By: Ryan Schmidt
Almost all professional athletes are pretty spectacular in some way. It can sometimes be difficult to quantify them individually at being more remarkable than another. But some just astonish a witness by their level of athleticism over the competition they are competing against.
The first time I witnessed Zach LaVine up close was the Minnesota Timberwolves Summer League open scrimmage. I knew LaVine was an incredible athlete, the 2014 NBA Draft combine confirmed that. I was blown away by LaVine’s speed (https://vine.co/v/igaYFUQ5zxT) and explosion in person though. In scrimmages things aren’t always what they appear. One thing for sure that I could see was that LaVine was one of those another top-notch athletes. ESPN’s SportsScience confirmed this.
Zach LaVine’s game resembles Russell Westbrook’s. I know what you’re thinking, hot take incoming. Relax, take a deep breath. LaVine is like Westbrook not because they play basketball similarly. Or because they both attended UCLA. Or in their first year in the NBA they both were moved/made to play the point guard position (one a lot more successful than the other). LaVine is like Westbrook because when you see him play you think this guy is/can/could be amazing. The athleticism and speed they play the game at seems like it’s always warp and everybody else is normal. It’s like when you get into a car accident and you briefly have slow motion perception and you are 100% cognitive of everything happening. Yet they both are able to make plays and not go tumbling into the stands every time because they can’t stop like Mendoza.
Quantifying how good a certain player can/will be is the hardest thing in sports. Even though LaVine is similar to Westbrook in style, he’s still not Westbrook. Although both were shooting guards in college and had NBA coaches attempt to make them into points their rookie year’s, Westbrook is clearly a playmaker while LaVine is a lot better off the ball, or a secondary ball handler. First two year comparisons show Westbrook had 560 more assists, 358 more rebounds, and played 1280 more minutes. LaVine is a significantly better 3 point shooter (37% to 25%) and per 36 they averaged roughly the same amount points (16.5 to 16.9).
What Zach Does Well
Overall LaVine shot 38.9% from three, 3.9% better than league average. LaVine shot 64.9% eFG% on spot-ups, that’s 6th among players with 100 attempts. He shot 49.6% FG and 43.7% from three after the all-star.
On corner threes he was even better shooting 45.5% and 48%. Within five feet LaVine shot 62.6% and within the restricted area he shot 64.7%. LaVine took over 32% of his shots within five feet and for a guard that is respectable number.
What else can Zach LaVine do? Right now, honestly, we don’t know. On defense traditional stats and advanced stats make LaVine appear fairly pedestrian. His on/off plus-minus is pretty awful as well. When LaVine was on the court during 2015-16 season he was -6.2 while off the court he was 0.1. When LaVine was a full-time starter his on court was -4.6 and off he was even. Over the course of the season his Advanced OffRtg 104, DefRtg 109.5. After the break 107.1 offense. 110.3 Defense. In defense Real Plus-Minus LaVine was the 10th worst overall player in the NBA which is 456th (Derrick Rose is 449 Damien Lillard is 450). The positive in LaVine’s 2015-16 season on defense is he managed to average 1.1 steal in March and 1.7 in April (https://vine.co/v/iXnlxriqZYE).
LaVine isn’t a point guard. Allow me to repeat that if it didn’t sink in: Zach LaVine is not a point guard. LaVine’s net rating during the 2014-15 as a point guard was -486. At the shooting guard spot, -54 according to 82games.com. Most of LaVine’s early 2015-16 struggles can be attributed to this as well, and the poor matching of LaVine and Kevin Martin together on the floor. LaVine’s shot selection needs some work as well, or a drastic improvement on pull up shots. He shoots 35.3% from the 16-24 feet range and takes 42.6% of his shots are pull ups. He shoots 34.4% on pull ups and just 35% from 3 on those. In comparison, 42.5% on catch and shoot 3’s according tostats.NBA.com.
In small bursts of 5 games or a month, like March 2016, the first full month at exclusively shooting guard, LaVine scored 17.8 points per, shot 49.8% FG, and 47.4% from three. LaVine has clearly shown the promise and potential. Now the Timberwolves have finally put him where he’s always belonged, next to a dynamic passing guard. So after almost out of necessity his rookie year, and mostly to get minutes his sophomore year, Zach LaVine may have found the spot where he should’ve been all along. A place that could enable him to do what he does second best, shoot the rock.