As we near halfway through the season, it’s time to look and see where the Wolves are stacking up on both ends of the floor. It has become clear that this team’s defensive limitations have held this team back. Their defensive rating is seventh worst in the NBA, and their defensive transition numbers are the worst in the league.
But I want to take more of a look at the offense, the side of the ball that has seen more success. Because while it’s been the better or the two, there’s still plenty to analyze.
Zach LaVine is a good offensive basketball player.
Upon first gaze, his jumper is what sticks out. That’s justified. Halfway through his third year in the NBA, he’s shooting a career 45 percent from the field and 39 percent from deep. This year, those numbers are better. Career bests, in fact. At this point, it has been established that Zach LaVine is a solidified NBA player, and is very likely part of whatever Tom Thibodeau’s vision for the future consists of. His shooting is a big part of his plans offensively, but not the whole story.
As he’s improved his jumper, some numbers listed below will suggest his ability to take his man off the dribble has improved.
As our own Lucas Seehafer described, there is some redundancy offensively with Andrew Wiggins, but that’s not what this is about. When trying to find a balance between the shooting and the driving, what gets the most out of LaVine?
LaVine came into the NBA as a good spot-up shooter, but his catch and shoot has been in high supply this year. Off the catch overall, LaVine is shooting 46 percent from deep at a 25.7 percent frequency. This is a solid sample size, considering how many threes per game (6.9) he takes.
Also, his shooting form is gorgeous.
When LaVine takes zero dribbles after the catch, like the one above, his percentage is at 45 percent. When he takes 1 dribble and pulls up from deep, that number drops to 40 percent, which is still quite good. This one-dribble-then-shoot maneuver happens on 11 percent of his takes, which isn’t a small number compared to the rest of the league.
What’s come more recently is LaVine’s ability to score at the rim. He’s always had the handle to take defenders off the dribble, but only recently has he been able to do so at an efficient rate. He’s getting to the rim stronger, and finishing with more control.
He likes to attack off the dribble and shoot a little fader in the paint, but his ability to finish in contact, specifically in the halfcourt, is what has been the most noticeable change from last year.
Last year, LaVine’s field goal percentage taking 3-6 dribbles (which I assume is the most common catch -> drive -> shoot number, as his 7+ dribble numbers may be flawed with his stints at point guard) was at 37.7 percent. This year, that number has risen to 40 percent, but has gone down since mid-december. On December 15, it was at 46.3 percent. Twice as many games later, that (and just about every other shooting metric for LaVine) has gone down.
Seeing how the frequency percentage to which he takes those dribbles haven’t changed much at all, it’s possible that these are just small sample sizes, and that he hasn’t shot the ball as well lately. With numbers as high as LaVine, that is bound to happen occasionally.
One thing he’s learned, both off the catch and off the dribble, is to make his decisions quickly. He’s a 51 percent shooter when his touch time (time with the ball in his hands) is 2 seconds or less. More to the point, he does this 50 percent of the time he has the ball. He rarely keeps the ball in his hands for long. This is a great thing.
It’s hard to find guys that are comparable to LaVine. There are plenty of guys who can shoot the ball well, that also have a handle, but few, maybe none, have the athleticism that LaVine does. So when trying to find youngsters that match his style, it’s not easy. Thus, maybe concluding that it’s hard to figure out what LaVine’s best role is at this point. But here’s a sample of a few guys that fit the bill, a bit.
The weirdest part of this: Zach LaVine is the only player of these 4 that takes more than 1 three per game off 1 dribble. In fact, LaVine nearly takes 2 (1.9) per game. None of these guys, including the man in question, are “sit and wait for the ball” catch and shoot players, but only LaVine has that 1-dribble move heavy in his arsenal.
Based on this, and looking back into past seasons, a catch-and-shoot style seems to be LaVine’s calling card, even keeping in mind the athleticism. Not only are his percentages higher than some impressive counterparts on the catch and shoot (all with similar frequencies), his field goal percentage off the dribble is the worst of this particular bunch.
But as mentioned earlier int he article, if this table was made on Dec. 15, LaVine’s off-the-dribble numbers would put him second to his counterparts. It’s hard to imagine him not continuing to improve in that regard.
At any rate, these numbers back up one things specifically on the eye test: Zach LaVine is a good offensive basketball player, and is starting to warrant comparisons to some of the NBA’s best bucket getters.
To be clear: there are flaws in Zach LaVine’s game. Defensively, he is inconsistent, as he (and Andrew Wiggins) rank near the bottom of defensive RPM (though, he’s ranked among point guards on ESPN’s rank, but is towards the bottom regardless of which position you look at). This is not to suggest that LaVine has imperfections. Offensively, he isn’t perfect either. He still needs to work on decision-making and improve on making good offense happen with players not named Gorgui Dieng (another story for another day).
But that’s not what this is about. This is about trying to find a proper balance for what LaVine has proven he’s good at. And ultimately, the answer might be a boring one: he’s 21 and we don’t know yet.
He’s continuing to improve on finishing with contact, and moving with out the ball. He’s a good shooter and ball handler, and has improved in both regards. As he grows more comfortable as a big-minutes NBA shooting guard (a position he wasn’t always coached to prepare for), both of these things will improve. What comes more naturally should work itself out.