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The puzzle that is Zach LaVine

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Zach LaVine's upside is as high as his vertical. But what exactly does that mean? What can he do as a player, and how can he help the Wolves?

As Flip Saunders said on draft night, he went swinging for the fences. A home run/hail mary. Akin to tightroping Niagra Falls, escaping Davy Jones' Locker; or betting pure sabacc on an Idiot's Array.

(If you get that sabacc reference you are likely a hopelessly antisocial nerd and my new best friend)

There's no question LaVine's output was mediocre at UCLA, with his conference play bordering on bad. Overall just a very blah profile.

PER TS% Reb% Ast% Stl% Points Produced Off Rating Def Rating Win Shares WS/48
2013-2014 (total) 14.6 .545 6.1 12.6 2.1 324 109 104 2.4 .111
2013-2014 (conf) 13.3 .493 5.8 12.2 2.5 160 104 104 1.1 .097

VJL's Star/Bust model didn't paint a hopeless cause by any means, but it's certainly a....mmm, moderating force, shall we say, on pie-in-the-sky LaVine hype. Among a couple comparisons to legit stars (Westbrook, Brandon Roy) are a few polar cases (like Nate Robinson) and a swarm of thoroughly bland role players....John Salmons, Marquis Daniels, Trenton Hassell, etc.

And overall, LaVine was not favored by any analytics model. In the aggregate metrics sheet (7 draft models compiled and normalized on a scale of 0-100) LaVine placed 37th with an average score of just 39. For comparison, Gary Harris scored 55, Kyle Anderson scored 71, and Jordan Adams scored 74. So it wasn't just us who were wary. Even the eye test scouts had a consensus that he should have stayed at UCLA another year.

LaVine did face a rather strange, outlier situation in that his head coach (Steve Alford) elected to play his son (Bryce) instead of Zach, in what can only be described as an act of nepotism. I'm sure Balford is a nice kid, but Salford had no business playing a borderline D1 recruit over an NBA lottery talent. Still, LaVine didn't show out big in the time he did get, and even in cases where huge talent gets limited minutes (usually due to injury) they still produced stellar results in those minutes (Kyrie Irving, Nerlens Noel)

We've touched on this here on Hoopus over the years with Darko, Wes, and particularly Beasley: there's a difference between what a player can't do and what he doesn't do.


Some players just can't do certain things. Al Jefferson can't jump as high as Dwight Howard. Corey Brewer can't shoot as well Ray Allen. Kevin Love can't block shots like Serge Ibaka. There are physiological traits missing there that no amount of practice or working out can make up for. And I don't say that as shade, by any means. It's just the truth...certain things, certain players just....can't.

That's different from the things a player doesn't do. Things that a player can do, but, well, doesn't. Darko could handle the ball, post up, and play lock-down defense. He had all the physical tools and showed the skills and mentality for it at times. But most of the time he just....didn't. For the most part, it was the same with Beasley. He had every ability to attack the basket, move off the ball, make plays for others. But he didn't.

Now the great news with LaVine is there's not really any can't in his profile. He has shown the ability to at least adequately perform basically everything you'd want an NBA shooting guard to do, including flashes of things he could be great at and, of course, one thing he's already flat out awesome at. So it's not really a matter of if he can do any given thing on the court. It's whether he can do it well.

Despite being what amounts to a glorified exhibition, LaVine had something to prove at Summer League. And even more so, had a lot to disprove. While you certainly can't draw definitive conclusions from a tournament that's handed MVP trophies to Anthony Randolph, Nate Robinson and Randy Foye (!?!?!?!), we did get a first impression of the type of player LaVine is and the vast number of things he could potentially do for the Wolves.

In transition:

This is obviously a huge strength for LaVine, and figures to continue to be so. Guys with his quickness and bounce kill in the open court. To put the numbers out there again, transition play made up over 30% of LaVine's offense at UCLA, and he excelled. His 1.2 PPP was tied for second in this year's draft class with fellow skywalker Aaron Gordon, just barely trailing Andrew Wiggins' 1.3 PPP mark.


As you can see, LaVine is equally comfortable filling the lanes in the open court or just handling the ball himself. This could end up being a major part of the Wolves's attack this year, as last year they relied heavily on pace to generate points. To put it mildly.

Shooting_medium

They were top 5 in total scoring, but below league average at shooting, including way below average from the great beyond. They have to take advantage of transition and early offense, so the more athletes to run the open floor, the better.

Off the ball:

This is another area LaVine was very good at UCLA, and is a huge 'break', so to speak, in terms of his future development. He's not going to take the ball away from Rubio....and even more importantly, he shouldn't. Ricky is ready and able to run an NBA offense. Zach is not. By excelling at something that isn't tied to running the offense, LaVine can take the floor with Ricky, taking a great deal of decision-making pressure off his shoulders, which will greatly ease his learning curve.

Last season LaVine scored a strong 1.08 PPP coming off screens, and an even better 1.15 PPP in straight catch-and-shoot situations.


I won't bore you with video of him running routes and screens that don't result in shots for him, but I watched this very closely in summer league and he's really good at it; a natural at using teammates as impromptu screens and fading into the open gaps.

Off the dribble:

If there's any area where LaVine can significantly change the fortunes of the Wolves, this is it.

The Wolves were miserable at generating good offense in the halfcourt last season. They simply had no one who could create shots. The best player on the roster in isolation/drive situations (who did both with any sort of regularity) was....brace yourselves....JJ Barea, with just a 38% completion rate on those shots. Next highest was Martin at 35%. Then Love at 34%, but he attempted basically no dribble drives (0.9 drive FGA/game) Arguably the most 'effective' player at isolation creation was Rubio simply because he's such a facilitating wizard he can get others open looks that way. But even so, he converts in the low 40%s at the rim and just 29% on pullup jumpers himself.

By comparison, LeBron, Durant and James Harden all convert in the 44-46% range in isolation. Steph Curry is near 48%. Freakin' Dirk is over 50%.

So yeah. The Wolves badly....badly need someone who can create offense in isolation situations. I believe this was a huge reason for all the late game collapses (along with the no-fouling method of playing defense) As indicated in the chart above, the Wolves put points on the board, but in a terribly inefficient manner. Tons of points on a low TS% indicates the Wolves relied (over-relied...) on a blazing pace, getting shots up before defenses could get set (and still missing lots of those shots anyway) But in late game situations, things almost always turn into a halfcourt war of attrition, which....because they had no one to break down defenses in isolation...the Wolves simply could not generate offense in. If Flip drafted LaVine for no other reason, solving this problem would be it.


LaVine, even as a rookie, will probably be the Wolves' best option in isolation this year. Long twos early in the shot clock is terrible shot selection, but he has a crazy combination of quickness, length, and handles that lets him create space and get a clean look off the bounce basically on command. Which is more than any Wolf could consistently manage last year.

Facilitating:

As we looked at in the LaVine/Russell Westbrook bit, I don't really know where the idea LaVine is a point guard came from. But I also don't know where the idea Westbrook is a point guard came from either, and clearly he's doing just fine as one now.

So this was another thing I paid very close attention to in summer league. Is LaVine a natural general and playmaker? Or does he just look deceptively good handling the ball, without producing any real results? Fortunately, it's much more the former than the latter.


I wouldn't say he's entirely 'natural' at it, in the way that say, Ricky Rubio is. He doesn't see plays 2 or 3 steps ahead, and could stand to lead guys better with his passes. But he's definitely not fools gold at it. He keeps his head up, uses his quickness to create passing lanes, and every once in a while does something really clever that makes you think "this could work out in the end". He certainly didn't look any worse at it than rookie Russell, and again, guys with his combination of size and bounce have a decent track record of 'backing into' point guard duties, so to speak.

But more impressive to me was how comfortable LaVine looked directing the offense. He seemed completely at ease with the idea of being the primary ballhandler and initiator, and did about as good a job at it as you could expect from a temporary roster of summer league guys with no history of playing together. LaVine also got noticeably better at it just over the course of just six games, increasingly going on the attack and forcing the defense to give him the looks he wanted. That might be the biggest step for any point guard; learning that you can make the defense more or less do what you want if you direct your offense the right way. This may be the biggest case of doesn't in LaVine's profile. It's not can't, because he showed he can. He just didn't at UCLA, for whatever reason.

Assuming the Wolves keep Ricky long term, there's obviously not a huge need to get Zach to be a full time point guard. But in the sense that it couldn't hurt to have a second facilitator...and simply that LaVine would be a more complete player...it'd make sense to push him on that when the opportunities arise.

But again, the cool thing right now is just seeing he has that potential in the first place.

Free throw line:

Well...I'm not going to make you watch a video of LaVine doing nothing but shoot free throws. But suffice it to say, Zach did a vastly better job at getting to the line in summer league than he did at UCLA.

As we've gone over time and time again, poor free throw rate is a killer at the NBA level. Wes Johnson, Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams...it's just really really hard to be anything in the NBA if you don't get free throws because then your only way to score is to shoot a ridiculously high percentage.

This was a big concern for LaVine in college, where his free throw rate was just 0.230...roughly 2 free throws for every 10 shot attempts. Not good. But it was also odd because a low FTr is usually indicative of poor handles and not attacking the basket....both of which are not problems for LaVine (granted he doesn't convert well at the rim, but he's not shy about driving at it)

So there's good reason to think LaVine's summer league performance might be more of what we see from him in the NBA. Zach posted a tremendous 0.410 FTr in Vegas, which is a mark up in the Love/Westbrook range. He attempted 10 free throws in two of the six games. He never attempted more than 5 in any game at UCLA. So this may be another case of doesn't, not can't.

Even assuming that mark will come down some in the NBA, it's encouraging to see evidence that it will probably go up from his college percentage. If LaVine can post a FTr somewhere in the range of 30-35%, this will happily be a non-issue. If he can do even better, than stardom is right there.

Finishing through contact:

Ok. More than even his FTr, this was the one big, huge, glaring red flag on LaVine. And unfortunately, it remained a problem at summer league.


LaVine really really struggled to finish in traffic at UCLA, converting just 44% of his contested drives to the rim. This is a bad mark, particularly for a guy with his athleticism. Part of it is a function of his light weight, which will naturally work itself out in time. But other parts of it are things he just flat out needs to work on. He avoids contact instead of going into it....often to the point of making an actual shot attempt nearly impossible....and he has no left hand.

If LaVine is going to be a big time player at the NBA level, this is by far the thing he needs to work on the most.

Defense:

More than even facilitating, this was the thing I watched most closely in summer league, because unlike facilitating this is something I was pretty sure the scouting reports were wrong about. And I think I'm still right about that.

There's no question that LaVine slacked off on defense at times last year, not getting down into a good stance and occasionally spacing out on off-ball coverage. But I didn't see really any of that in Vegas, and kind of think that was a function of playing for a coach who didn't reward effort anyway. But more importantly, there seems to be this idea that guys just fly by LaVine off the dribble, and as far as I'm concerned that could not be more wrong. I thought he did a really good job staying in front of the ball at UCLA, and I feel vindicated on that having watched him in summer league.


LaVine moves his feet really well. Like, really really well. I think the idea he didn't probably comes from the fact guys still score on him at a decent rate anyway, but that's mostly because he's such a lightweight he gets pushed backwards anyway. That will change on its own as he gets older and adds weight and strength. But this notion he's bad at defense....I don't see that. He's fundamentally sound there.

I don't think there's much question that LaVine will be a project. He's going to have big moments early on, but it will probably take a few years before he's a legitimately good NBA player. But the upside there is tremendous. Whereas a lot of players become nothing but good NBA players, LaVine has the potential to be phenomenal. Which the Wolves already need in a pretty big way with Love here, and will be in desperate need of if/when he is gone. Basketball games are won by having awesome basketball players.

LaVine has all the pieces to be an awesome basketball. Whether he can put those pieces together remains to be seen. But it's not a problem of can't, which is a big plus in his favor, and the Wolves favor. They're out to hit a home run, and they just might clear the fence this time.