Three Zach Lavine-related Questions

Steve McPherson —  June 27, 2014 — 11 Comments

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What does the Zach LaVine pick say about the state of the Timberwolves?

According to Flip Saunders, LaVine was seventh on their board, so getting him feels like a coup to the front office, even if he’s not ready to be an immediate contributor. “Some players you go after, they have the ability to hit a home run,” Saunders said at a brief press conference immediately after the pick. “Some players that are ready-made players, they’re only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has the opportunity to be a home-run type player.”

The pick as it relates to the Wolves right now, though, could go in a couple different directions. On the one hand, it (along with the pick of Glenn Robinson III) signals the Wolves’ desire to fill a need for the team as currently constituted: athletic play on the wing. No one on the roster last year — from Shved to Budinger to Brewer to Martin — was going strong to the hoop from the wing position. Brewer got there on the break, but that was as often a disaster as it was successful.

The problem with this is that in spite of Saunders’ insistence that LaVine can play physical and GM Milt Newton’s belief that LaVine is a guy who can go get a basket or get to the foul line, the fact is that LaVine is more or less the same size as Shved (6-6, 185 lbs) and we’ve seen how physical he can(‘t) be. Also, as Layne Vashro points out in this post for Canis Hoopus, LaVine only got to the rim 1.5 times per 40 minutes, and only shot 46% there when he did.

LaVine is not going to magically put on muscle over the summer, nor will he suddenly become better at getting to the hoop in the half-court in a league that’s faster and bigger, so this also doesn’t look like the kind of win-now move intended to convince Love to stay.

But on yet another hand, the Wolves didn’t draft a player like Adreian Payne who could step in and immediately fill the gap a Love trade would leave. As a stretch four who can also finish at the rim — plus being an older prospect at 23 — Payne could have been a contributor from day one should the Wolves move Love in the next couple months.

In summary, Minnesota appears to be moving in many directions at once: filling needs while not exactly signaling a clear direction forward. At the presser introducing LaVine and Glenn Robinson III, Saunders emphasized that they were attempting to diversify the talents on the team, and that their two picks this year are not like any players they already have. It sounds really good, especially when Saunders invokes the diverse approach of the Spurs as a model but it remains to be seen if the Wolves have the kind of infrastructure to make the most of their roster.

What does LaVine’s F-bomb say about the state of Wolves fans?

It no longer really seems to be in dispute that LaVine dropped a clustercuss when his name was called.

“I might have uttered something completely wrong,” he told the media in a conference call. “But I put my head down, thanked God, kissed my mom, kissed my dad. I can’t believe this is happening to me right now.”

“I’m going full-fledged,” he continued. “Ready to become a Timberwolf.”

You can read that as backpedaling or revisionist history if you want, but to me, he sounded sincere. News flash: 19 year olds often express themselves inappropriately and often with plenty of swear words. Please go ask my dad how pottymouthed I was when I came back from my freshman year of college. I’m willing to bet that getting drafted is one of those things that you can imagine a thousand different ways and think you’re totally ready for and then when it happens, it’s suddenly more overwhelming than you can believe. That’s how I’m choosing to interpret LaVine’s reaction.

Wolves fans, though, not so much, at least not some vocal ones who are ready to see anything and everything as a slight. I don’t exactly blame them for being a little shellshocked after the trials and tribulations over Love for the last few years, but please remember this: Playing in the NBA is way more important to these young players than where they’re playing. We want them to be devoted to their franchises, but LeBron James broke that template four years ago. This might hurt to hear, but it’s just not about you. Players on draft night aren’t thinking about the composition of the team or the team’s needs or their record last season. I guarantee you if you asked LaVine or almost any other prospect the Wolves’ record last year they wouldn’t know it. I wouldn’t even guarantee you they could name all the starters.

Fans are all waiting with baited breath to find out who their team picks but the prospects are just waiting to be drafted period. That’s why I think whatever you read into LaVine’s reaction has to be looked at in the context of making it to the NBA period, not being drafted by this or that team.

So stand down, Wolves fans. There’s a long way to go before the next season and one F-bomb is not going to make a difference.

Can the Wolves actually develop players?

This, to me, is the million dollar (or more) question. Historically, the Wolves have not done a great job developing players, which is something we hear all the time with regard to players like Derrick Williams, but I want to add a wrinkle to this idea of development: it’s not just about making players better. It’s about maximizing strengths and masking weaknesses.

Consider Kawhi Leonard on the San Antonio Spurs. He was the Finals MVP this season but there is absolutely zero guarantee he would have grown into what he’s become in system different from the Spurs’. Being a third or even fourth option on offense behind Duncan, Parker and Ginobili has maximized him while allowing him to grow. When the Spurs drafted LaVine’s teammate Kyle Anderson at #30, people who lean heavily on analytics flipped out because Anderson had looked very good analytically while not looking very good in terms of the eye-test. Being drafted by the savvy Spurs seems to confirm what advanced analytics implies. Going to the Spurs is as near a guarantee as you can get that Anderson will develop into a solid player, but there’s a chicken-and-egg problem here. Had Anderson gone to Oklahoma City at #29 or the Clippers at #28 his role on those teams might have meant he never reached his potential. If Anderson is an important contributor two years from now, everyone will second guess passing on him through the first round, but the truth is that he will only become a contributor by playing in a system that fits him as well as San Antonio’s looks to.

Which brings us back to the Wolves. Looking at player growth in terms of maximizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses, the Wolves don’t look very good, even in the case of their historically best players, Kevins Garnett and Love. They leaned heavily on Garnett for, well, everything and this spurred questions about Garnett’s ability to take over games late, to be that clutch player. But that’s not where Garnett truly shined. Placed next to players like Paul Pierce and Ray Allen — who were more than willing to shoulder the scoring load late in games — Garnett’s defensive prowess suddenly sprung to the fore.

Likewise, the Wolves have been spectacularly unsuccessful at building a team that can cover for Love’s less-than-stellar defense, or even Rubio’s much-less-than-stellar shooting. Nikola Pekovic and Love are each great players in their own way, but they can’t cover for each other’s shortcomings. Neither Martin — with his shaky handle and lack of spot-up shooting — nor Brewer — with his streaky shot — can offset Rubio’s poor shooting. Teams like the Spurs or the Heat provide an environment where success begets success. If you think Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole or Marco Bellinelli are Finals-caliber players on any other teams you’re out of your gourd. But they’re tasked with contributing in very specific ways and are often — though not always (see Miami’s point guard play in this most recent Finals) — successful.

What Minnesota can’t do with LaVine if they want him to be successful is throw him into the meat grinder and expect him to fill every gap he has on his own. Wolves fans are by now used to this story: Minnesota drafts a player with some kind of upside or potential, that potential goes unrealized over the player’s first two or three years, player gets traded and maybe blossoms. Time and again, Minnesota drafts or acquires a player, plops him down on the court like unmolded clay, pokes at him, then sells low to another team that molds him into a handsome piece of pottery. (Or maybe just a nice spoon or even just lumps the clay onto some other hunk but in any case, they DO something with it.)

Or the inverse: A player is successful elsewhere (like Barea), is brought to Minnesota, and then can’t replicate that success. Developing players is more than just waiting for them to ripen magically. It means putting them in the best position for success and nurturing that success as it happens, not releasing them into the wilds of NBA play and then making a frownie face when they look a little lost.

To Saunders credit, he emphasized that the most important thing in player development was to not put them into situations that set them up for failure. One need only look at Alexey Shved’s arc in the NBA to see the fruits of that kind of situation. Injuries forced Shved to play more than he should have for a team that was in full-tilt win-now mode under Adelman. It’s debatable whether Shved has the wherewithal to be an NBA player, but burning him out his rookie year and then putting him off the ball next to Barea his sophomore year certainly didn’t help.

Furthermore, the Wolves have more or less a completely new coaching staff with the hires of Sidney Lowe and Sam Mitchell alongside Saunders. Yes it’s a bit of an old-boy network, but that shouldn’t discount the job they have yet to do. This is going to sound like a Donald Trump quote, but the first step to success is succeeding, so we should suspend judgment on the coaching front until after we’ve seen how the team develops over the summer and well into next season.

Steve McPherson

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11 responses to Three Zach Lavine-related Questions

  1. I would also mention that the Spurs drafted James Anderson, an analytics darling, and he didn’t pan out. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

  2. Corey Brewer shot 68% at the rim last season. He had some embarrassing misses, but it was one of the better aspects of his game.

    “Time and again, Minnesota drafts or acquires a player, plops him down on the court like unmolded clay, pokes at him, then sells low to another team that molds him into a handsome piece of pottery.” The Wolves have been incompetent, but let’s not add nonexistent incompetence. Of the guys who the Wolves had as rookies for a few years:
    Guys who got better after leaving: Luc Longley and Howard Eisley. That’s it. You can count Donyell Marshall, but they got the team’s first All-Star for him in Googs.
    Guys who joined better teams but didn’t get better: Pooh Richardson, Felton Spencer, Christian Laettner. JR Rider, Rasho Nesterovic, Wally Szczerbiak, Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Craig Smith, Wayne Ellington, Lazar Hayward.
    Guys who stayed the same with worse teams: Stephon Marbury, Wesley Johnson, Derrick Williams.
    Guys who barely played in the league again: Paul Grant, William Avery, Ndudi Ebi, Rashad McCants, Chris Richard, Jonny Flynn.

    They’ve obviously been unable to find much success with their drafted players, but mostly, they’ve drafted mediocre players and then ditched them in often-questionable moves.

  3. Astute observation glk. The Wolves’ drafts have been overall pretty sad.

    There’s always a Monday morning quarterback aspect to drafts. Timmy Hardaway was taken after Pooh. I’ve often made light of that, but what was the level of information at the time? Hardaway’s shot mechanics were always ugly. We have a huge amount of Bayesian updates on all these guys.

    It may very well be that Zach Levine becomes an electrifying player. I think we may have gotten a decent pick in Robinson.

    I don’t think we’ll see another one like Kevin Love for a while. It seems to be a once every fifteen year phenomena (based on two data points KG and KLove, maybe we should only draft guys named Kevin), maybe we’ll have enough talent here someday that a reasonable free agent would say, “I want to play there.” Frankly, I don’t see it, but Golden State and the Clippers are no longer laughing stocks, but they also play in bigger markets and nicer climates.

    Also Grantland had this to say about Levine’s reaction in it’s draft night losers section:

    Zach LaVine. Maybe the most painful draft reaction we’ve seen since the Five Stages of Steve Francis.

    It’s the kind of moment that makes you feel bad for the player but also underscores what makes the draft so amazing.

    LaVine recovered nicely in the press conference, saying, “I’m ecstatic right now. Words can’t describe how I’m feeling.”

    But still. Read his lips in this Vine.

    “Fuck me” is the story of all Wolves fans, and now even Wolves players. At least he and Love will have something to talk about.

    Okay there it is There’s also I guy who tweeted he was behind Levine on his way to the stage and that Levine was not happy about being drafted by the Wolves. Right now who would be. Yes these guys should be happy about being first round players but from LA to Minneapolis, from UCLA to a team that after Love leaves will win 35 at best?

    One Bright spot in all this:
    J.R. Rider won the Wolves their only slam dunk competition. That East Bay Funk dunk was incredible.

  4. I’ve been wondering if the Wolves should change their name to the Dragonflies. Northern wolves have a hunting success rate in winter of around 10%, which is approximately equal to our chances of successfully drafting a useful, productive player. Dragonflies, on the other hand, are successful hunting about 90% of the time.

    I think I’m going to follow the Spurs for a year and then return to the Wolves. I wonder how I’ll feel about the team after that.

  5. Grizzlies vs Dragonflies :/

  6. Magic vs Dragonflies :)

    I am fine with Lavine.
    Yes, I see the analytic read flags
    Yes I watched him say “f*ck me” after getting drafted
    Yes I know a BUUuuuuunch of guys on another wolves blog are already CONVINCED this cat will not pan out… but listening to those guys and you will be convinced Lavine couldn’t flip a burger at McDonald’s. “I crunched the numbers and he’s got a 2% chance of lighting himself on fire due to excessive hair gel”

    I think these picks say we are collecting assets and betting on athleticism (not a bad bet in the NBA and not a bad bet for a rebuilding team that needs to spark the fan base…and has RUBIO)
    So… I get all that.

    But… Just watch him
    Many different draft analysts say he is the only guy out of the top ten to have superstar potential.
    I dunno about the rest of the draft but watching him you can see how he could be a star…really really easily see how he could be a star.
    and right I know that saying this to a modern informed NBA fan is basically like telling a vikes fan that we messed up with Joe Webb and we should get him back at QB…but..
    The Wolved need a star.
    The Wolves need.. a culture.
    We tried to build around Love and the team had his shitty personality… He’s a great player but kind of a shitty seeming person…
    So lets try to build around fun loving, happy guy, my favorite movie is the lion king, I LOVE BASKETBALL Ricky Rubio.
    That’s why Flip is back on the bench. To help create the I LOVE Basketball, High Flying, Throw it down big man, MOVE THE BALL Basketball.

    Optimism prevails for at least one more day.

    “I can hear the wolves
    Howl in the distance
    The howl is suddenly
    Dampened by the falling snow”

  7. In recent years the Wolves drafted a guy who supposedly possessed off-the-chart intangibles that would make up for his obvious physical deficiencies (Flynn), a high-risk/high-reward point guard who supposedly would rather play the rest of his career in Europe than suit up for the Wolves (Rubio), a 23-year old junior who was supposed to be the most NBA ready and the safest pick in his draft (Johnson), an athletic wunderkind whose supposed floor was Shawn Marion and the consensus best or second best player in the draft (Williams), a small, slow wing with mediocre athletic ability who played the four and five in college and seemed to have little to offer at the NBA level (Hayward), an inefficient scorer with character and motor issues who got drafted high based on his high school bona fides (Muhammad), a 24-year old junior who supposedly was too raw and old to ever be more than a decent backup (Dieng), a bunch of Euros in the second round who were not so much drafted and stashed so much as Taylor couldn’t sell the picks for cash so he had Kahn/Flip draft someone who would never show up and cost him money . . . a couple of them panned out, obviously most of them didn’t, but in each case for a whole variety of reasons both/either/neither obvious or surprising.

    Anyway, like Simmons pointed out the draft is a crap shoot. I like the LaVine pick. It’s not like they drafted some totally unknown Brazilian guy because he has long arms and therefore must be the next Kevin Durant.

  8. I don’t buy into the Wolves fans of infinite-sorrow who are low on Zach because the Wolves have been bad in the past but call me cautiously pessimistic. The positives on LaVine certainly are staggering. He’s quick, long, can jump out of the building, only 19, and has a decent enough jumper to catch fire from deep. But I’m gonna have to side with the stat-heads that are bear-ish on LaVine. His dunks are breathtaking but I’m not impressed and frankly disturbed that all his highlights come from warm-up dunks, leak outs, and spot up threes. Good scorers find their way to the basket and finish in traffic and great scorers do that and make excellent off-ball cuts and there is no evidence that Zach can do that. Furthermore, defensively he doesn’t have the reputation of being a lockdown defender despite out-of-this-world athleticism nor does it appear he has sticky fingers like Brewer and Rubio. There is something inspiring about a guy who could put his chin on the rim and I’m not saying he won’t work out, but there is a reason teams don’t draft Olympic high jumpers or sprinters; it takes more than athleticism to make it in this game.

    I think the most important question is Steve’s last one: can the Wolves help him get better and when they put him on the court will they implement a system that plays to his strengths and masks his weaknesses? That remains to be seen.

  9. Some compare LaVine to Russell Westbrook… I think the better comparison is Gerald Green.

  10. The problem with the Wolves’ development of young players over the last 3 years is 100% on Rick Adelman.

    The ONLY reason Pekovic played in the game is because Darko went down with an injury.

    The ONLY reason Dieg played is because Pekovic was hurt.

    The ONLY reason Derrick Williams played consistent minutes over several games was because Love was hurt. Derrick also started averaging 15pts and 10 boards toward the end of the year showing great promise. I can’t believe we gave up on him after 2 years because Adelman was sleeping with Cunningham!!!!! LATEST: Cunningham will either be going to jail or suspended next year for his domestic assault(s) on his girlfriend.

    Alexy didn’t develop under Adelman.

    Rubio hasn’t progressed as expected under Adelman.

    Shabazz wasn’t given an opportunity either… Shabazz goes down to D-League, gets minutes, and tears it up!!!

    The issue has been Adelman’s inability to develop players!!!!

    And again…
    Playing Cunnigham to Derrick Williams who played great with Rubio is the most unbelievably stupid decision… and FLIP trading him away was such a short-sighted move…especially since LOVE has had one foot out the door for years we traded away our only real backup plan.

  11. “Or the inverse: A player is successful elsewhere (like Barea), is brought to Minnesota, and then can’t replicate that success.”

    Barea’s three years in Minnesota compare favorably to his last year in Dallas and are better than all his seasons before that final one in Dallas. He certainly has flaws, and to the point of the article, we did a terrible job of complementing his strengths and masking his flaws, but Barea is EXACTLY what he was with Dallas with us. In fact, other than his shooting percentage falling a bit, he is better – higher assist numbers (basic and advanced) and per 36 numbers the best of his career in most non-point categories.

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