More than any other Timberwolves player, Zach LaVine is whatever you want to make of him.
A LaVine partisan has a lot of ammunition when arguing that he’s a player to be excited about.
She can point out that he’s 6’5″ with possibly the best leaping ability the league has ever seen. He has a beautiful and ever-improving jumpshot with range that extends a few feet behind the three-point line. The dude was jacking up almost 7 threes per game last year and connecting on 39 percent of them. These were not the “spotted up in the corner, wide-ass open” variety either; a lot of LaVine’s treys were high-rising jumpers off the dribble with a hand in his face. (Well, given how ridiculously high Zach gets up on his J, the hand was more likely somewhere in front of his chest. The point stands.) He can create his own shot and he does it a lot. On a team crowded with young and eager volume scorers, LaVine managed to average 19 points per game in his age 21 season. While Zach’s defense has a ways to go, it’s getting better. He just needs more time in the weight room and more game reps to learn how the pro game is played. Oh, did I mention he’s barely 22 years old? That too. His upside is too high to calculate. He was kinda/sorta in the All-Star Game conversation (12th in the fan vote for Western Conference guards) and he’s nowhere close to reaching his potential.
A LaVine hater would focus on entirely different things.
He might say that it’s great and all that Zach can soar through the air and win slam dunk contests, but what would really be nice would be if he could use those hops to consistently attack the rim. Instead, he’s mostly a jumpshooter who gets some dunks here and there in transition leak-outs. He’s more JR Smith than Russ Westbrook. If he was a better slasher who put his athleticism to use, he’d shoot more than 3 free throws per game. It’s great that he scored almost 20 points per game, but could he do at least one other thing to help his team? In over 37 minutes per game, he posted averages of just 3.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists as a shooting guard who handled the ball quite a bit. His defense still sucks, even if it’s better than “atrocious” or whatever harsh adjective you want to apply to his rookie-year performance. The LaVine hater would care less about his age and more about his not-insignificant NBA experience: last season was his third in the league. If his potential is so high, he shouldn’t still have so many holes in his game.
LaVine’s 2016-17 season was mostly a continuation of, and mild progression from his first two in the league. His biggest change in Year 3 was in playing time: he averaged 37.2 minutes per game (tied with teammate Andrew Wiggins for 3rd most in the NBA) after playing just 28.0 as a second-year player in 2015-16. His scoring volume went up from 14.0 to 18.9 points per game, but adjusted to per-36 minutes, the bump was negligible (18.0 in Year 2, and 18.3 last year). Even if you adjust for his increased tick, however, LaVine was a more prolific three-point shooter in his third season. Connecting at almost the exact same percentage clip (38.7% versus 38.9% in Year 2) LaVine made 2.5 threes per 36 minutes last year, up from 1.9 in Year 2. That’s an additional 1.8 points per 36 minutes (#math) and that’s significant. He became a reliably prolific three-point shooter last season on a team in desperate need of more long-range firepower. Having sat and watched many a Zach LaVine pregame shootaround sessions, I can attest that he’s become totally automatic from downtown. His form is great, his rhythm is smooth, and he shoots everything like he expects it to go in. And it usually does.
We’re far enough into this Zach LaVine Season in Review to point out the elephants in the room:
- Zach tore the ACL in his left knee on February 3rd against the Pistons. He underwent reconstructive surgery on February 14th. The timeline for ACL recovery can vary and he might be back for the regular season opener in late October, but it is unlikely that he’s back to 100% athleticism within a year of surgery. Of course, it’s also possible that he never regains his full, mind-blowing athleticism that defined much of his basketball reputation in his early NBA seasons.
- LaVine is eligible for a contract extension before next season. If an agreement is not reached, he will become a restricted free agent in Summer 2018.
To really discuss Zach LaVine’s 2016-17 season, you need to mush all of these things together. The super-exciting positives, the annoyingly-persisting negatives, the recent knee surgery, and the imminent contract issue.
By all of his own accounts, Tom Thibodeau is a big fan of LaVine. With many words (he heaps plenty of praise on LaVine, and noticeably includes “Zach” in any discussion of the team’s core, along with “Karl” and “Wig”) and actions (37.2 minutes per game) Thibs consistently showed faith in LaVine as a player and perhaps as a prospect. I’m sure Thibs recognizes the explosive athleticism and probably thinks a little bit about what Derrick Rose did for his early Chicago Bulls teams as a dribble penetrator. I’m sure he likewise sees the silky jumper and notices an increasingly-important NBA skill that in in short supply on his current roster. LaVine brings a combination of physical upside and ready skill that would make any confident coach want to invest. From what we have seen and heard, I would be surprised if Zach LaVine is on a different team’s roster when next season begins.
But there are some fair questions about LaVine himself (outlined above) and his fit in the team’s “core”; specifically, his fit next to Wiggins. Many people believe both players are best suited at off-guard, and anybody paying attention knows that neither can play the point. To work in tandem, Wiggins would need to bulk up or otherwise become a better forward. When you consider that the Wolves played stellar offense in LaVine’s absence (Towns and Wiggins picked up almost all of the slack between themselves, and with improved efficiency) and that LaVine is an offense-only type of player, it’s fair to wonder if his overall “market value” — whatever it is — might exceed the value he adds to this particular team. If that is in fact the case, it would make sense to at least explore the possibility of trading him for a more helpful player.
And the contract and injury situations just complicate things further. Will LaVine accept a discount — something significantly below the “max” for a 4-year extension, insuring himself against long-term complications with his knee? (That’s what Steph Curry did with his rookie extension in Golden State after chronic ankle problems, right before he exploded into the league’s best guard. In hindsight, he lost money by not betting on himself.) Or will LaVine demand the max, believing that even if Thibs-Layden, LLC won’t give it to him in October 2017, a different team will in July 2018? Should the Wolves commit max money to both LaVine and Wiggins, knowing that Towns is an automatic max-out, effective 2019-20 season?
The plethora of big questions that surround LaVine is the unfortunate part of his 2016-17 season. How will the injury affect him? How much money is he worth? How well does he fit next to Wiggins? Just how good IS he?
The fortunate part was the shooting. It was already good, and it became even better.
In doing these season in review posts, we’re trying to think of players that the subject should emulate or study. For LaVine, when thinking about how he could improve, I think about how he moves around during games.
You know that cocky strut-jog that Kobe Bryant would use from time to time when he was trotting up the floor in a non-urgent moment? I’m pretty sure Zach LaVine knows what I’m talking about, because he does the exact same thing and he does it way too often. By loping around looking cool, LaVine wastes a lot of his athleticism that could be spent more efficiently with quicker steps and better stances. There are times when it seems like his athleticism is more his enemy than his friend. For instance, where a less gifted shooter like J.J. Redick or Klay Thompson would persuasively set up their defender before cutting off a screen to get open, LaVine will do it a little bit more casually. The end result — often times — is that LaVine has to take a wider angle and either not be open at all, or his shot is from 27 feet instead of 24. I think some of his issues are attributable to his narrow frame and lack of bulk, but he could do a lot more with what he has right now with sharper focus and more efficient footwork.
Basically, I think he wastes way too much athleticism and should study players who use their feet more efficiently. I think Klay Thompson would be a great player for LaVine to study, because he is the supreme example of “efficient motion.” Both as a cutter getting open and a jumpshooter letting it fly, Klay does everything with perfect mechanics and zero inefficiency. He will never be able to do the things that LaVine can do in mid-air, but right now he’s a far better player on both ends of the floor. Zach could study the way Klay defends all over the floor — perimeter and sometimes post — and borrow whatever tricks he finds Klay using. But most importantly, Zach might find that the game doesn’t need to be as difficult as he sometimes makes it. He’s got a huge advantage over everyone else with his size, bounce, and jumper. He just needs to learn how to use it.
Let’s end this LaVine recap on a fun note, and wish him well in his ongoing knee recovery: