Zach LaVine’s unearthly dunking ability is a blessing and a curse. The kind of aerial grace he displayed in back-to-back Slam Dunk Contest championships at All-Star Weekend is — unlike Steph Curry’s astounding 3-point shooting — not a game changer within the game, per se. Yes, it’s thrilling when he gets loose on the break and throws one down in a game, but just ask Jordan Kilganon how much that matters when it comes to getting a job in the NBA. Kilganon pulled off a mini-theft of the All-Star Game in Toronto when he unleashed his signature “Scorpion” dunk (in jeans, no less) during a break in the action. But it didn’t get him an NBA contract. Instead, he appeared last night in the first episode of The Dunk King, a reality show contest on TNT that aired after the first game of the Western Conference Finals.
In short, dunking’s nice and it gets the fans into it, but beyond the spiritual toll it takes on the other team, it’s just icing on the cake. The question, then, for LaVine is, “How’s the cake coming?”
Based on this past season, pretty well.
Prior to training camp, Sam Mitchell made the unusual move of naming LaVine as the team’s starting shooting guard, telling him, “So it’s your job until you lose it or give it away.” But then before the season even began, Mitchell backpedaled and moved Andrew Wiggins into the starting slot with Tayshaun Prince at small forward in an effort to shore up the defense. Did LaVine actually lose the job, then? It was never really clear, but that early flip-flop was the beginning of a season that saw Mitchell demanding a lot of the sophomore.
But despite reports prior to the All-Star break that the younger Wolves players (and it was rumored LaVine in particular) were unhappy with some of Mitchell’s old-school ways, LaVine never sulked or acted out. He kept his head down and by the second half of the season, the work started paying out dividends.
In the 54 games prior to the All-Star Game, LaVine averaged 24.4 minutes per game, shot 43.4% from the field and 31.9% from 3-point range, and averaged 12.8 points per game. In the 28 games after the break, he upped his field goal percentage to 48%, his 3-point percentage to 44.4% and his scoring average to 16.4 points per game. Digging a little deeper into the stats on NBA.com, his assist percentage dropped from 23.8% to 14.8%, which isn’t surprising given his move from backup point guard to full-time starting shooting guard. His usage also dropped from 25.7% to 20.1%, but remember, his scoring actually went up. So he was using up fewer possessions but using them more effectively. His true shooting percentage went from 52.1% to 59.5%. His defensive rating got worse, but his offensive rating got much better, resulting in an overall improvement in net rating from -7.3 to -3.2.
In short, LaVine’s role was shifted to scoring as the off-guard — a role most had envisioned for him from day one — and he responded. Does that mean the whole “Zach LaVine is a point guard” excursion was a waste? It’s hard to say. I personally never thought the Wolves really considered LaVine a point guard, but more wanted to give a young guy without a ton of court awareness exposure to running a system in the hopes that it would bump up his basketball IQ. So did it work? As Mitchell said, ““I tell Zach all the time, when he gets through this, he’s going to be a much better player because he’s going to have went through the fire.” Whether Mitchell was holding LaVine back or truly building him up is largely a matter of perspective, but by the end of the season he had clearly settled into a role on the team, getting out ahead on the break, spotting up for jumpers.
The open question now, though, is what his role will be under Tom Thibodeau. Although he looked better on defense simply in terms of staying better attached to his man, it didn’t equate to better defense in terms of the numbers. One of the names that’s been tossed around in the wake of Thibodeau’s hiring is Jimmy Butler, a Thibs protege who had some friction with teammates and head coach Fred Hoiberg in Chicago this past season. It would likely take a lot to unmoor Butler from Chicago but the fact remains that the starting point guard, small forward and center positions in Minnesota look to be filled for the foreseeable future, while the shooting guard and power forward spots are much more malleable.
If the Wolves ultimately decide to go for a more even balance of offense and defense at shooting guard, can LaVine embrace the role of sixth man the way that his fellow Seattle-ite Jamal Crawford has?
Thus the challenge before LaVine going into next season is a remix of the one he faced prior to training camp this past season. He’s the starting shooting guard and it’s his job to lose. If he gets complacent over the summer based on his success in the last two dozen games of the season, he’s liable to head back to the bench. But if he builds on that good second half of the season, he can solidify his role as a starter. LaVine has always been confident, but he now needs to make himself indispensable.