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Does Zach LaVine Belong in the Timberwolves’ Starting Lineup?

Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Zach LaVine. A trio of talented players, all offering the 2015-16 edition of the Minnesota Timberwolves a little taste of something different. One struggles to hit open shots and possibly could find it hard to throw a rock in any of the 11,000+ lakes while standing on the shoreline, another is a questionable passer who has a knack for putting the ball in the basket in a variety of ways and the other is a mix of both the former.

After an unspectacular freshman season with the UCLA Bruins (minus the obvious highlight dunks), guard LaVine threw his name into the 2014 draft pool. I for one, despite his immense athleticism, figured there would be no way a lottery team would spend a pick on him. I mean, let’s face it, who would spend a pick on a one-and-done who started just one game and averaged just over nine points, two rebounds and less than two assists. Looking at the available backcourt/swing players at the time of the 13th selection, visions of more polished college players such as Gary Harris, C.J. Wilcox, Joe Harris, Nick Johnson and even LaVine’s Bruin teammates Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson appeared to be better selections for the young Timberwolves squad. Obviously Flip Saunders and the Minnesota front office knew something that others did not.

While he played the off guard and wing position for UCLA, the thought would be that LaVine could end up being like a former Bruin, Russell Westbrook, using his athletic abilities to guide the offense. After posting three DNPs in his first four games, LaVine took advantage of injuries to Rubio, providing the young Wolves with a solid enough stat line that allowed the team to trade veteran backup guard Mo Williams. With numbers that would eventually place LaVine among the rookie leaders in all stat categories for backcourt players, the question at the end of last year and entering the 2015-16 season has become, what to do with Zach LaVine?:

Yes, Rubio struggles to stay healthy enough to be on the floor for the Timberwolves and has the shooting percentage and range of a high school freshman, but as a set up man, the Spaniard has hovered around eight helpers a night for Minnesota. The main point in that sentence is Rubio’s health issues. Only once has he played more than 60 games in a season. Throw in wily vet Andre Miller and rookie Tyus Jones, and there really isn’t any advantage of placing the ball in the hands of LaVine as a set up man.

With Rubio locked in until 2018-19 after signing an extension last summer, chances are slim that the team is looking to part with him, or be willing to turn a promising club over to young inexperienced hands…just yet. At just 20 years old, LaVine still has work in front of him to tighten up his handles and figure out better passing lanes and options without forcing turnovers, something that Rubio has already experienced.

So the next option would be to insert LaVine in the shooting-guard spot to take advantage of Rubio’s ability to find his teammates in the right spot at the right time. However, in order to find the last time Martin wasn’t a full-time starter, one would have to look all the way back to his 2005-06 season in Sacramento (his second in the league). Since that time, Martin has been a lock at the off-guard spot, averaging close to 20 points while shooting 43 percent overall and 39 percent from three in 33 minutes per outing. Chances are Saunders isn’t going to remove those numbers from his fave five unless something drastic happens.

The Wolves have however started breeding their second-year guard for a future spot in the starting unit, having him play a larger role as a shooting guard in this year’s Summer League in order to help the youngster get a better understanding of shot selection. With less focus on creating opportunity for others, the goal will be to make more for himself by finishing the transition and using screens from Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Garnett and Nikola Pekovic to pull open jumpers.

With a healthy Rubio and Martin ready to start the season, it doesn’t appear that LaVine will find himself running out to pregame introductions this year, and the Timberwolves are probably better off that he doesn’t. When one looks at the potential players on the second unit for the Wolves (Jones, Shabazz Muhammad, Pekovic/Gorgui Dieng/Adreian Payne/Anthony Bennett), LaVine would be better off served as Minnesota’s version of another Seattle native who’s made a living as a spark off the bench.

With similar builds all around, LaVine would do well to follow in the footsteps of Jamal Crawford. With the ability to get to the hoop in transition, improved shooting range and percentage, height, speed and a quick handle, LaVine could be the leader of the Timberwolves’ bench, giving Saunders a hybrid player to plug in at one of three spots if needed. If the team wants to get up and down, a trio of Jones, LaVine and Andrew Wiggins is a great unit to have. Want to go big? 6’6″ LaVine, 6’7″ Martin and 6’8″ Wiggins along with a pair of 6’12″ers in Garnett and KAT is a pretty imposing and athletic lineup:

The Timberwolves have started to build something special in Minnesota and have put pieces in place at each position to mentor their younger talent, talent that’ll have to bide their time before they do their part to take the team to the next level. If you’d asked me 16 months ago if LaVine deserved to be ranked among the top freshmen in the NBA, the answer as mentioned earlier would’ve been a resounding NO, but the young combo guard has gone about putting in the time and effort to make sure people notice he’s more than a one-trick pony.

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