Minnesota Timberwolves rookie guard, Zach LaVine, has already made an imprint on many NBA fans, particularly those in Minnesota.
A lot of Timberwolves fans may remember this moment. It was the moment that Zach LaVine realized that he was destined to play professional basketball for the Minnesota Timberwolves. His reaction was quite clear, though philosophers, pundits and average Joe types all had their own interpretation of what his reaction was about. The realization that he had been drafted? Achieved the dream of tens of thousands around the world? Was he in shock? Or did he realize he was headed to very place from which Kevin Love had just executed a years-long escape plan?
The rest of the NBA fan base may better remember LaVine for this. And this. And this. And those are very good things to remember. LaVine, a skinny guard fresh out of the University of California Los Angeles, banished to the great winter winds of Minneapolis pulled off the nearly unthinkable – he made the dunk contest matter again.
Back in Minnesota, LaVine has been a project. There was never any doubt that he was going to need some time to develop and adjust to the NBA, just like every other first year player in the league. In the absence of Rubio, LaVine took on a larger role than what he would have otherwise seen in his first year. He responded well, having the best month of his rookie season, but then things started to turn for the guard.
These days, the standard reaction to LaVine checking in at point guard looks something like this.
LaVine is clearly a young, athletic guard with some serious upside potential. The month of December showed flashes of what he could yet become, posting season (career) best numbers of 29.3 minutes per game and a 1.83 assist/turnover ratio. During that month, the Timberwolves struggled with an outright awful record of 1-14. The month was a success for LaVine, who made a massive month-over-month improvement from his first full month in league in his defensive rating numbers, down to 109.2 from an out-of-this-world 122.0 in November.
The upturn of December quickly became the downturn of January, LaVine proved not to be immune to the see-saw swings that young players experience. But Flip Saunders is certainly no Tom Thibodeau, so it is likely that there was a reason that the playing of his rookie started to recede.
LaVine suffered through a not-so-great January, even without Rubio on the court, he dropped 10.6 minutes per game that month and slid another 6.8 minutes down in February and his assist ratio dropped from 1.83 in December to 1.00 in March. His defense, which cratered in his first full month in the league, has mostly evened out but he still has not managed a Net Rating better than -12.0 in another given month this season.
The upside is real, but LaVine struggles to develop that upside when he is placed at point guard. Despite the experiment at point, LaVine hasn’t shown much promise there since he posted a career-high 14 assists against the Golden State Warriors at the end of December. His play at point guard has been so worrisome that it has become the source of public action. He can score the ball, even when not particularly efficient, and shines when he can take advantage of his phenomenal athleticism. Like most young players, it is the finer points of on the ball skill and vision that make him unattractive at the point.
Numbers also bear out that LaVine seems to be at his best without stopping the ball. When he does have the ball on the offensive end and looks to score, there is a night and day between his numbers when he is holding the ball or when he is moving it to the basket quickly. When LaVine has the ball for 3-6 dribbles he is shooting just 31.8 percent on his field goals, at 7+ dribbles he moves up to 40.2 percent. Compare those numbers with his lower handled activity. When he has zero dribbles he is shooting 52.7 percent and 50.0 percent on shots with two dribbles. But it isn’t just dribbling that causes him issues, it is time. When LaVine holds possession for 2+ seconds, he is shooting just 38.4 percent compared with 48.1 percent when he has the ball for less than two seconds. LaVine is demonstrating, through numbers, that his best activity is done off-ball and that is where his best scoring comes from.
Another issue that may arise for LaVine is finding the right players to be on the court with if they wish to continue the point guard experiment. Thaddeus Young was LaVine’s primary target on passes and he received his highest volume of passes from Young, but Young also provided more assists to LaVine than anyone else on the Timberwolves. With Young gone, LaVine may be struggling to adapt to his other teammates or has not been as successful with them.
The better option seems to be moving LaVine to the two-spot and giving him some looks as created by the wizard of passing as we know him in human form, Ricky Rubio. Rubio had some injury issues this season and has played just 21 games, some of that provided LaVine an opportunity to get more minutes and playing time, key to the development of any young player. LaVine has played in 61 games this year, but somehow he and Rubio have shared the court in just nine games for an average of 3.8 minutes per contest.
Zach LaVine has a high ceiling and elite athleticism, but numbers do not lie. He is at his best offensively when he does have time on the ball and he has a long way to go before he catches veteran point guard Ricky Rubio or fellow rookie, Andrew Wiggins, on the defensive end of the court. The best thing for LaVine, and the Timberwolves future, would be to move LaVine to the two-guard and allow him to benefit from working with Rubio as opposed to in his absence – at least for the rest of this season.