If you've been at all paying attention to UCLA for the past year, or the Timberwolves for the past month....or simply have two eyes connected to a functioning brain....you've no doubt seen the comparisons between Zach LaVine and Russell Westbrook.
They're both super athletic. Combo guards. Versatile. UCLA.
It's impossible to see Zach LaVine throw down and not have the knee jerk reaction of "that's just like Russell Westbrook!" And given Westbrook's bonafide superstardom, it's natural to hope for that in LaVine too. But how well founded are those hopes? What do the two really have in common? And more importantly, what do they not have in common?
Surprisingly, the metrics show that Westbrook and LaVine are a lot closer than anyone would probably expect. Westbrook only did one thing vastly better than LaVine in college (free throw rate) and had the same huge doubts about position and decision making as a draft prospect. VJL's chart of guys with similar star/bust percentages to LaVine actually has Westbrook on it.
Who knew Russ had just tremendous odds against him at the beginning? It seems unfathomable he wouldn't be any good now.
The athleticism comparison is a given. I mean, it's THE reason the two get compared at all in the first place. No one doubts LaVine's physical gifts, and certainly no one doubts Westbrook's either.
Obviously, a player with that kind of speed and leaping is going to be a bigger weapon in the open court more than anywhere else. If LaVine does nothing else...and resembles Westbrook in no other way....it's in transition, which made up over 30% of Lavine's scoring at UCLA. LaVine is able to beat defenses down the court easily, even without a head start, and is equally capable at handling the ball himself or filling the lanes. His 1.2 PPP mark in transition was near the top of all draft prospects this year, equaling Aaron Gordon and just barely trailing Andrew Wiggins (1.3 PPP)
This part of his game very much lines up with Westbrook, who had similar numbers in transition at UCLA (the percent of total offense is down as a pro now that he has full time point guard responsibilities) And I shouldn't even need to throw out any statistics to show how effectively Russ scores on fast breaks.
Now one way in which Westbrook DOES differ from LaVine in transition is that Russell will try to dunk EVERYTHING. Even if it doesn't look like a dunk it there. I mentioned this to Tim during the open scrimmage and Tweeted about it again last night: LaVine has Westbrook's ability to shoot the gaps on defense in the open court, but often stops short of taking the ball hard to the hoop.
Russ just runs even faster and packs it in someone's face.
Athletically, LaVine does not give anything to Westbrook. That's a bold, bold statement to make, but believe me; even in backhanded summer league, it's obvious Zach can run just as fast and jump just as high. There's no reason he can't do what Westbrook does in those situations. So if he gets to the middle of the floor in transition, he should do as Westbrook does: gather his legs and hammer the ball down. It's a higher percentage shot, more likely to draw a foul, and gets guys thinking they might be better off just getting out of the way the next time.
The second comparison is the point guard/combo guard one. Which is weird from many angles.
I'm not sure where the idea LaVine was a point guard started, because he didn't play point guard much at UCLA and none of his facilitating metrics stood out when he did. He created and assist in just 13% of his usage at UCLA, and tallied only 2.8 assists/40 minutes.
On the other hand, I'm not sure where the idea Westbrook was a point guard started either. Because he also didn't play point guard at UCLA (Darren Collison did) and his assists/40 his freshman year was only 3.0. I don't think really anyone looked at Westbrook in that draft and confidently though "yes, that's a point guard" except for Sam Presti. And while I have a pretty good idea how Presti knew Russ was going to be a star (which I'll talk about in a minute), I have no idea how he knew he could be a point guard. Even Westbrook's sophomore year...in which he did show good court vision....gave little indication he had the mentality or control to actually general a team full time.
I think the broad theory that allowed Westbrook to succeed as an NBA point guard was that even though he was prone to making stupid plays, his intent was right. He had good facilitating instinct, he just didn't execute them very well. The Thunder alleviated that pressure from him by basically setting no expectations to begin with. They let Russ just break down defenses with his freakish speed, then lived with him try to make plays as he saw them, with the assumption they could coach him to get better as he saw himself making mistakes. As Westbrook got more and more used to the pattern of how defenses collapsed on him, he began to see plays happening as gaps opened up and teammates started moving around.
If you're as quick and explosive as he is...or as LaVine is...you'll inevitably see teammates get open when you attack the defense. Just keep your head up, find which teammate is open, and pass the ball to him. It's a very base way of doing it that doesn't do any of the smart kicks or leading that say, Ricky Rubio's passing does. But when you're in the position of your body being father along than your basketball IQ it's a pretty good way to start things off.
LaVine has shown extremes of both good and bad playmaking in summer league so far. A couple good kickouts. A nice drop pass to Dieng for a dunk. Mixed in with throwing the ball at shoulder level through double teams, getting caught in the air, and even gunning a pass to a teammate who's not looking.
But it's not like it wasn't a good idea. If LaVine makes that pass a bounce pass, Dieng has an easy pick-and-roll dunk. I would say that the instincts are there...when guys get in motion, LaVine seems to know what the right play is. But same as his time at UCLA, he struggles to actually execute that play, even when it's fairly basic.
But again...so did Westbrook at the start. Even a cursory Google search will turn up year and years of complaining about Russell's decision making; something that still continues to this day, even when Russ is a top 10 player in the whole NBA. He was a walking disaster in Oklahoma's first round series against Memphis. He was the best point guard in the league one series later against LAC.
Lavine does share an important trait with UCLA Westbrook in that, while he's not always effective in initiating the offense, it's not for a lack of trying. He's unselfish. He just doesn't always keep his head up. Westbrook didn't either. One of the biggest accusations leveled at him over the years has been he intentionally doesn't pass to Durant. That's not really true. He misses passes to KD, yeah, but it's not because he's trying to. He just has his head down and doesn't seem him.
So in regards to the big things that compare LaVine to Westbrook over, good news. LaVine really is an athletic freak of nature like Russ, and Westbrook's ability to use his athleticism to give his basketball IQ time to improve means LaVine's sometimes terrible decision making isn't a lost cause. Zach is 19, a hard worker, and by all accounts a smart kid. He has a great fighting chance to grow into a big time player. LaVine will have time and leeway to make mistakes, as long as he shows he learns from them. Athleticism raises your ceiling as a player a ton, and buys you a lot of rope at the beginning because everyone's caught up in the highlights.
All that said, LaVine differs from Westbrook in a few massive, crucial ways.
LaVine actually has a very useful skill Westbrook does not: catch-and-shoot. LaVine excels off the ball, particularly coming off screens. He has a natural ability to both run set routes and instinctively find gaps in the defense, and was reliable at UCLA to say the least. LaVine posted a 1.0 PPP mark on all his jumpers this season, with a 1.15 PPP mark specifically in catch-and-shoot situations, a generally standout mark for college players.
For all his talents, that's simply not a skill Westbrook possesses. It's in fact at the heart of the on-court weirdness that flares up between him and Durant every now and again. Russell is an on-the-ball player. He attempted only 2 catch-and-shoot field goals a game last year, and hit just 28% of them. Only 33% of his total scoring was assisted. And yeah, sometimes that causes a clash with Durant over who's running the offense.
But after that, the advantages swing heavily in Westbrook's favor. While LaVine can break down defenses just as easily as Westbrook, his actual conversion rate is a lot poorer. Like way, waaaayyy poorer. Partially due to weight and partially due to mentality, Zach doesn't deal well with contact, and finishes even fairly easy shots pretty badly in traffic. This is exacerbated by him having almost no left hand (a very strange bit, since he has no problem dribbling with his left hand...) At UCLA he converted on just 44% of his contested drives. A lot of times LaVine will pull up short and try to float something over the defense. Sometimes he tries a ridiculous contortionist maneuver that leaves him at an impossible angle to the hoop. This was a chronic problem in college that is showing up in summer league as well.
I think the issue here is that, while he's willing to go towards the hoop, he's not necessarily willing to get to the hoop. LaVine's low strength and weight causes him to shy away from contact, where for example on a drive to the hoop, he's more likely to change direction or loft up a bad floater than crash into anyone. He protects his body more than the ball, like a running back who avoids the tackles but forgets to tuck in the carry, and by always going up with his right hand he makes it far to easy for defenses to stop his drives and contest the shot attempts.
As we already know from watching Ricky Rubio, not being able to convert layups in traffic kills your scoring production. Again, these are shots Zach needs to be trying to dunk. If he gets to the right spot on takeoff, then the only way he misses is if he gets fouled.
Which bring us to the second item, which is one I've harped on over and over this year: free throw rate. LaVine's was awful at UCLA. He averaged just 1.8 FTA a game to 7.8 FGA...a free throw rate of just .230. This is what's at the core of a lot of a lot of the gaps in Lavine's game, from the settling for long twos to the floaters in traffic. LaVine doesn't just take contact poorly, he often actively avoids it, either through crazy acrobatics or simply not driving in the first place.
Westbrook, by contrast, had a tremendous free throw rate at UCLA (.380) and one of the best in the whole NBA (.480) That exceeds even Kevin Love's FTr. Guys who don't get to the free throw line in the NBA just have a hard time being effective. It means you're not attacking off the dribble well and not posting up. Without free throws, you have to basically hit a crazy high percentage of jump shots to have a respectable TS%. Like, a Peja Stojakovic percentage. It's just not a realistic thing for 95% of NBA players to do. LaVine has to accept getting hit. He has to get to the free throw line.
And that leads into the biggest, most crucial way that Westbrook and LaVine differ: Westbrook simply plays the game in a way that not many guys do.
Some guys play to beat the competition. Some guys play simply to be the best player they can be. Some guys play for the money or the fame. I'm sure all of that motivates Russ to some degree, but the core of what gets Westbrook going seems altogether fundamentally different.
Whereas a lot of player play like the game owes them something, Russ plays more like the game stole his girlfriend and shot his dog. He's not entitled to basketball and he's not out to dominate it. He's out to murder it and bury it in the other team's backyard.
What really sets Westbrook apart from LaVine is Russ plays the game with a maniacal...almost suicidal...level of aggressiveness. He has a purity of intent, and absolutely no fear. When he decides he's going to do something, you get the impression he'd just as soon dislocate a shoulder and blow out both ACLs than not see it through. Every game I watch him in, Russell makes at least one play that leaves me cringing and thinking "boy, that was one second away from him going to the hospital".
This is how I think Presti knew what he had in Westbrook, and why LaVine's odds at stardom are so much steeper. Presti is a metrics guy, but it's clear that it wasn't metrics telling him Russ was a star, because the metrics clearly said Russ wasn't a star. It had to be something else, and I bet this was what it was. All the way back to UCLA, the defining element of what makes Westbrook successful was already there.
In the downhill, no touchy post-handcheck NBA, a guy who will go straight at the hoop until someone literally tackles him is one of the biggest weapons you can have. Whether it's Westbrook trying to dunk or Rondo looking to draw defenses in and kick, there's just not really a way to stop a guy who's constantly looking and able to slice through the middle of the defense.
The core of Westbrook's mentality and rise to stardom and probably what sold Presti on him was simple: regardless of what Westbrook's potential was, he was guaranteed to get the most out of it, because he is always trying to do something. ANYTHING. He pushes himself way past his limits trying to pull off the impossible, and every once in a while, he discovers that he actually can do it. And then that sets his bar that much higher. It's not a physical thing. It's entirely mental. In Westbrook's case, quite frequently emotional as well. The athleticism does you no good if you don't have the will to push it to the breaking point.
Russ uses his athleticism to try things you wouldn't think he could do. Things maybe even he's not sure he can do. Lavine seems to only use it in places where he already knows he can succeed. That's not pushing; that's settling.
If there's one big, big reason why Zach LaVine is not Russell Westbrook, this is it. The comparison isn't about how athletic they are. It's about how they use that athleticism. LaVine uses his athleticism as a tool, turning it on when he sees the opportunity to. Westbrook never turns it off. His combination of physical intensity and sheer GO is just as 'on' going around a simple screen as it is posterizing Tim Duncan. His athleticism isn't a weapon, it's an intrinsic part of the aggression that defines who he is as a player.
If LaVine wants to bridge the gap between where he is and where Westbrook is, then he's going to have to develop the same attack mentality Westbrook has. He's going to have to go for this every time he sees daylight.
Not just when he's wide open. Not just when he already knows he can make the play. Every. Time. Just like Westbrook does. Because that's the aggressive mentality he needs to have if he wants to make it big in the NBA. If he's not looking to dunk on every run at the hoop, that's him not pushing his athleticism, which is on his mentality. If he's not breaking down defenses....not slicing in with the ball and not running hard without it...then he's not being aggressive, which is on his mentality. It's a mental thing combined with and understanding his own limits. LaVine seems to underestimate himself in a way, passing up plays he can probably finish with ease if he'd just go for it.
When he understands that he can get that dunk anytime he sees that gap, he'll be legit on the path to stardom— canishoopus (@canishoopus) July 16, 2014
Westbrook has pushed himself so insanely hard he understands now that he doesn't need an open freeway to make a play. Half a gap and a couple steps is enough to throw down. It's all a guy of LaVine's athleticism should need too, but he's never going to understand that unless he pushes that athleticism to do it.
It goes without saying that Zach won't be taking point guard duties away from Ricky Rubio. If they both stick around long term, LaVine will spend most of his minutes at shooting guard with the ball out of his hands. Where is his ceiling in that scenario? A catch-and-shoot, 3-and-D guy is something Westbrook can't be. But it's also a fraction of the total player Westbrook is. Zach can already be a 3-and-D guy, but that doesn't make him anything special, and being more than that is about what goes on in his head, not how high he jumps with his legs.