Consider for a moment how different Zach LaVine’s rookie year could have looked. Selected 13th in last year’s draft, LaVine was the Wolves’ big draft night get, a lanky yet unbelievably athletic guard who didn’t start for UCLA in his lone season there. But Flip Saunders said, “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.”
It seemed clear from the outset, though, that LaVine wasn’t going to get very many minutes on a team that featured Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin, plus still had Kevin Love and was looking to improve on a disappointing 40-42 season. LaVine would likely spend time in the D-League and/or play garbage minutes, scrounging time in much the way Shabazz Muhammad had to in his first year in the league. This was the team LaVine was drafted into.
But that all changed after Summer League when Love was traded for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett in a move that also brought in Thad Young. Suddenly, the kid who’d had a decent Summer League and a string of highlight reel dunks at a Seattle pro-am was second banana to the #1 overall pick in the draft. If anything, LaVine’s immediate prospects for playing time went down after Wiggins came to the team; a lineup of Rubio, Martin, Wiggins, Young and Nikola Pekovic would be competitive, but likely scrapping for wins as they found their footing, meaning even less run for LaVine around the margins of wins. Add into that the fact that it’s simply difficult to develop multiple rookies at once and it seemed like LaVine might be a forgotten man this year.
Once the season began, though, the injuries started piling up. Rubio went down and shortly after, so did Martin, missing 103 games between them. LaVine went from a likely ticket to the D-League to playing out of position as the team’s starting point guard. Instead of a handful of games, LaVine played in 77, started 40, and spent 94% of his time at point guard, according to Basketball Reference. He won the dunk contest in spectacular fashion and was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
So where does all this leave him right now? Well, in some ways it’s enough that LaVine — who, please remember, was assessed by most as brimming with potential but not yet ready for primetime when he was drafted — did not burst into flames and come crashing to the ground. If he had been the Wolves’ top draft pick and had had this season, it probably would have been counted a disappointment, but there’s simply no way he had this season if Wiggins hadn’t come here and if the team hadn’t dealt with injuries.
But let’s take a look at some of the tangible elements of LaVine’s season that showed improvement, beginning with shooting. Dividing the season up into 10 game chunks, you can see that LaVine’s 3-point shooting improved measurably. After shooting 34.9% from 3-point range in his first 10 games, he shot over 40% through the rest of the season, peaking in terms of percentage at 45.3% over the last 10 and in terms of efficiency in games 51-60, where he managed a 56.8% true shooting percentage.
That stretch of games was probably his overall best, where he averaged 18.5 minute per game and notched a 98.7 offensive rating and a season low 103.8 defensive rating. Of course, a -5.1 net rating isn’t anything to crow about, but when you’re talking about a player who posted a -26.8 over the first ten games of the season, that’s not bad as far as development.
He also ended the season particularly strong in terms of production, putting up double-digit game scores (a stat that weighs the box score to produce something on the scale of points per game for a player’s total contribution) in his last six games of the season. (For reference, in his first breakout game of the season against the Lakers he had a game score of 23.4, but in his third-to-last game against the Warriors he had a game score of 28.8.)
Down the stretch of the season, you also saw him get the ball in more typical “off-guard” type situations: getting out ahead on the break to finish, running off curls, getting to the wings to spot-up or create off a pass. LaVine played a lot of point guard partly out of necessity, but it was also clear that Saunders wanted to give him a lot of time handling the ball and functioning as the primary playmaker. What’s not totally clear is if Saunders views this as a role he is going to grow into or if it’s simply preparation for LaVine to assume a role as a secondary playmaker, kind of like swinging the bat with weighted donuts on it. It’s possible that LaVine develops into a Jamal Crawford-type of player — a sixth man who can be used off the ball to create instant offense but also adopt the duties of a playmaker when called upon.
Whatever the motivation behind it, the most important thing about the workload heaped upon him this year is that while LaVine might have bent — there were plenty of careless turnovers and head-scratching decisions along the way — he did not break as so many rookies have done in the past. If he can build up his strength over the next several years and improve his ability to finish through contact at the rim while working on his 3-point shooting, there’s no reason his offense can’t keep him in the league.
The deciding factor in whether he becomes an impact player, though, is a bigger question mark: his defense. Simply put, LaVine got sloughed off screens in the pick and roll like it was his job, and other teams were more than happy to slam him through picks whenever he was on the floor. When he was drafted, Saunders noted his potential to become a two-way player (a phrase that Saunders has gone to so many times it’s beginning to lose all meaning), but so far, we have yet to see any evidence that he can become an elite defender.
The thing is, he might not have to. I laud Saunders’ desire to make the most of him, but honestly, even if LaVine is starting, sandwiching him between Rubio’s and Wiggins’ defensive abilities means he really just has to hold the line, especially if the Wolves draft a player like Karl-Anthony Towns who could develop into an elite rim defender to put behind the perimeter players. Steph Curry, for example, is part of an elite defensive unit despite not being an elite one-on-one defender. If the Wolves can develop a defensive identity as a team, LaVine need only become part of that identity — he doesn’t have to define it himself.
As with any rookie — even Andrew Wiggins — LaVine has a long way to go if he’s going to reach his potential. But given the topsy-turvy nature of his career since being drafted and the grind he went through in his first season, LaVine’s greatest victory this year wasn’t in Los Angeles when the Wolves beat the Lakers or in New York when he won the Slam Dunk Contest. It was simply that he survived, and even managed to end the year on an upswing.