Zach LaVine, and the quest to become more than “just a dunker”


Zach LaVine is skilled. Anyone that has seen him play for more than just a few minutes knows this. It’s the application of those skills that have been the problem for last year’s 13th overall pick.

This was a known issue when he was drafted, too. Nobody doubted his athleticism, his dribbling, or his potential as a dead-eye shooter when he first declared out of UCLA; it was everything else that caused the concern. He only started 1 game in his only year with the Bruins, and saw his minutes steadily decline under head coach Steve Alford.

It ended poorly at UCLA. He never made over 18 minutes in his last 4 of his last 5 games.

Now, this isn’t to say Alford was making a good decision sitting the freshman. LaVine is, and was, talented enough to produce at a high level in college play, and probably should have started, but his decline in minutes probably weren’t unwarranted.

Fast forward to the end of his rookie season with the Timberwolves, and while we saw an increase in minutes, it wasn’t entirely because of steady improvement in problem areas.

Through all the ups and downs, LaVine has remained a household name, because of one fun skill that he’s possessed as long as he’s been in the spotlight. Dude can hop.

As his rookie season went on, he started to unveil more positive aspects to his game. He has a good enough handle to run the point in emergency situations (a situation the Wolves ran into over and over last season), he is developing a killer three-point shot, and he’s a decent shooter off the catch.

He was good enough to steadily improve his numbers as the year went on. By the last month of the season, he was stapled in as an All-Rookie 2nd Team performer.

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Watching Zach LaVine was exciting, but also often frustrating. As promising a future as he may have, there’s a lot to be worked on down the road.

*Note: I’m not going to mention ‘point guard skills’ below, because I don’t think he’s a point guard in the making. The acquisitions of Andre Miller and Tyus Jones lead me to believe Flip Saunders is of the same thought pattern.

Defense, especially off screens

This is a problem with most rookie guards, but LaVine was forced to go and learn how to play in the NBA much more quickly than most had anticipated, including Flip Saunders. While first overall pick Andrew Wiggins entered the league with pieces of defensive potential. Lavine has much, much, much more work to do.

Flip Saunders often talked about bad pick-and-roll defense in post-game press conferences, especially during stretches when Ricky Rubio was injured. This, along with a simple eye test, would lead most to believe LaVine was a key culprit Saunders was talking about.

It wasn’t just on pick-and-rolls, either. Sometimes, he’d just miss an assignment, or not recognize a switch until it was too late.

In this play, Khris Middleton screens LaVine off his man near the baseline, doesn’t recognize the switch, and leave Middleton wide open from deep. Middleton shot 40 percent from 3-point land last year.

It usually wasn’t a matter of effort with LaVine, but rather a matter of IQ and procedure. LaVine has never appeared to lack the ability to make plays on defense happen. Like many young players, he’s simply struggling to figure out how to defend NBA offenses.

LaVine’s struggled probably aren’t as extreme as they seemed last season. He was thrown into big minutes far too early, and had to learn on the job without he level of training how to properly defend…well…anything on the perimeter. It showed last year.

Shot selection

This one is much more simple. LaVine needs to work on when to shoot the ball.

He’s a decent shooter off the dribble, and is developing a decent pull-up jumper. As a result, though, he’s taking lots of bad shots, many of them from way outside the three point line. As many shots like the one below were hit during this year’s Summer League, there were as many (nay, more) misses.

Shots like that are exciting when they go in, and if LaVine can turn himself into a Jamal Crawford-type 6th man bench spark (a role he’s been often pegged as having potential to adapt to), this could be useful on occasion. But not in excess.

And, it’s Summer League. Odds are Saunders won’t let him take many shots like this in the regular season. Still, it’s not like his shot selection was frequently stellar last season. He shot the ball relatively well from deep (34 percent), but just 42 percent from the field, in large part due to poor decision making on when to shoot and when to pass.

Some of that had to do with the team’s need for him to play point guard, but it wouldn’t be fair to chalk his entire shot selection on a matter of being out of position. There was more to it than that.

Decision-making with the ball

No, LaVine isn’t a point guard in the making, but he’s still going to be expected to have the ball in his hands as he continues to develop. His time as a fill-in point guard for Ricky Rubio and (as a result of trade) Mo Williams proved there’s work to do here for LaVine as well.

He shouldn’t have to worry too much about making plays as a primary pick-and-roll ball handler down the road, as this will mostly fall into the hands of Rubio. But driving and kicking is another story, especially for someone whose dunking ability should force defenses to collapse the paint. LaVine driving, passing out of traffic and turning the ball over became far too common last year.


This, like everything else LaVine struggles with, was somewhat foretold to us when the Wolves drafted him a year ago. Everyone knew he could slam the ball, and even had a decent jumper, but there had to be a reason why he wasn’t getting minutes at UCLA. It’s things like what’s listed above. His defense, his shot selection, and his decision making.

There’s plenty to be excited about over LaVine. He made the All-Rookie 2nd squad, he showed gradual improvement in some of these areas as the year went on, and he can score the ball if nothing else.

At this point, LaVine is known for his dunks more than anything else, and that’s probably fair. But there’s more to him than his springs. It’s just a matter of whether that forms, and if so, when.

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2 Responsesso far.

  1. gjk says:

    Just curious, how do you create these gifs? They really illustrate a point well.

  2. seanie blue says:

    Where’s the editing for this garbled sequence:
    “In this play, Khris Middleton screens LaVine off his man near the baseline, doesn’t recognize the switch, and leave Middleton wide open from deep. Middleton shot 40 percent from 3-point land last year.”
    Watch out, keep the editorial level up; the race isn’t to dumb down to ESPN levels but to maintain the qualities that made AWAW distinctive.

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