The tease of Zach LaVine

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Zach LaVine has gone on to start 23 games for the Wolves this season and Minnesota has won exactly twice in those contests.

When Zach LaVine checked into the game for the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night, they were trailing the Los Angeles Clippers by 11, 29-18, with a little under two minutes to play in the first quarter. 

LaVine almost immediately flashed some of the bone-headed defense that has made him so aggravating to watch for much of his rookie season. Sorting out assignments with teammate Ricky Rubio in transition, he signaled that he would guard perennial all-star Chris Paul, while Rubio took third-year bench player Austin Rivers — then lost Paul so thoroughly on a basic screen that Rubio moved over to take the charge, only to have Paul pass to Rivers for an open three-pointer. The next Clippers possession, Paul befuddled LaVine with a crossover dribble and buried the jumper. Suddenly it was 36-18 Clippers with 1:18 to play in the period. 

Then LaVine began to flash the indomitable confidence and astounding athleticism that teases out glimpses of stardom. Right after being twice embarrassed by Paul, he came down and stuck a midrange jumper of his own.

And when Paul went to the bench to start the second quarter, it was LaVine’s turn to do the embarrassing. Taking a pass by Gary Neal out on the right wing, he blew by Rivers for a ferocious slam dunk. Feeding off his own electricity, he turned a broken play on the next Wolves possession into a long three-pointer. He ambushed the Clippers with another lightning drive up the right lane, drawing the foul in mid-air on another dunk attempt. When the Clippers started cheating on his dribble penetration, he fed Rubio, and rookie Adreian Payne, twice, for open buckets. And he leaked down the floor to take a long pass from Rubio for another slam dunk, dipping the ball behind his right shoulder before flushing it down with an efficient, blurred flick of his arms. 

At the halftime break, he had played nearly fourteen straight minutes, scoring 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, three rebounds, three assists and zero turnovers. Most importantly, he was plus 13 during that time on the court and the Wolves led 60-58.  

A patron in Saunders

When Flip Saunders selected LaVine with the 13th pick in the 2014 NBA draft last summer, he had difficulty disguising his ebullience. Although the 19-year old LaVine had started just one game in his lone year at UCLA, Saunders proclaimed that he that “he has the ability to be an elite two-way player.” 

Saunders understood this was a rash statement, and he knew the pick of LaVine was a significant gamble on untested athleticism. “Sometimes you have to try and hit a home run,” he explained. “Some players are ready-made, they are only going to be doubles hitters. This guy has an opportunity to be a home-run type player.” 

As the man in charge of both the playbook and the personnel in his dual duties as head coach and President of Basketball Operations, Saunders is ideally suited to grease that opportunity for LaVine. 

When Rubio went down with a severely sprained ankle during the fifth game of the season, Saunders chose to leapfrog LaVine over then-backup point guard Mo Williams into the starting lineup. It was an audacious, “toss the infant into the pool” gambit that lasted for four double-digit drubbings before LaVine was mercifully replaced by Williams. 

But Saunders has been tenacious in his patronage. LaVine has gone on to start 23 games for the Wolves this season and Minnesota has won exactly twice in those contests. LaVine currently ranks fifth on the team in minutes played with 1135 (he logged 904 for his entire college career) and will pass Williams (who played 1149 minutes before being traded to Charlotte) within the next game or two for fourth place. 

In the long, sordid history of the Timberwolves franchise, never has a player looked so bad so often over the course of a single season. 

Even against the Clippers on Monday, for those paying attention to the intricacies of the game LaVine had as many cringe-worthy plays as he did highlights. In-between torching the Clippers defense with slams, dimes and jumpers, he fell asleep along the baseline while long-range marksman Jamaal Crawford drifted to the corner to catch a pass for an open three-pointer. He rushed over unnecessarily to help Payne defend Glen Davis at the hoop, leaving Rivers wide open for a three-pointer. Back down on offense, he passed too soon and too hard to Gorgui Dieng on a pick-and-roll play. 

Oh, and after that sparkling second quarter, LaVine didn’t make another field goal the rest of the game, committing three turnovers versus one assist and going minus-10 in 8:32 of play during the second half. 

To his credit, Saunders has laced his generosity toward LaVine’s playing time with ample tugs of tough love. When I interviewed him in January, Saunders conceded that teammates don’t hustle down the court as often playing beside LaVine because they aren’t confident he can get them the ball even when they are open. He acknowledged that LaVine has a long way to go to become a consistent defender, especially in recognizing how to communicate and shore up trust on team coverage (as opposed to on-ball isolation defense, where LaVine’s athleticism can compensate for his inexperience). 

Put simply, Saunders rarely tries to gloss over the ugly warts on LaVine’s game. Even on Monday night, after LaVine’s play had on-balance been a feel-good story in the narrow loss to the Clippers, the coach appropriately, if still delicately, ridiculed a question about whether Rubio had benefited from playing beside LaVine.

But the loyalty between the powerful coach-POBO and the teenaged rookie is steadfast. By now it is obvious to one and all that LaVine lacks the court vision, anticipation and dribbling facility to thrive as a point guard, but boasts the height (6-5) and athleticism to perhaps blossom into a star off-guard. Yet since trading Williams, Saunders continues to give as many or more minutes to LaVine at the point as he does playing the rookie beside Rubio, ignoring the other backup point guard, Lorenzo Brown. 

According to Basketball-Reference.com, LaVine has logged 91 percent of his minutes at the point thus far and just 9 percent as an off-guard. Asked about this before a recent game, Saunders says the experience will help LaVine in the future, as he and Rubio can both initiate plays when they are paired in the backcourt. This may be the most outlandish aspect of his fast-forwarded development of LaVine — trading almost certain short-term carnage for what seems like, at best, a minimal long-term upgrade in LaVine’s skill set.

Generation gap

LaVine isn’t the only one suffering through an uncomfortable learning experience during this checkered Timberwolves season. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my antagonism toward LaVine is at least partially age-related. 

A variety of factors have contributed to this dynamic. First of all, LaVine can’t help but be inevitably and unfairly compared Andrew Wiggins, the Rookie of the Year favorite who was the other teenager on the Wolves roster when the season began. (Wiggins has since turned 20. LaVine’s 20th birthday is Tuesday, March 10.) 

Wiggins is one of the rare players who is LaVine’s equal in terms of raw physical prowess, but is preternaturally mature enough to hone his skill set around student achievement rather than stud athleticism. He is light years ahead of LaVine on the fundamentals of defense, let alone on the context of the game in his life and his career. His omnipresent example makes LaVine’s typical teenage behavior seem all the more callow.  

Then there is Twitter. At the urging of friends and readers, I began live-tweeting games in earnest this season, using the format to lay out opinions that used to go into my notebook for more judicious consideration later. Consequently, a hefty proportion of the dozens of times I’ve been aghast and frustrated by LaVine’s ineptitude this season has been disseminated to the public. And as any pundit knows, for better or worse, you own the public pronouncements more than the private deliberations.  

I started covering the Timberwolves franchise as a beat and part of my livelihood five years before LaVine was born. Over that time, it has been incredibly gratifying to pick up many of the nuances, philosophies and sciences of this glorious game and to cherish those who both ratify these refinements and continue to educate me with their “high basketball I.Q.” 

Suffice is to say that Zach LaVine has not been one of those teachers this season.  

Statistics and priorities

By the numbers, LaVine has been the poster boy for this wretched Wolves season. Minnesota scores 5.7 fewer points and gives up 7.1 more points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the court compared to when he sits. Roughly speaking, then, his presence holds his team back nearly 13 points a game. 

Drill down a little bit and you can see how toxic LaVine is for the performance of some of his teammates. To choose the most extreme example, when the three-player combination of LaVine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad shared the court for 255 minutes this season, the Wolves have been outscored by 20.6 points per 100 possessions. By contrast, the three-player combination of Dieng, Muhammad and Williams played together for 258 minutes and outscored the opposition by 9.7 points per 100 possessions. 

Sure, the two other players in the quintet are variables not factored in here. But subbing in Williams for LaVine swung the three-player combo involving Muhammad and Dieng by more than 30 points per 100 possessions with nearly the same sample size. 

Those numbers were taken from the lineup data at Basketball-Reference.com. According to the stats page at nba.com, LaVine has the fourth-worst plus-minus ratio among players who have logged at least 800 minutes this season. A lot of this has to do with his horrendous defense. 

Players defended by LaVine are shooting 41.3 percent on three-pointers this season and 56.7 percent on two-pointers. There isn’t an area of the floor where he allows a lower shooting percentage than the league norm, but it is particularly glaring on shots from less than six feet, where players he guards are have a 16.8 greater shooting percentage than the average. From less than ten feet it is percentage of 13.8 more. 

Defense requires three essential ingredients — effort (physical exertion), focus (mental exertion) and experience. LaVine woeful lack of experience obviously hurts him at the defensive end of the court. But his absence of focus and, for someone so athletic, his merely sporadic effort, are damning. 

LaVine’s relative absence of defensive intensity becomes especially galling when you consider his stupendous winning performance in the slam-dunk contest over all star weekend. Yes, his innate, nearly off-the-charts athleticism was a primary factor in that memorable series of slams. But the amount of planning, repetition, energy, and focus required to choreograph and execute those performances was clearly considerable. 

LaVine didn’t regard that enormous investment in his panoply of dunks to be onerous—it was fun for him and by his enthusiasm for the event, you know participating and winning the contest was the fulfillment of a long-held dream. 

And that’s where the grumpy old man in me chafes and bellows. I have little doubt that LaVine has applied himself to the intricacies of dunking this season more intensely and thus more successfully than he has to the intricacies of team defense. 

That’s not to say LaVine is wrong in his priorities. The NBA is entertainment, and he has put himself on the national map. The Wolves marketing department will likely sell more season tickets based on LaVine’s all star showing than they would if he dedicated himself to reducing his defensive lapses by 4-5 points per game. 

But there is a toll taken by emphasizing entertainment over fundamentals. For team it is wins and losses. For a player it is ultimately a less successful career. 

David Thorpe is a respected writer for ESPN as well as being a mentor to rookies and other young players. At the beginning of the season he was generally high on LaVine, for obvious reasons regarding his physical potential. 

But his most recent assessment is revealing: “It was fun to see LaVine win the slam dunk contest but it was also a reminder of how much his game resembles a young Gerald Green as a player,” Thorpe wrote. The game is about reading, thinking, reacting and discipline—all areas that LaVine is far from understanding at this point.” 

Aside from Green and LaVine, the other player to both wear a Wolves uniform and win a slam dunk championship is J.R. Rider. Of the trio, I would say that LaVine has the best psychological makeup. Green’s on-court dialogs with himself and the world and the careening of his emotion lay bare his ongoing immaturity. Rider, of course, couldn’t keep his behavior in check enough to stay in the NBA. But they are both cautionary tales. 

There is reason to be sanguine about LaVine’s future. As dreadful as he has performed this season, his statistics, as well as the eye test watching him play on the court, show improvement, especially with the return of the veterans to anchor his good habits and unburden his responsibilities. His sin is being a typical teenager. The most powerful person within the franchise he plays for is firmly invested in his success and giving him plenty of room to grow. 

But the jury is out. Especially for this grumpy old man. 

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 03/06/2015 - 11:43 am.

    I’m glad you brought up Gerald Green because that is who Lavine reminds me of. You are either blessed with court vision or not, point guards are born with great spacial awareness (Rubio) Lavine doesn’t have that. Lavine can improve his passing skills by mostly being more careful with the ball, he’ll never have pt guard vision. Lavine also is a poor ball handler which immediately cuts down on his ability to use his superior athleticism. He will always be able to get out on the wing and run for dunks but in the half court his lack of handle slows him down because he can’t get by anyone who forces him left.
    Will be interesting to see how he develops over the next 3 yrs. He is a fantastic athlete who at 20 yrs old is not a very good NBA player. If he turns into a lock down defender and solid spot up shooter he has a chance. If he continues to make poor decisions with the ball, make low % passes and take bad contested jump shots he’ll be on the Gerald Green track.

  2. Submitted by Robert Garfinkle on 03/06/2015 - 12:15 pm.

    This wasn’t the plan…

    Nice piece on LaVine. I agree with this; I have watched virtually every game this year and he’s so not ready for this, especially defensively. Your analysis and stats are accurate assessments of his play.

    When Flip drafted him, he was thinking the season was a mix of vets and rooks that would be thinking about that 8th seed in the playoffs. In that scenario, I’m guessing that LaVine was expected to play little, maybe get in a D-League stint or two, and take his lumps in small doses. When that plan changed, LaVine was thrown into the deep end, having to learn many of these hard lessons on the court. I wonder how his development was hurt, or helped, by the change in plans.

    I like Zach. In his interviews, his comments, his presence on the court, he has a naive confidence that isn’t arrogant but seems absolutely necessary to succeed in this league. He’s very much a goofy teenager, and in the NBA teenagers grow up in public. As with all of these young guys, they need time–it takes into their third year, at least, to know what’s what with young guys in this league. Your article implies the patience that is needed with LaVine, and also with Bennett, Wiggins, Muhammed–These narratives that start out with “he was a bust last year” are so unfair. I have a 19-year old son; anyone who’s raised a teenager knows how much they learn and change and mature year by year. Let’s just sit back, see what happens, and enjoy the ride.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 03/06/2015 - 12:43 pm.

    So

    With all the point guards who were swapped around a few weeks ago, why didn’t Saunders grab one?

  4. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 03/06/2015 - 12:56 pm.

    I didn’t want to see him play a minute…

    this season. Above all, the assessment of him was that he was the rawest lottery pick and one of the rawest first-round picks. There were mock drafts that didn’t even have him in the first round until his athleticism was quantified. He’s currently in the top 10 of rookies in minutes played, though he’ll probably end up in more like the top 15.

    Every observation you pointed out in the piece is why he didn’t seem ready. I just remember how bad Dieng and Muhammad were in limited minutes until they joined the lineup for good in March and was really hoping to not have to see that. I really don’t understand why anyone does; it’s amazing how many people are in the “let them figure it out on the court” school of developing young players. Though we can’t really quantify whether that style of development works better or not because it relies on untested hypotheticals, I just don’t like watching it and think it has the potential downside of unearned entitlement with playing time. That’s certainly happened so far this season with Bennett, to the point that he’s already got one foot off the roster.

    As for why he’s playing, this whole season has me baffled about Flip’s style, because his actions don’t always make sense and his explanations don’t clarify them. The broader philosophy of “develop while playing to win” starts to break down when individual moves are analyzed. Four veterans matter with this team and their ability to win: Rubio, Pek, Martin, and KG. Rubio and KG allow them to beat really good teams; Pek and Martin allow them to at least be competitive against the rest. Ideally, they would be playing the non-KG starters 28 (for Pek)-32 minutes per game and dividing the rest among the youngsters who are earning the privilege with their practice and game performance. Any other veteran who stands in the way of a young player at this point in the season seems unnecessary; it’s why they don’t bother to play Budinger, who only seems to play well with good players and hasn’t even done that this season. Yet here’s Gary Neal, still on the roster, taking minutes that could go to LaVine at SG, and leading to the release of a 2nd-round pick in GR3 who Flip said was “rated as a first-rounder.” I can’t fathom that LaVine has played better PG than Brown in practice, and there’s enough concern already about whether LaVine is even an NBA-caliber SG. It makes sense, for example, to bring in a Justin Hamilton to see if he can earn minutes and push their young bigs or keep Brown around to see if he can be a backup PG; it makes much less sense to keep around an impending free agent in a lottery season.

  5. Submitted by Finn Dallas on 03/06/2015 - 02:15 pm.

    Time to Retire Britt

    You apparently lack the ability and patience to identify true talent. Zach, with only 20 MPG, is averaging 7.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG…with your logic you would have written off players like Scottie Pippen and Gary Payton who had similar rookie years. The guy is 19 and is going to be talented, just give him some time. @FinnDallas

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 03/06/2015 - 03:02 pm.

      Laughable comparison

      Those are 2 of the best defenders in NBA history who were in the rotation for playoff teams.

  6. Submitted by Adam Gerber on 03/06/2015 - 02:43 pm.

    Elder Optimism

    Certainly, the evidence is with you. Generally, teenagers in the NBA are either truly exceptional and mature, or they wind up as cautionary tales. Most players like Zach don’t make much of an impact on the NBA, so your generational discord makes sense when seen through the prism of history. However, the great thing about being on Zach’s side of that chasm: he still has so much capacity to learn and grow, and his specific story isn’t written yet. His athleticism is amazing, his mechanics are solid, but his decision making is poor. Guess what your average teenager is singularly terrible at: decision making. Your old, I’m (slightly less) old, and its easier for us to recognize the poor decisions. It will get easier for Zach too. Youth is wasted on the young.

    I hope that he is given enough freedom and opportunity (and accountability) to grow into the best player he can be. This is a real possibility on the Wolves, and one worth investing in. Most fans aren’t crushing him with high expectations, and I think the coaching/teammates are a good fit. Zach has always been seen as a long-shot to reach his potential, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that those odds have gotten any worse. In fact, while the odds are still fairly long, I think they’ve gotten better. He could still be an excellent two way player in the long term, and I am rooting for him (even though I frequently wish I could use my playstation controller to move him around on D, hes just LOST out there, argh!).

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 03/06/2015 - 04:39 pm.

    Both Pippen and Payton had 3 skills that got them court time their 1st couple yrs. They both could pass,defend 1 on 1 and handle the ball. Neither had a shot but both became good enough shooters to allow their vision and ball skills to determine the outcome of many playoff games not just regular season games. Lavine has a chance to be good but vision, feel and ball skills will hold him back.
    Britt, I hope Lavine doesn’t have to do the 5 NBA teams, then China to figure out his game like Green. That means a 5-6 yr wait and he won’t be a Wolf at the end of that journey most likely. Thanks for the article.

Leave a Reply