NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: How Zach LaVine Can Live Up to Enormous Potential

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NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: How Zach LaVine Can Live Up to Enormous Potential
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Throughout his freshman year at UCLA, you saw the highlight dunks, the step-back jumpers, the explosive drives. You didn't see them every game, but in doses, Zach LaVine flashed talent and skill that let us overlook his inconsistency and flaws as a combo guard.

The Minnesota Timberwolves selected LaVine No. 13 overall in the 2014 NBA draft with the hope that those flashes we saw at UCLA would one day turn into steady, regular occurrences.

Because if they do, the Wolves will have gotten themselves one dangerous offensive weapon.

LaVine's potential is enormous, and it's powered by some of the most electric athleticism you'll see.

He got up for a 41.5-inch max vertical leap at the NBA combine and finished first among all participants in the agility test and second in the shuttle run, which measures one's ability to change directions.

And it's this world-class athleticism—his quickness, explosiveness and agility—along with his 6'5" size and tight handle, that allows him to effortlessly separate from defenders for a bucket whenever he wants, whether it's into a jumper or slam above the rim.

But the ability to separate on demand can be a blessing and a curse. To be a potent NBA scorer or playmaker, you need it. But to be an efficient one, you need to know how and when to use it. Those who don't typically earn unfavorable reputations, especially guards who tend to dominate the ball with shoot-first mentalities.

At this point, LaVine's game is reminiscent of Jamal Crawford's—a microwave scorer who can generate offense at will. Tight ball-handling skills allow them to occasionally run the point, where their ability to beat defenders off the dribble naturally leads to assists in the drive-and-dish game. 

But despite Crawford's skills, talent and the production he has to show for them, his value around the league has never been overly high. He's averaged at least 14 points a game in every season since 2003, yet he's only working on a contract worth about $5 million (averaged around $7 million annual salary since his rookie deal expired).

If LaVine ends up having the career that Crawford has had, you'd have to consider it a success. But LaVine's ceiling sits a few levels higher than Crawford's. If LaVine makes all the right tweaks and adjustments, we could be talking about an All-Star one day, an honor Crawford has never received. 

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Crawford's limited value as a streak scorer stems from his inefficiency, something LaVine will be vulnerable to given his shot selection and repertoire. 

These guys rely on having to make some pretty tough, low-percentage shots, which leads to inconsistency. And inconsistency kills a player's value.

And based on everything we've seen from college to Las Vegas Summer League, LaVine's shot-to-pass selection will need some revamping over the next few years. 

As a freshman, he took 288 shots, and 75 percent of them came on jumpers, per DraftExpress

This really goes back to why LaVine's ability to separate on demand can be a curse. He can essentially get off a makable shot whenever he pleases by simply elevating over his man—and not everyone can handle the power to effortlessly separate without abusing it. 

We saw him do it a number of times in Vegas, where he averaged 15.7 points—but on just 39.7 percent shooting. 

While these step-back and pull-up jumpers are really nice to have in the arsenal, it's almost impossible to be efficient by consistently leaning on them for offense. LaVine will never hit his ceiling with 75 percent of his scoring arsenal consisting of long two-pointers and threes.

He'll ultimately need to find a way to create higher-percentage shots for himself in the half court. At UCLA, he only scored .59 points per possession in isolation situations, per DraftExpress.

Credit that low number to LaVine's preference for the perimeter over the paint. He seems a lot more comfortable and confident pulling up for a 20-foot jumper that he can get off unchallenged than driving into the lane and having to finish in tight spaces.

That will eventually have to change for LaVine, who took just 68 total free throws in 37 games last season. He only made 17 shots at the rim (at a poor 44.7 percent clip) in the half court, per DraftExpress.

From improving his left hand to developing a floater game on the move, LaVine must evolve as a finisher inside the arc to round out his scoring repertoire off the dribble.

But to round out his entire repertoire as a playmaker, he'll have to sharpen up his floor game as an orchestrator as well.

The ideal goal would be for LaVine to transform into a point guard the way Russell Westbrook did out of UCLA. LaVine would pose as quite the mismatch at the position, given his size and athleticism.

His handle, shiftiness and explosiveness ultimately drive that point guard potential—it's pushing the right buttons as a decision-maker that's going to be his challenge moving forward. 

LaVine operates with a shoot-first mentality, lacking the natural passing and facilitating instincts most lead guards have. He tends to lock into the rim at times without entertaining the idea of giving it up. 

At UCLA, he averaged just 1.8 assists with a measly 12.6 percent assist rate, per Sports-Reference.com. And he generated just .65 points per possession off pick-and-rolls, per DraftExpress

Realistically, LaVine isn't suddenly going to morph into a full-time point guard. He's just not wired as one.

But even 2-guards nowadays are expected to be proficient in pick-and-roll sets. With more reps, LaVine can improve his timing and awareness as a passer, improvements that would help complete the overall package he's bringing by enhancing his versatility. 

Either way, as a guy who projects to have the ball in his hands, LaVine must expand his playmaking and setup ability and ultimately channel his elusiveness and explosion to create opportunities for teammates.

The good news is that LaVine has actually been saying all the right things, and he appears to have a grasp on what his responsibilities should be when given the rock.

“I feel like I’ve been just setting up the plays really well, running the team,” LaVine told Jesse Blancarter of BasketballInsiders.com following one of his summer league games in Vegas. “Getting to the hole, creating for others and then making my shots when I have to."

Bart Young/Getty Images

LaVine must also improve his defense. He let too many guys blow right by him last year on the perimeter. And it wasn't caused by a lack of ability. LaVine is long, quick and athletic. But he stands up way too high in his stance and doesn't always show enough urgency fighting through screens.

Still, at just 19 years old, time is on his side. LaVine will have played nearly three full NBA seasons before his 22nd birthday (barring injury). 

Over these next few seasons, LaVine will need to focus more on wisely picking and choosing his spots as a scorer and passer. Forget about how much production he puts up early on. If I'm LaVine, I'm more worried about my field-goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio than I am about points and assists (Vegas Summer League: 39.7 percent shooting, 2.8 assists to 3.3 turnovers a game).

LaVine is loaded with talent and some sharp, polished offensive skills. The production will eventually follow once he builds up strength and experience at the pro level. But it's how efficiently he generates that production that will ultimately determine his value in the NBA.

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