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The Other Timberwolves Rookie: The Emergence of Zach LaVine

The 2014-2015 NBA season has been a memorable one for several reasons, but one of its brightest spots has come from an unlikely place. Minnesota isn’t typically the hotbed for NBA talent, but with an offseason full of transactions, the Timberwolves came out with gold. The talk of this year’s rookie class has been No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, who has run away with the Rookie of the Year award in a stunning fashion. Wiggins is all that and then some, but believe or not, there’s another Minnesota rookie who’s turned heads as well.

You probably know him as that guy who is really, really good at dunking. After an incredible dunk contest, the UCLA product is now aptly known as Zach “Vine” LaVine. Unless you’re an avid Wolves fan or an NBA geek like myself, the extent you’ve actually watched LaVine this season has probably been the length of a Vine.

Believe it or not, LaVine has actually played some NBA games this season.

You can check out my preseason work on LaVine here and here, where I basically drooled over the potential of a 19 year old who really didn’t produce much at UCLA. LaVine’s problem with the Bruins was his lack of aggression and ability to take over a game. He was more or less just there, with glimpses of excellence sprinkled in. Luckily his rookie season has had more of those glimpses of excellence and he’s looking like more than just a human highlight reel.

NBA: MAR 30 Jazz at Timberwolves

We know Zach LaVine can get to the basket, but his improving jumpshot has him emerging for the Timberwolves.

 

Before the season, I thought LaVine might spend some time in the D-League. I hoped he would find a team gunning for a top five pick that wouldn’t mind giving him some run and letting him get minutes at point guard. Luckily for LaVine, he ended up on a team that suited his needs. But did I expect LaVine to start more games than Ricky Rubio? Hell no.  Rubio has only played 22 games this season, giving LaVine a stab at running an offense.

LaVine is averaging 10.0 points and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 34.6 percent on 56 three-pointers this season. Those numbers won’t blow you away, but remember this is a 20 year old with very little playing experience at point guard. LaVine has averaged 14.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and got his three-point percentage raised to 38.9 percent since All-Star break.

He’s also playing much better as a starter and has really turned things up as of late. LaVine has been on fire in April, averaging 21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game, including a career-high 37 points against the stingy Golden State Warriors defense. According to ESPN Stats & Info, LaVine passed Christian Laettner for the most points in a game by a Timberwolves rookie.

He’s also learning what it’s like playing on a lottery team, with the Wolves going 0-7 so far in April.

LaVine has found success this season scoring in transition, and he’s been surprisingly accurate as a shooter. LaVine always had a good looking stroke, but scouts were concerned if he could ever be a consistent shooter. According to NBA.com, LaVine has scored 1.08 point per play in spot-up opportunities this season, which is just .01 fewer than his sharpshooting teammate Kevin Martin. LaVine is also shooting just .03 worse from the field on spot-ups than Martin, hitting jumpers at a 42.6 percent clip.

In order to expand his game, LaVine will need to turn some of his long twos into threes. According to NBA.com, 29.4 percent of LaVine’s shots come from mid-range, with 194 attempts coming from 16-24 feet, where he shoots a pedestrian 35.6 percent. Only 24.2 percent of his attempts come from behind the arc. The mid-range game is becoming more and more inefficient in this day and age. LaVine should mold his game after a player like James Harden and improve his efficiency by taking primarily shots at the rim and three-pointers.

 

LaVine also has a few issues he’ll need to work out if he wants to keep being a starting point guard in this league. According to NBA.com, LaVine has struggled in insolation and pick and roll plays. LaVine is shooting just 29.5 percent in iso plays, which is surprising considering he usually has a length advantage and has elevation on his jumper. He’s also only scoring just 0.64 points per play on pick and rolls.

His defensive numbers are even worse, as players shoot 44.9 percent against him in pick and roll plays and 44.3 percent in spot-up opportunities. LaVine is also turning the ball over way too often, averaging 2.5 turnovers in just 24.5 minutes per game.

LaVine is playing at a high level sooner than people expected. I don’t think there are many experts who had him starting 39 games by now. The verdict is still out on whether or not he could really play point guard, as it’s looking more and more likely that his best role might be as a combo guard off the bench. The Wolves will have plenty of time to use the trial-by-error approach to tinker with LaVine’s unique skillset.  LaVine still has some work to do, but he’s got all the potential in the world, and above all else, he’s making sure you remember Andrew Wiggins isn’t the only rookie on the Timberwolves.

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