Most NBA fans know Zach LaVine as the two-time defending Slam Dunk champion. And frankly, during his the early stages of his rookie season, that’s all I thought LaVine would be — an athletic freak of nature that struggles to find a consistent role in the NBA.
But man was I wrong about him. In particular, the former UCLA Bruin’s scoring ability has exceeded the expectations of everyone besides his extremely confident self.
The first time we were introduced to LaVine’s lightning-in-a-bottle scoring tendencies was April 11, 2015 in a road game against the Golden State. LaVine dropped 37 points, including six three-pointers, to lead a comeback attempt that fell just short to the eventual world champions.
His stock as a player has risen dramatically since then and much of that is due to a greater efficiency on shots from the perimeter. His streakiness has never really been in doubt — when the young man gets hot, it’s a spectacle. But in his sophomore season, LaVine began to establish some consistency that could vault him among the elite shooters in basketball.
LaVine shot 38.9 percent from three-point range for the season, which is a solid figure but won’t knock anybody’s socks off. However, and not coincidentally, LaVine’s shooting percentages spiked when former interim head coach Sam Mitchell permanently removed him from point guard duties right after the All-Star break.
He was elite from the perimeter after the All-Star break last season — there’s no doubt about it.
LaVine shot 44 percent from three-point range in that time frame, which ranked 15th in the entire NBA among players who attempted 60 threes. LaVine’s flame-throwing from deep was at an elite level down the stretch last season.
Is this level of shooting sustainable for the third-year guard? It’s a fair question given the small sample size. But the real question is this: why wouldn’t it be sustainable?
New head coach Tom Thibodeau appears comfortable starting LaVine and using him primarily as a shooting guard — and the selection of Kris Dunn with the fifth overall pick solidifies that. LaVine has found most of his offensive success in an off-ball role where he isn’t tasked with setting up and operating an offense.
Statistics show this was a huge reason for his increased success from beyond the arc. LaVine converted on 41 of 90 (45.6 percent) catch-and-shoot three-point attempts after the All-Star break (28 games), which ranked 10th in the NBA. By comparison, during the 54 games before the All-Star break in which LaVine spent a majority of his minutes playing point guard, he only attempted 70 catch-and-shoot threes, converting 27 for a clip of 38.6 percent.
Overall, LaVine was only a 34.5 percent three-point shooter before the All-Star break. It became crystal clear — if it hadn’t already — that LaVine’s natural position was not point guard and his shooting percentages reflected that.
Moving into 2016-17, Thibodeau has placed an emphasis on utilizing the three-point shot more often. Minnesota has ranked in the bottom tier of NBA teams in attempts and success rate from beyond the arc in recent years. The fact that Thibodeau is focused on making changes to that philosophy will only help LaVine progress as a shooter.
And let’s keep one more thing in mind — this dude is 21 YEARS OLD. He is light years ahead of where most expected him to be after two years. And I haven’t found any hints that suggest his development will slow down any time soon — especially as a shooter.
He’s already showing glimpses of that elite shooting ability in his third season. On Monday night in Charlotte, LaVine made four of six three-point attempts, including makes on his first three attempts, en route to an efficient 30-point performance.
This young man has already become a fan favorite throughout the NBA for his gravity-defying leaping ability and showmanship in back-to-back Slam Dunk contests. However it might not be very long before LaVine isn’t just competing in the Slam Dunk contest during All-Star weekend — the three-point shootout may soon call his name.
LaVine has quietly become one of the best perimeter shooters in the NBA. If he picks up where he left off last season — which shouldn’t be an issue given he’ll be playing off-ball and under a coach that will push for more threes — the third-year star will start making headlines for more than his high-flying antics.