“Sometimes you have to try and hit a home run. Some players that are ready-made, they are only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player.”
LaVine was considered a wild card by most draft pundits. He was extremely raw and had plenty of holes in his game. In his only season at UCLA, he played fewer than 25 minutes per game and averaged fewer than 10 points per game.
But Saunders saw that home run potential. He didn’t just see the inhuman athleticism that everyone else saw. He saw the uncanny work ethic and attitude. He saw one of the purest shooting strokes he had ever seen. And he saw an ability to thrive when the lights were brightest.
Saunders had the opportunity to watch some of LaVine’s sky-high potential come to life during his rookie season.
In LaVine’s 11th career game, played at his home in Los Angeles against the Lakers, he lit it up by pouring in 28 points on 11-for-14 from the field in just 25 minutes of action.
Minnesota went on to win by a point thanks to the scorching scoring surge from LaVine in the second and third quarters. The former UCLA Bruin was the game’s leading scorer and his +/- number of +14 was the highest mark in the game.
The Timberwolves returned to California in April to play the would-be NBA Champion Golden State Warriors, and LaVine found himself matched up with would-be NBA MVP Stephen Curry.
The rookie responded by dropping 37 points in a duel with The Chef, who tallied 34 points himself. It was an upward finish to a roller-coaster season for LaVine, and it offered a glimpse into the kind of player he would become.
Over the next two years, LaVine’s game developed at a rapid pace. His perimeter shooting found some consistency and his efficiency inside the arc, whether attacking the hoop or pulling up from mid-range, gradually increased. By his third season, he was averaging 19 points per game on 46 percent shooting and 39 percent from three-point range.
LaVine’s performance on the court certainly opened some eyes, but he became a fan favorite by single-handedly reviving the once-dead NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
He hardly encountered an obstacle en route to his first slam dunk crown during All-Star Weekend of his rookie season. He showed up, threw a Michael Jordan Space Jam jersey on, messed around for awhile and came away with the title. He didn’t use props. He didn’t bring any celebrities from the stands. He just dunked -- and did so beautifully, throwing down successfully on the first try on three of his four dunks.
And all of that is exactly what the dunk contest needed. He ran away with the crown while building suspense for his encore a year later.
That encore performance, with Aaron Gordon acting as his co-star, brought the dunk contest back. The epic duel LaVine and Gordon put on display that night was reminiscent of the legendary Michael Jordan vs. Dominique Wilkins battle in 1988.
It was the greatest All-Star Weekend viewing experience in years. Ultimately, LaVine claimed his second consecutive crown behind several gravity-defying slams from the free throw line.
LaVine’s slam dunk performances characterize the way he goes about his basketball career as a whole. Nothing was too flashy. Nothing was much of a distraction from the task at hand. He simply completed the task at hand with the help of unlimited confidence.
As Minnesota transitioned after Saunders’ tragic death to Sam Mitchell and then to Tom Thibodeau, LaVine’s confidence never seemed to waver. Whether it was adjusting to three different coaching systems in his first three seasons or accepting a third fiddle role behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, LaVine’s confidence was generally vulnerable to a beating due to the circumstances, but never wavered.
That unlimited confidence was on display during my two personal favorite moments of his Timberwolves career.
I think everyone remembers the first one. LaVine and the Timberwolves were playing in Phoenix against the Suns. LaVine received a ball screen on the left wing, to which Suns guard Eric Bledsoe denied access. So, LaVine was given a straight-line alley to the basket, and he used it to eliminate Alex Len from the face of the Earth.
As Jim Petersen said on the Fox Sports North broadcast, “that was the best Zach LaVine dunk I’ve ever seen, and that is saying something.”
By the way, has anyone heard from Len since that night? Is he okay?
The second moment is not as prominent, but it’s a perfect encapsulation of Zach LaVine, the basketball player.
With Minnesota down four to Washington in the final seconds of overtime, interim head coach Sam Mitchell called LaVine’s number on consecutive possessions for three-point shots. LaVine’s talent and confidence shined when it mattered most.
Working on some words on Zach LaVine. This was the moment when I thought, "yeah this dude is gonna be good." pic.twitter.com/jI91Cn9jzV— Drew Mahowald (@DrewMahowald) May 3, 2017
The Wolves went on to win on the road against the eventual fourth seed in the Eastern Conference in double overtime thanks to LaVine’s clutch performance.
LaVine’s short stint in Minnesota was a key factor in ushering in the “new era” of Timberwolves basketball. He brought excitement, energy and explosiveness to the court and it rubbed off on his teammates and the fans in Target Center.
His rapid progression has not only provided himself with a fantastic opportunity in Chicago to be “the guy,” but it also allowed the Timberwolves to acquire an All-NBA and three-time All-Defensive Team honoree in Jimmy Butler.
Flip Saunders’ fingerprints will be all over any success the “new era” of Timberwolves basketball achieves. He laid the foundation by molding a roster full of star potential.
Part of building that foundation is nailing draft picks. And when Flip said LaVine has a chance to be a home-run type player, he certainly wasn’t kidding. In fact, the LaVine selection was a grand slam pick for the franchise.