Zach LaVine sprung into the air on Saturday, gearing up for another one of his now-trademark windmill slams.
Only this time, LaVine was met by the rim. Instead of giving UCLA a two-point lead against its rival, USC, the ball ricocheted off the iron and sent Trojan fans into a fit of jeers.
He had missed a pair of dunks beforehand in his freshman season, but neither of them had come at such a critical juncture for his team or at such a confusing interval for him.
After being showered with hype about his potential NBA lottery pick status, LaVine’s high-flying dunks and knock-down shooting have dwindled, and his flair is dimming.
Following his impressive, head-turning play in his first stretch of games in a UCLA uniform, the enigmatic 6’5” guard started conference play with a bang.
Through his first six conference games, LaVine was an offensive catalyst coming off the Bruins’ bench. He averaged 13 points per game at a 49 percent clip during that stretch, most notably putting on a shooting clinic in the first half of his 19-point game against Arizona State (8-of-12 FG, 3-of-3 3PT).
The hysteria about LaVine only increased with such displays, and most experts were certain he’d be selected as a lottery pick in June.
That was before LaVine hit a snag.
In his last four games, the explosive freshman has been ice cold on the offensive end, averaging just 4.8 points per game. Shooting only 21.7 percent from the field, LaVine has recorded as many turnovers (5) as he has made field goals during that span.
Moreover, there have been no dunks to add to his swelling highlight reel.
As Pac-12 teams have studied more tape on LaVine, not only have defenses been smothering him and taking away his open looks, but they’ve also disallowed him from thriving in his niche: the transition game.
“We gotta get him out in the open floor; that’s where he’s really good,” head coach Steve Alford said before UCLA’s rivalry matchup against USC. “We’ve been watching a lot of tape with him; we’ve been working with him on just slowing things down at the half court.”
Most players hit slumps sometime during the season—even UCLA’s leading scorer, Jordan Adams, has experienced stretches in which his shooting has been off—but LaVine’s seems to be stunting his development.
Conversely, it may be revealing defects in LaVine’s play that suggest that he’s not quite yet ready to play at the professional level.
“Everyone has a scouting report on him now, and teams are really focusing in on him,” senior forward David Wear said. “They know he’s going to try to come in and be ‘instant offense,’ and they’re trying to take that away from him. He’s a great player; I think he’ll be fine.”
There’s no denying LaVine’s talent, manifested in his explosiveness and quickness on the court, but his insufficiency in the half court is a significant concern that has limited his effectiveness in conference play.
Nonetheless, he has a supportive coach on his side who is confident in his ability, success or slump.
“He’s extremely coachable; he’s a great individual,” Alford said. “He wants to learn. He’s in here working all the time on his own. When you got those kind of intangibles, you’re gonna make it. Zach’s been terrific for us all year, and he’s only going to get better.”
His teammates employ the same mindset.
“We just keep trusting him,” said sophomore Kyle Anderson, who recalled hitting his own slump in his freshman season after being named Pac-12 Player of the Week. “We want to make him feel comfortable and make sure he knows that we live and die with him doing what he does.”
Even amid his recent downturn, LaVine is still projected to be one of the final lottery picks or a mid-first-round selection.
Should LaVine enter the NBA draft after his freshman season?
However, if his struggles continue, he’ll likely fall into the late first round or early second round.
Moreover, his recent decline suggests that LaVine would be better served taking an extra year at UCLA to polish his game and—assuming he’s headed for the NBA after his sophomore season—secure a better slot in the draft.
Otherwise, he might just end up like a recent one-and-done Bruin who went 14th in last year’s draft and is now riding the pine in his rookie season.
He, too, had some flashy dunks in a UCLA uniform.
*All quotes were obtained firsthand by Robert Pace.