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Zach LaVine: Unlimited Upside On Pause

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Zach LaVine’s sky-high potential was paused due to an unfortunate knee injury in his third NBA season.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Zach LaVine

22 years old, Shooting Guard

Contract Status: $2,240,880 in 2016-17 (third year of rookie contract)

Numbers (per-game average in 47 games): 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 1.8 turnovers

More Numbers: 45.9 FG%, 38.7 3pt FG%, 83.6 FT%, .039 WS/48, -0.3 BPM, 0.8 VORP

***

It’s March 25, 2016. The Timberwolves are at the Verizon Center playing a road game against a playoff contender in the Washington Wizards.

Minutes prior, Gorgui Dieng knocked down a corner threeto send the game into overtime. The score is now 119-115 in Washington’s favor with 27.3 seconds remaining in OT.

Former interim head coach Sam Mitchell drew up a sideline out of bounds play for LaVine to race from the baseline to the top of the key, where Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns would be there setting a double screen.

LaVine snatches the entry pass from Ricky Rubio, gives a subtle pump fake and sidestep before springing into the air for the shot.

Bang.

After Washington’s Bradley Beal sank two free throws, Minnesota trailed 121-118 with 21 seconds to go.

The Wolves wasted no time getting LaVine the ball once again. Dieng set a quick screen to get him the ball on the wing. LaVine and Dieng then ran a smooth give-and-go while Dieng set a screen on Beal. Marcin Gortat decided to give slight cushion, which was all LaVine needed to rise up for the game-tying shot.

Bang.

LaVine’s back-to-back treys sent the game to another overtime period, which eventually resulted in a win for the Wolves, 132-129.

This game turned a switch in my perception of LaVine. He was no longer merely a high-flying dunker and acrobatic athlete that could occasionally get hot from beyond the arc.

LaVine was flashing All-Star potential in this moment. He showed he can be a big-shot maker and that he can carry the weight of a large scoring role in an offense. He showed he can thrive when the spotlight is on him.

That All-Star potential began to reveal itself in the 2016-17 season, before the season ended abruptly thanks to a torn ACL suffered at the end of January. He settled in nicely as the change-of-pace scorer next to Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

LaVine’s immense talent, incredible work ethic, and hungry attitude are undeniable. Barring any major setbacks in his ACL rehab, LaVine will return next season as one of the team’s most valuable players.

The Good Stuff

LaVine’s catch-and-shoot ability was showcased often in his third season. That’s always been his most appealing skill, and he settled into Tom Thibodeau’s offense as the go-to three-point shooter and best floor spacer.

Despite the presence of Wiggins and Towns, Thibodeau manufactured opportunities for LaVine frequently. Minnesota executed plenty of sets that involved double and even triple screens to get the former UCLA Bruin an open shot.

LaVine’s ability to swiftly square up his feet and shoulders to the cylinder resembles that of the best sharpshooters in the NBA, and it helped him register a 43.4 percent clip on catch-and-shoot three-point attempts in 2016-17.

The Wolves attempted the fewest treys in the NBA last season, and a big reason for that was LaVine’s absence in the final 35 games of the season. Once LaVine went down, Minnesota generated even more offense for Towns and Wiggins inside the three-point line.

The below play against Orlando might be my favorite design the Wolves used to get an in-rhythm look for LaVine. The set begins exactly like any regular floppy action would with both wings sliding under the hoop with one screening for the other. However, LaVine sends Evan Fournier on a merry-go-round ride and reverses course back to the right wing.

Cash money.

Just over 25 percent of LaVine’s shot attempts this season were catch-and-shoot threes, which is up from 16.8 percent in 2015-16. He also increased his efficiency on these shots, from 42.5 percent to 43.4.

LaVine also improved his shot selection in year three. In 2015-16, LaVine averaged 2.9 long two-point attempts (16 feet to < three-point line) per game. That mark was decreased to 2.7 per game in 2016-17 despite playing nine more minutes per game.

After hitting on 47 percent of his three-point attempts in December, LaVine suffered through a bit of a slump in January thanks to some nagging injuries. He would up shooting 38.7 percent from outside the arc, though he was north of 40 percent for much of the season.

He was still an above-average perimeter shooter at every shot zone beside the right wing. The red on the chart can appear daunting at first, but his decreasing rate of mid-range attempts negates concern there.

It’s one thing to to be an excellent shooter, but it’s another thing to also be a threat as a driver and a finisher at the rim. LaVine’s explosiveness is arguably unmatched in the NBA with the exception of a few superstars, but navigating the trees in the paint was an issue for him prior to 2016-17.

According to Basketball-Reference, LaVine converted on 63.7 percent of attempts at the rim last season. He’s learning the art of hanging in the air and adjusting his shot to maneuver around the 7-foot obstacles.

And if he has to go right over those obstacles, so be it.

What Can Improve

As is the case with the entire roster, LaVine’s defense has room for improvement. It goes without saying that much of this has to do with adjusting to Thibodeau’s complex schemes.

That adjustment can’t be an easy one, but nevertheless LaVine needs to improve both in effort and in knowledge of situations. It’s no secret that Thibodeau’s pick-and-roll defensive schemes are a difficult puzzle to solve — and I’m not going to act like I know the intricacies — but easy baskets were allowed often.

In the example above, a combination of a lack of effort from LaVine and what appears to be a lack of communication from Wiggins turns into an easy 15-footer for CJ McCollum off the screen. From the video, we can only assume Wiggins didn’t show because McCollum was supposed to use the screen which, if LaVine defends properly, would have happened.

LaVine tends to completely give up on a play once he’s beaten off the dribble. He does so against McCollum above and below against Gary Harris. Again, the play stems from a pick-and-roll situation in which communication likely could have been better. But when LaVine gives up on the play, it forces Towns to leave the middle to help and leave the paint wide open for the smallest player on the floor to convert on an easy layup.

LaVine’s decisiveness in going over or under screens could also improve. He became an easy target for offenses to set up ball screens against, like below against the L.A. Clippers.

Marreese Speights just gets in the way more than he actually sets a screen. But LaVine got caught in no man’s land, initially going under but wandering a bit too high. Jamal Crawford recognized it and changed directions, forcing LaVine to go over and also forcing Cole Aldrich to leave Speights briefly.

On the offensive end, LaVine’s decision-making could see improvement. He tends to attempt the hero play, whether it be a pass through a tiny window or a miraculous layup over a 7-footer. These instances have become more frequent in crunch-time scenarios.

Below, LaVine tries to hit Towns prematurely on the pick-and-roll and DeMarcus Cousins picks up the easy steal in a key situation.

It’s not always about making a bad pass. LaVine’s love for the spotlight does a lot of good for him, but it can also be the source of a problem. Here, he tries to force up a difficult shot over a firm rim-protecting presence in Mason Plumlee.

In a one-on-one setting, LaVine’s on-ball defense has improved drastically since he entered the league. He’s starting to figure out how to use his athleticism on both ends of the floor. The next step is seeing that athleticism seep into all aspects of his defense.

Of course, the No. 1 thing that “can improve” is LaVine’s health. Local Associated Press reporter Jon Krawczynski said in his podcast on May 1 that LaVine is “doing everything he is supposed to and more.”

Before LaVine even has the opportunity to work on his defense, he has to get back on the court first, and his tremendous work ethic has him ahead of schedule.

What’s Next

Barring any setbacks in his rehab, LaVine should slide right back into the starting lineup when he returns. His scoring and decision-making will only become more consistent with experience. Plus, he already has the mindset and work ethic necessary to be a star.

Defensively, it’s easy to give LaVine a pass (for now) given that he has learned three different schemes from three different head coaches in three years. A second year under Thibodeau will spark change for the better.

Questions certainly remain about LaVine’s future, especially coming of an ACL tear. But his potential is simply too great to ignore.