The awards given out at the end of the season â such as MVP, Sixth Man of the Year, and All-NBA selections â are barometers for the success of individual players for that given year. Some awards are given to the players who stood above their peers for 82 games as a way to recognize their feats of greatness and to give praise to the cream of the crop, while others are given to recognize future potential or growth over the past season. The concepts of these awards are then applied by writers and fans to their favorite teams as a way to parse out the most important players on the roster.
For the Wolves, either rookie phenom Karl-Anthony Towns or vastly underrated point guard Ricky Rubio is the team MVP; but when it comes to who would bring home the Most Improved Player award, the answer is undoubtedly Zach LaVine.
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Zach LaVine's season started in a very peculiar way. Headed into training camp, newly appointed interim head coach Sam Mitchell—who took over after the tragic passing of Flip Saunders—announced that LaVine would be the team's new starting shooting guard, a move that would bump veteran Kevin Martin to the bench. The move was generally praised by fans, who sat through LaVine's rookie season in which he was thrust into the starting lineup at the starting point guard position after Ricky Rubio went down with a severe ankle injury.
LaVine's rookie season was littered with growing pains as the young guard attempted to adjust to the NBA game while playing out of position and after playing only one season at UCLA, in which he mostly came off the bench. LaVine finished the season averaging a respectable 10.1 points per game, but he posted a win shares total of -0.7 according to basketball-reference.com. He shot only 42.2% from the field behind a bevy of long two's and poor shot selection, and was outmatched both physically and mentally by nearly every point guard in the league.
It was believed that moving him over to the two-guard for his second season would allow LaVine to play a style that was more apt to bring him success in the NBA; he wouldn't have worry about directing the team on offense, he could just go out and play. However, much to the chagrin of many, Mitchell reneged his decision to start LaVine at the two and chose to keep him as the backup point guard after only two preseason games.
LaVine would remain the team's primary backup point guard until after the All Star break. Prior to the All Star break, LaVine was averaging 12.8 points per game, on 43.4% shooting from the field and 34.5% from three on 3.1 attempts per game, according to NBA.com. Those numbers were an improvement from his rookie campaign; however, they weren't enough to shake the idea that LaVine would be better off playing off the ball and alongside Ricky Rubio. A few days after LaVine arose victorious over Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon in what may be the greatest Dunk Contest of all time, Mitchell announced that, for the remainder of the season, LaVine would see the majority of his minutes at the two-guard position, alternating starts with veteran Tayshaun Prince. That is the moment everything changed for LaVine.
In the 17 games since All Star break's conclusion, Zach LaVine has been an absolute force of nature on offense; he is averaging 18.4 points per game, shooting 50.6% from the field as well as 46.1% from three on 5.2 attempts per game, and is playing a whopping 36.6 minutes per game, according to NBA.com. To put his newfound three-point prowess into context, extrapolated over an entire season, LaVine's three-point percentage of 46.1% would rank third in the NBA, trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers sharpshooting J.J. Redick and the San Antonio Spurs megastar Kawhi Leonard (league MVP Steph Curry would place one spot behind LaVine).
The main driving force behind LaVine's recent surge is the fact that he is playing alongside Ricky Rubio. In the 1,185 minutes this season in which he has played without Rubio, LaVine has an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 48.3% and is scoring exactly 1.00 points per possession (PPP), according to nbawowy.com. In the 751 minutes in which he has shared the court with Rubio, LaVine's numbers skyrocket to 56.1% eFG% and to 1.21 PPP. Playing off the ball next to the league's best passer has allowed LaVine to play within the flow of the game, not think so much, and to take advantage of what is his arguably his best on-court attribute: his confidence in himself. Few people in the world believe in anything as much as LaVine believes in himself.
What is most encouraging about LaVine's offensive outbreak is where he is exacting his damage. On the season, he is shooting 62.0% from five feet or less, as well as 43.3% from 20-24 feet. These two areas on the court are often regarded as the most efficient places to score from as they should be convertible at a high rate (five feet or less) or are worth an extra point than 19-feet and in. It should also be noted that LaVine is shooting 45% (9/20) from the left corner three and 62.5% (10/16) from the right corner three, which is encouraging despite the small sample sizes.
However, for as good as LaVine has been on offense, he has a long ways to go yet on defense. He is still physically outmatched by many of the players he goes up against on a nightly basis. He often struggles with fighting through screens and keeping his man in front of him. His team defense is still a work in progress as he is still learning how and when to make a proper rotation. He may never become even an average on-ball defender, but with the right coaching, it is possible that LaVine could one day become at least a passible to average team defender, which would increase his value exponentially if he can keep improving on offense, as he has been.
Who knows to what heights LaVine's future may lead him, but for now, his recent success has only strengthened the fan's and the Timberwolves' faith in him. LaVine still has a long ways to grow as a player; he still takes too many long two's (144 attempts, 36.1% conversion rate) and, as mentioned before, his defense is still a work in progress. But it is obvious that LaVine is growing into the NBA player that Flip Saunders believed he could be: a dynamic wing scorer whose athleticism overwhelms opponents.
It is very possible that the role that best fits LaVine and his skill set is that of the sixth man. He could simply be a hyper-athletic version of the Los Angeles Clippers' (and good friend of LaVine's) Jamal Crawford when he was at his best. But if he continues to improve on both sides of the ball—and with the right coaching, that is a realistic "if", at least to a degree—who knows what LaVine's role could be. As of right now, the sky is the limit for Zach LaVine. All we can do is enjoy the ride.