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Zach LaVine: A Fantastic Beast in Transition

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The Wolves’ third-year shooting guard has become one of the league’s most lethal threats in transition.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the league’s most improved scorers wears a Wolves jersey.

Zach LaVine, twice the NBA’s slam dunk champion, has become much more than an All-Star weekend commodity. The lightning-quick shooting guard—king of the bounce and distant cousin of the Splash Brothers—is breaking out in his third season.

LaVine has increased his scoring average from 14.0 points per game to 21.1. His true shooting percentage has skyrocketed from 54.8 to 60.1, due in large part to an improvement in shot selection and decision making. He’s taking better shots more than ever before.

Obama voice: Shots We Can Believe In!

To be specific, 71.2 percent of his field goal attempts are currently coming from either 0-3 feet (27.4 percent) or from beyond the arc (43.8 percent.) His three-point attempt rate is up 10.8 percent from last season and he’s cut down the inefficient long two’s by over seven percent (24.9 to 17.3.) In his rookie season, LaVine consistently made viewers pull their hair out with bad, contested 20-foot jumpers (29.2 percent of his shots were coming from the 16 <3 range.)

The most obvious reason for LaVine’s breakout—his WS/48 has gone from .054 to .116 and his box plus minus from -1.4 to 0.7—is his three-point shooting. He’s become one of the best in the business, tied for seventh with Ryan Anderson in three-point field goals at 100 (on 240 attempts). He’s also tied for 19th with Kemba Walker in three-point field goal percentage at 41.7.

And he still isn’t satisfied. “I thought I should have had seven,” he says, when I asked if he feels like he’s on fire from deep after going 6-9 in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks. “There was one in the corner that I thought was going in, but I’m just going to keep shooting.”

Shoot your shot, Zach LaVine. Shoot your shot.

Perhaps less obvious is another area he dominates, and it deserves our attention. LaVine is an elite transition scorer who consistently abuses opponents in the open court with first class speed, athleticism, and finishing ability. At times, he’s an absolute blur. When he takes flight after catching an outlet pass—most commonly from Ricky Rubio—you might strain your neck looking up. It's a Bird...It's a Plane...No...It's Zach LaVine.

He was dominant in transition last year, too. Of the players with over 200 transition possessions in 2015-16, LaVine was tied for 8th in Points Per Possession (PPP) with Giannis Antetokounmpo at 1.22 on 257 possessions, according to NBA.com’s Transition Play Type data.

This season, early returns suggest that was no fluke. We are witnessing an absolute beast when it comes to scoring in transition. Only Jimmy Butler, Jabari Parker, LeBron James, and Klay Thompson currently have higher PPPs of players with more than 100 transition possessions (statistics as of January 4, 2017).

Transition Scoring Leaders PPP >100 Possessions

PLAYER TEAM PPP POSS FREQ PTS
PLAYER TEAM PPP POSS FREQ PTS
Jimmy Butler CHI 1.43 102 12.50% 146
Jabari Parker MIL 1.39 106 16.50% 147
LeBron James CLE 1.38 152 20.10% 210
Klay Thompson GSW 1.33 123 17.50% 164
Zach LaVine MIN 1.33 127 20.00% 169
Kevin Durant GSW 1.28 165 21.50% 211
Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL 1.26 177 23.90% 223
Stephen Curry GSW 1.26 156 21.10% 196
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope DET 1.21 107 20.80% 129
Eric Gordon HOU 1.2 130 21.00% 156
Kyle Lowry TOR 1.2 111 16.60% 133
Bradley Beal WAS 1.2 106 17.30% 127

Below are the top scorers in transition based on total points. To no surprise, the league’s most Fast and Furious point guard, Russell Westbrook, leads the NBA with 247 points, but his PPP also takes a serious dip (1.03). LaVine’s name shows up again, as he ranks seventh behind, well, most of the best players in the NBA.

Most Points in Transition >100 Possessions

PLAYER TEAM PTS POSS FREQ PPP
PLAYER TEAM PTS POSS FREQ PPP
Russell Westbrook OKC 247 240 20.40% 1.03
Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL 223 177 23.90% 1.26
Kevin Durant GSW 211 165 21.50% 1.28
LeBron James CLE 210 152 20.10% 1.38
Stephen Curry GSW 196 156 21.10% 1.26
John Wall WAS 183 175 21.30% 1.05
Zach LaVine MIN 169 127 20.00% 1.33
Klay Thompson GSW 164 123 17.50% 1.33
Devin Booker PHX 159 140 19.30% 1.14
Eric Gordon HOU 156 130 21.00% 1.2

Film Study

Now that we have established how dynamic LaVine is in transition, it’s time to check out some tape.

Here we see one of the most common ways he gets buckets in transition. KAT grabs the rebound after Rubio contests T.J. McConnell’s layup attempt and immediately gets it into the hands of the Wolves’ open court maestro. Rubio knows LaVine is going to leak out and run his usual unstoppable fly route. They have been doing this exact play since they took over the back court reins last season under Sam Mitchell.

Again, Rubio and LaVine have an incredible chemistry in transition. When you take one of the best passers in the league, who has amazing vision and anticipation, and pair him with one of the fastest guards, who happens to be the dunk champion of the world and is also an excellent finisher with both hands, this is what you get.

Rubio does nothing spectacular here against Portland, but he does his job and that’s enough. This defensive breakdown is on the Blazers for being in a terrible position to get back in transition. Four of their players are below the free throw line when Dieng collects the rebound. LaVine, on the other hand, is already 30-feet away from the basket with his hand up signaling for their attention. “Ricky! You know what to do!” Here we see LaVine leak out so quickly that he’s already in the air on the other end with 20 seconds left on the shot clock.

Again, the play below isn’t anything spectacular. It’s simply Rubio and LaVine being on the same page after a turnover. They want to push the tempo and attack. In Atlanta, the easy transition bucket puts the Wolves up five points heading into crunch time.

Against Houston, Rubio holds the ball just long enough to suck Harden in a little bit, creating the right angle for LaVine to attack after catching the pass. In turn, LaVine shows why he has become one of the most lethal transition scorers in the game; he’s finishing through contact, as well.

Rubio. LaVine. Fly Route. Finishing through contact.

In Chicago, they hooked up for a delicious alley-oop. LaVine’s speed in the open court is on full display here. Watch as he cruises past Dwyane Wade, who is jogging back with his head down, and prepares for takeoff. Rubio delivers the goods, as usual.

Might as well go back to the same action if Chicago is going to be lazy with their transition defense, right? Wade gets burned again as he holds his arm in the air after his three-point attempt and allows LaVine to leak out. Jimmy Butler also does a poor job here as it’s his responsibility to be the last line of defense given his position at the top of the arc.

We saw the duo connect at Madison Square Garden, too. This sequence happened so fast the camera guy missed a portion of it.

At Oracle, Rubio patiently waits for his sure-handed sidekick to show up.

Towns gets the ball to Rubio immediately after grabbing the board against Phoenix and the rest is history. Another touchdown. Lather, rinse, repeat.

While Rubio and LaVine connect the most often in transition, that’s certainly not the only way to get the job done. His teammates have also recognized the advantage of getting the rock to him after stops. The Bounce Bros are gaining chemistry as well. Here we see one of Wiggins’ six assists against the Bucks. LaVine is expecting a lob at the rim but is still able to catch the pass with his left hand and finish with his right through contact.

Wiggins gets the ball to LaVine quickly here as the Wolves complete their monster run to tie the game at 61 in Chicago.

Against the Warriors, Wiggins waits for his Bounce Brother to arrive to the party before hitting him with an excellent dish that allows LaVine to keep his stride.

Towns obviously wants to be part of the Zach LaVine Transition Club, too.

And again...

Rookie point guard Kris Dunn didn’t need much time to figure out who the alpha wolf in transition was.

In New York, Dunn hit LaVine back with the saucy dish as the two played a little give-and-go on the break.

A lot of times, LaVine takes care of business all by himself. Once he gathers a loose ball, it’s off to the races. Best wishes, defenders. LaVine shoots himself out of a cannon. He holds turbo and doesn’t let up until the job has been completed.

There are few players that can keep up with him in the fast break.

Carmelo basically says “no thanks,” once he sees LaVine cross halfcourt.

Jim Peterson says “That’s a heck of a move in transition,” while the rest of us nod our heads in agreement.

The bottom line is this: Zach LaVine has become one of the league’s most lethal threats on the fast break and his work in transition is a big reason he’s finding so much success in his third season. The quick buckets often give him confidence and get him going. His leak outs also keep other teams off the offensive glass in fear of LaVine’s quick-hitting action.

In other words, a new transition beast has been born in Minneapolis.