the right wing before passing it off to his left. He runs into the lane, reverses direction, and utilizes a screen when returning to the wing on the nearside of the image. LaVine makes a hard v-cut after switching directions but doesn't come off the screen quickly, or sharply enough to create ample space for what would be an ideal catch-and-shoot situation. Instead, he jab-steps right but dribbles left, before connecting on a pull up three-point jumper.

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On this possession, LaVine receives a pass in the near corner with what appears to be enough space for a pure-shooter to connect for three-points. However, he is met with a decent close out by the defender who remains in front of him as opposed to contesting the shot and flying out-of-bounds in the process. This turns LaVine from a shooter into a ball handler, an area where he's inconsistent and must improve in order to be an effective scoring option in the NBA.

Still, this shot maker found a way to make it go down. How's one more sound? I'll keep it basic.

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It's late in the shot-clock, and the defender has left too much space for LaVine outside of the three-point arc. This is considered a defensive lapse in judgement such occurrences will not be as frequent in the NBA. Still, he steps into the look with confidence and knocks down the jumper. Not bad for a 19 year old backup player, but not something that should become a habit on the professional level.

LaVine has shown glimpses of ability to finish at the rim, but his thin, 180 pound frame becomes more nimble as he approaches the painted area. When LaVine attempts shots in areas closer to the basket he has a tendency of being off-balance-- he uses finesse, rather than athleticism to try and get buckets while driving among the trees.

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Above are two examples of plays where LaVine did a fine job of getting to the basket, but both results were merely weak, layups that could have easily been dunks had he channeled his notable leaping ability and exploded toward the hole. LaVine must take advantage of his athleticism at the next level, as the examples above show him getting by on strictly talent and ability.

Below: It's hard for me to see these type of plays and think that LaVine is incapable of turning into a useful player, at least offensively.

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Quick Recap

Without having mentioned the proficiency at which he scores in transition, LaVine is a uniquely athletic player that can jump out of the gym. However, he's still learning the game of basketball-- it's clear that LaVine has visible intangibles to find a role at the NBA level at some point in his career. LaVine is clever in the way he creates space with his first dribble, and he has a quick release when pulling up for FG attempts. Moreover, I believe Flip deploying LaVine as a guard that will play off-the-ball would be the proper way to integrate this 19 year old into the offensive scheme.

Ideally, limiting any rookie, or young player for that matter, to a specific role or duty can be accomplished. Inserting LaVine into a game and orchestrating plays designed to put him into catch-and-shoot situations would be best for his development. Allowing LeVine to discover a role and adding complementary facets as he becomes comfortable executing on the offensive end is how I'd like to see Flip go about simplifying his transition into the NBA.

My suggestions to LeVine would be to;

  • EXPLODE EXPLODE EXPLODE -- Develop a killer instinct and go up strong when trying to throw down a dunk.
  • Crisp Movement -- sharp cuts around and off screens help create space from a defender, make the most of them by making the most of every inch of space there is.
  • Keep catching, keep shooting -- Don't lose confidence in the shot. Sometimes, LaVine is bailed out by his smooth jumper but he can never afford to lack faith when using it. He's a shot maker, that's for certain.
  • PLAY DEFENSE -- This post doesn't mention defense, but it's only a matter of time before teams can watch film so the tape will be out of LaVine in terms of what he can do offensively. If he wants to stay on the floor and sustain a respectable NBA career LaVine must learn to become a two-way player; and fast.