Zach LaVine: No Longer Just a Dunk Machine

Zach was described as a “gym rat” when coming out of college. Somebody who was constantly in the gym working to get better at his craft. That’s the type of player that you take a gamble on when they have as much upside as he showed scouts.

I thought he should have been drafted by Sacramento after the Lakers had taken Julius Randle. That was an appropriate time — in my opinion — to take the gamble on LaVine, but instead he was passed up 5 more picks until Saunders took him. Five teams didn’t have the balls that Saunders had to draft Zach LaVine, and for that you can only admire one of the better moves of Saunders draft career. To this day, there are only four players I’d rather have on my team from that draft over LaVine — Wiggins, Parker, Embiid (if healthy), and Smart.

After winning the NBA Dunk Contest as a rookie, Zach LaVine practically became a household name for NBA fans. The extra confidence helped him grow to 14.7 PPG, 5.2 APG, 4.1 RPG (per 36 minutes) over the remainder of the season, and land him a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Second Team roster. LaVine would no longer go throughout his NBA career in the shadows of his highly touted teammate, Andrew Wiggins, but rather as a complimentary piece for the Timberwolves future. Another piece to Flip Saunders plan.

Shortly after adding the number one overall selection, Karl-Anthony (future of the league, future MVP, Hall of Famer, etc.) Towns, tragedy blanketed Minnesota as the state’s longtime basketball staple, Flip Saunders, had passed away.

Not only was the future in jeopardy for the Timberwolves, but particularly for Zach LaVine as he was the apple in Saunders eye, but not so much in the eye of replacement head coach, Sam Mitchell. The plan for LaVine in his second season was to move him to shooting guard — or really just get him off of the ball — where he’d have to do less decision making and allow his natural talent to unload on opposing teams. He’d no longer be handcuffed by the role of a backup point guard and wouldn’t need to worry about running the offense efficiently and rotating the ball around to get his other teammates involved.

It’s obvious that LaVine’s best skill is his athleticism as he’s clearly in a different universe compared to almost every player in the NBA. So, to move him off ball and into open space around the perimeter was a no-brainer. However, it took Sam Mitchell until after the All-Star break to understand this would not only be best for Zach, but it’d be the best thing for the Timberwolves moving forward.

LaVine Before All-Star Break: 12.8 PPG, 3.2 APG, 2.9 RPG, 34.5 3P%

LaVine After All-Star Break: 16.5 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.5 RPG, 44.5 3P%

It’s refreshing to see LaVine have this kind of success after hearing for the past two seasons how amazing Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are. Obviously they’re unusual talents, but Zach LaVine is beginning to blend into conversations with these two players as they’re forming the three pillars of howling fate.

Due to LaVine’s recent hot stretch, some fans are even beginning to wonder if LaVine’s ceiling is actually higher than Wiggins’ potential. Many don’t understand how great of season Wiggins is having in only his second season in the league, but it’s easy to overlook Wiggins considering he plays with such a lack of aggression and intensity. That being said, saying LaVine can catch, or at some point pass Wiggins, isn’t as insane as it sounds.

Both players thrive on their athleticism, particularly in transition. However, Wiggins has struggled early in his career inside the half court while trying to rebound and create for others. LaVine definitely looks as if he has a better feel for the game as some things — creating for teammates, shot creating, rebounding — looks to be a lot more natural for LaVine than it does for Wiggins.

As far as shooting, it’s not really a conversation between LaVine and Wiggins. With respect to Wiggins, it’s not really a conversation between LaVine and many others. Since the All-Star break, LaVine is shooting .445% on three pointers. If he were to have shot that percentage since opening night he’d be ranked fourth in the entire league (Redick, Leonard, Curry).

However, that’s not even the most impressive statistic of Lavine’s shooting percentages. Over the course of the entire season, LaVine is shooting 52.6% on corner three pointers which was the driving force of Zach’s monster month of March — 17.8 PPG while shooting 47.4% from three on 5 attempts per game.

As LaVine has plenty (PLENTY!) of room to grow, it’s certainly encouraging to see this recent burst from LaVine. Fans across the state of Minnesota are understanding how special this young core of Timberwolves is going to be. It’s no longer just Towns and Wiggins with the thought of an upcoming lottery pick. LaVine’s talent will influence the Timberwolves pick in a way that forces them to draft a player that also compliments their exciting combo-guard.

Regardless of how miserable this season has looked, one thing is for certain — Zach LaVine is no longer just a dunk machine. Each game he’s looking more and more like the home run that Flip Saunders swung for.

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