It's not that he came out of nowhere, because if you follow recruiting, you know who he is. But Zach LaVine wasn't necessarily pegged as a 2014 lottery candidate out of high school.
Coming off UCLA's bench behind a veteran backcourt didn't exactly sound like an ideal one-and-done platform. Yet somehow, it's acted as the perfect springboard for a freshman looking to center a sales pitch to NBA teams around his long-term potential.
Early on, LaVine has flashed that potential. Real quick, though. We've gotten a glimpse—we're just not quite sure what it's of yet.
He's playing 25.4 minutes a game, though the ball is in someone else's hands for the majority of that time. And in that time, he's averaging 12.2 points and 2.2 assists on 54.8 percent shooting from the floor.
LaVine has the 6'5" size of a 2-guard, to go with a wiry frame and explosive leaping ability. He's one of those athletes who appears to have a jetpack strapped to his back.
You can pick up on LaVine's athleticism and coordination just by watching him throw one down in the open floor.
And at this point, he's shooting it 45.3 percent from behind the arc. LaVine looks silky smooth and confident with his jumper, whether he's waiting in the corner or running off a screen to free himself up.
The NBA guys love big-time athletes who can shoot. And based on LaVine's current percentages, along with his high-flying athleticism, that's exactly what he looks like.
However, the kicker for LaVine might be a handle. You don't see it often, as he rarely gets the chance to put it on the deck. But when the opportunity presents itself, LaVine has shown he's got a legitimate command of the ball.
It gives him that combo-guard label, but not the kind you use to describe a scorer too small to play the 2. If it turns out he can handle the ball like a 1—which means running the offense while pressured at the point, or weaving through traffic, or beating his man one-one-one off the bounce—then LaVine could evolve into a daunting backcourt mismatch.
"Athleticism, size, scoring ability and [being] a combo guard" is what one NBA scout told SNY's Adam Zagoria when explaining why LaVine's name has been so hot.
The potential reward with him is tremendous. He's made that pretty clear through sporadic stretches and individual plays. But that certainly doesn't make him a sure thing at the next level.
For the most part, all we've really seen him do so far is catch, shoot and dunk. And it's not even LaVine's fault—it's what his role at UCLA asks him to do.
Coach Steve Alford hasn't exactly run many pick-and-rolls or isolation plays LaVine's way.
According to Kenpom's advanced stats (subscription required), the percentage of possessions LaVine is used in is just 19.3 percent. Take a look at where that ranks with some of the other top prospects in the field:
|Percentage of Possessions Used|
|Prospect||Percentage of Possessions||National Rank|
|Andrew Wiggins||23.5||Not ranked|
|Joel Embiid||23.4||Not ranked|
|Zach LaVine||19.3||Not ranked|
Compared to his projected 2014 draft-day competitors, LaVine isn't getting the same on-court experience as a ball-dominant or featured presence.
Given how infrequently he's asked to create, there's just no way to expect he'd be ready to contribute to an NBA rotation in a year.
And while LaVine might have a hidden handle, that doesn't necessarily mean he knows how to use it. Even with lanes to attack, LaVine's in-between game has been fairly nonexistent. Like I said before—he's been scoring off the catch, not off the dribble.
Despite top-shelf quickness and athleticism, he's only averaging 1.6 free-throw attempts per game and rarely gets to the basket in a half-court set. And don't forget that 180-pound frame of his. LaVine is built like Jack from The Nightmare Before Christmas. He'll need to add a good 15 pounds to comfortably play off the ball in the pros.
Right now, he's an offensive spark plug for UCLA. The shooting and dunking are nice, but he's going to have to explore and ultimately discover new avenues for offense.
LaVine also doesn't have that built-in navigation that tells him when to drive, change direction or stop and pop. He lacks the recognition to decipher between a good scoring opportunity and a bad one.
Below, you'll see him pass on a wide-open three, put it on the floor and then pass again on a chance for a pull-up jumper at the foul line. Instead, he attempts a wild runner in traffic that gets sent back in the other direction.
LaVine is still learning his place in the game, and after one year in a limited role off the bench, it's unlikely he gets it by 2014.
But that might not stop a team from reaching on his long-term potential in the draft, if LaVine does indeed choose to leave school after a year.
"That's my ultimate goal, is to get to the NBA," LaVine said to Sports Illustrated's Chris Johnson. "With the one-and-done, I don't know about that yet. I feel like anyone would consider it. It's going to be a decision me and my family make at the end of the year."
With LaVine's physical gifts and basketball strengths, there isn't much more you can ask for in a prospect. He's offering top-10 reward here if he can eventually channel that talent appropriately.
But given the small sample size of his work, his incredibly thin body and unrefined offensive skill set, the flashes we've seen early on could potentially be deceiving or misleading.
If it turns out a lottery pick is what it will take to land LaVine in the draft, consider him this year's ultimate wild card and boom-or-bust prospect.
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