Here's a hypothetical situation for September of next season: the Wolves end up with Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft, the ideal situation in the eyes of many both on and off these pages. Next, a team comes in with a deal the Wolves like the look of for Kevin Martin, and Flip pulls the trigger. The deal does not include a replacement at shooting guard. This makes the starting line-up on opening day next year look like this:
PG: Ricky Rubio
SG: Zach LaVine
SF: Andrew Wiggins
PF: Karl-Anthony Towns
C: Nikola Pekovic
Yep, that's Zach LaVine starting at the 2. Now, the hypothetical situation isn't likely (insofar as I believe Flip would look to acquire another SG in another trade or via free agency), but it does put forth the discussion: how successful would LaVine be as a regular starting 2?
Offense: The Catch and Shoot
Our beloved leader, Eric, noted LaVine's potential in a catch-and-shoot situation often during the latter parts of the season, when his play improved to (sometimes) levels of positivity not seen before.
Via NBA.com's SportVU tracking, Zach had the second best eFG% in catch-and-shoot situations on the team behind Kevin Garnett at 58.1%, and the best by a healthy chunk of anyone who played major minutes and finished the year on the team (next best was Kevin Martin at 51.2%, almost 7% back). However, due to the major minutes at point guard this year, he only took 1.5 catch-and-shoot FGA per game. His volume per game was similar to other point guards on the list, such as Chris Paul (60.2% eFG) and Jeff Teague (61.1% eFG). If his volume were to increase to match K-Mart's, he'd end up top-10 in the NBA in catch-and-shoot points per game (which is a pretty direct transition, Martin was 6th in the league this year behind Korver, Nowitzki, Redick, Thompson and Bosh).
Zach's athleticism, his most touted skill in his time in the NBA could aid him here. Learning to move to open spots on the floor, use screens to his advantage, and beat his opponents to those spots using his speed is his way to wide-open shots. Not to mention the additional bonus: if he establishes himself as a consistent outside threat and forces opponents to play closer to him on the perimeter, lanes to drive to the hoop and throw down on people should open up. On the year, LaVine was a 34.1% shooter from 3, who improved throughout the year, peaking at 42.6% in March and 38.0% after the All-Star break. It seems likely that with practice over the offseason and free rein from the coach (the other problem here), Zach should become a productive shooter next year. LaVine's numbers on both spot-ups and handoffs are already decent. By points per possession, he's in the 75th percentile in the entire NBA on spot-ups, and in the 66th percentile on handoffs. However, he only operated in these plays a little over 20% of the time. This should also increase.
This should come at the price of eliminating (or at least reducing) Zach's pull-up game. On almost 4 attempts per game on pull-ups, he shot an abysmal 31.0% (35.0% eFG). His goal should be to create space without the ball rather than try to create space with it. When driving, rather than looking for the pull-up, the goal should be to go to the hoop. Zach created significantly more points per 48 minutes on drives (5.0) than anyone else on the team, and drove more than anyone but Andrew Wiggins. This is a roundabout way of asking for threes and dunks, but there it is. One of these things, Zach is already very good at. The other, he has shown potential at. The coaching staff should look to encourage his development in the shooting guard role with these two goals in mind, around the framework of using his speed to create space without the ball, giving both separation for a shot, and causing defenders to over-commit and allow him to blow past them to the hoop.
Defense: Brains and Brawn
As has been very, very well documented this year, LaVine (along with the rest of his team, to be fair) struggled on the defensive end of the floor. His Defensive Box Plus-Minus was -2.7, not the worst possible (or even the worst on the team, that was Kevin Martin at -3.9, with Shabazz Muhammad and Nikola Pekovic also worse than LaVine among players with the team for the full season), but not terribly good. His Defensive Win Shares were exactly 0.0. 36 other players also clocked in at the even 0.0, including Andrew Wiggins, and Martin and Muhammad successfully had negative DWS scores (-0.1 apiece), which I didn't even know was possible until doing research for this piece (only 19 players since 2000 have recorded negative DWS for a season). Opponents scored 5.5 more points per 100 possessions with LaVine off the court than on. (via basketball-reference.com)
In looking for areas for LaVine to improve and become at least replacement level on defense, I looked for other shooting guards or combo guards who struggled on defense during their rookie seasons, but improved in following seasons. In at least a couple of these situations, the rookie came into the league smaller and built up muscle mass for the second season, which I think is a key to LaVine's game. As a 6'5" guard, he has the height and the athleticism to match many of the 2s around the league. He needs to improve in body body and mind
The most frequent problem was fighting through screens. Often, when LaVine was screened by a player any bigger than him, there was no going around or through the screen. He hit and then was stopped, and his man was free to run to the line, pass, or drive to the hoop. LaVine got better at this as the season went on, but there were still too many plays were a simple screen action took him out of the defense completely. Before the All-Star Break, players shot 8.8% better than their averages when defended by LaVine, and 6.1% better from more than 15 feet. After the break, these numbers dropped to 3.4% better overall, and 1.4% better from greater than 15 feet. (via NBA.com/stats) As LaVine bulks up over the offseason, these numbers should improve even more. His decision making when choosing whether to go over or under a screen should also be a focus, along with the rest of working in a defensive scheme (which will hopefully exist a bit more next season).
In the Timberwolves' putrid defense, many defensive stats were pulled down for every member of the team, even the few that could be called anything near good defenders. These individual shooting numbers are one way of attempting to evaluate an individual on defense.
Overall: Who to Emulate?
I mentioned above looking at player comparisons while doing research for this article. The tabs that remained open throughout were Klay Thompson, Lance Stephenson, Dennis Schröder, and Jamal Crawford. Crawford's career path is one that could be a great outcome for LaVine. Crawford started his career in Chicago as a point guard, but has spent the most fruitful years of his career as a shooting guard who can handle the ball and pass when required, as he does now for the Clippers. His ability to score in bunches is exactly what LaVine the shooting guard should be able to do. On defense, the two are already comparable in advanced stats. Crawford's DBPM has been within one-tenth of LaVine's -2.7 this season or worse every season since 2007. However, looking at the same shooting numbers from above, Crawford has some standout points. Opponents actually shoot 0.1% worse than their normal average overall against Crawford, and only 1.4% better from greater than 15 feet, the same as LaVine's number post-All Star. Crawford and LaVine are also physically similar: both 6'5", Crawford with a bit more muscle at 200 lbs. to LaVine's 180 lbs., long guards who can drive and (maybe) shoot. The fact that they're both proud Seattle natives seems more beautiful coincidence than anything.
LaVine has, as has been said many times, the physical tools to be a successful NBA player. With a season of experience under his belt, a full offseason of workouts and study, and the license to play at the 2 a majority of the time, I believe that he can grow into not only a valuable piece off the bench, but a quality starter.