Zach LaVine: 2015-16 Timberwolves Player Preview


This is the second piece in a series of articles that will look at each individual player on the Timberwolves’ roster heading into the 2015-16 season. See the links at the bottom of this page for previous players previewed.

After previewing the reigning Rookie of the Year, we’re going to move on to his fellow sophomore in last year’s thirteenth-overall selection, Zach LaVine.

LaVine’s rookie year was a decidedly mixed bag. He wasn’t expected to play much at all initially, stuck behind Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger at the shooting guard spot as well as fellow combo guard Mo Williams.

That changed quickly when Ricky Rubio went down with a severely sprained ankle in the fifth game of the season and Kevin Martin broke a bone in his wrist in the season’s tenth game. Both guard spots had lost their starters, and LaVine was suddenly thrust into heavy action as a 19 year-old rookie.

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We’ll take a look at how he fared in 2014-15 and compare that to expectations for 2015-16. Where does he need to improve the most? In what area of his game can we expect his improvement to come about the swiftest? Let’s take a look.


Let’s start with the biggest issue.

There’s no other way to say this, quite honestly: LaVine was a miserable defender as a rookie. He wasn’t strong enough to guard two-guards and even some point guards. Despite otherworldly athleticism, he wasn’t able to stay in front of his man most nights. And perhaps most damaging of all (but also likely the easiest item to correct), his pick-and-roll defense was atrocious.

So much of defense is based on instincts. Watch Ricky Rubio, or even rookie Karl-Anthony Towns. Knowing where to be and when is huge.

That’s something that LaVine does not yet possess. And while instincts can’t be taught, pick-and-roll defense can, and it needs to be if LaVine is ever going to be a positively contributing player.

Flip Saunders and Milt Newton took the leap on LaVine because of his freakish athleticism, gym rat mentality, and decent-enough jump-shooting. A player with the desire to work hard and the athleticism to out-athlete virtually any player in the league should be able to improve on defense. But the coaching staff needs to commit to it, and so does LaVine.

I’ll leave you with this on the defensive side of things: LaVine finished 84th out of 84 players listed as point guards by in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, which measures a player’s on-court impact on team performance measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. The team was a whopping -4.34 points worse with LaVine on the court – the next-worst player, #83, was Tony Parker, and his mark was -3.33.

That’s right, LaVine was more than a full point worse than the next-worst point guard in the NBA on the defensive end of the floor. Let’s move along…


The casual fan might see LaVine’s rookie marks on the offensive end of the floor and deduce that he was pretty solid: 10.1 points, 3.6 assists, 2.8 rebounds and a 34.1 three-point percentage isn’t too bad for an age-19 season.

And while that’s technically true, those per-game numbers don’t tell much of the story.

LaVine’s turnover rate of 20.4% actually isn’t too terrible considering he was forced to play 94% of his minutes at point guard, where he was pretty obviously miscast. The 24% assist rate was too low, but not offensively so.

The biggest issue was the number of mid-range jump shots that LaVine settled for. When he got into the paint, he was actually decent at drawing fouls. While that’s another area where added strength and body mass should help, he was able to make a ton of shots near the rim just based on sheer athleticism.

Check out his shot chart:

LaVine was above-league average around the rim and right at league average from beyond the three-point arc. Those two things together, combined with shooting 84.2% from the free throw line, should make for a relatively efficient, effective offensive player.

But the volume of shots attempted between the arc and the paint was LaVine’s downfall – 35.6% of his shot attempts as a rookie came from this no-man’s land, and he shot well below the league average of 39.6% from there, too, coming in at just 34.9%.

Flip Saunders’ offense will naturally give his guards open jumpers in this area of the floor, and when open, they aren’t necessarily the worst shots in the world. But the problem with LaVine’s were the number of attempts from the mid-range that were contested, and the number of open shots that he missed.

If his shot selection improves, there’s no reason why LaVine shouldn’t manage to be a plus-contributor on offense in 2015-16.

Statistical Outlook

LaVine’s March and April statistics have been thrown about quite a bit, so I’ll choose March 15th as the arbitrary start point and regurgitate those per-game beauties for you here:

18.7 points, 5.3 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 0.6 steals, 39% three-point, 85.9% free throw

That looks nice, doesn’t it? The 43.6 field goal percentage isn’t great, of course, but that’s still a fantastic stat line over the final 18 games of LaVine’s rookie season. Small sample size rules apply, of course, but when it’s the final month of a rookie season, those numbers tend to get a bit more hype than they probably should.

So let’s pump the breaks on what those numbers might look like in the coming season. The Wolves should have a healthy Rubio, a healthy Martin, and a healthy Shabazz Muhammad. Add in both Andre Miller and Tyus Jones and LaVine shouldn’t even sniff the point guard position.

While LaVine is obviously much better at the shooting guard spot than at the point, there will be less shot opportunities to come by in general. That means that his per-game numbers should fall comfortably in between his season-long average of 10.1 and end-of-season mark of 18.7

We’ll call it 13.5 points per game and 35% from beyond the arc. If LaVine can settle into a sixth-man-type role and accept that Rubio and Martin are the starters, he could be a positive player for the Wolves in 2015-16.

As mentioned at the outset, LaVine will need to improve his defense for that to happen. Anything resembling league-average, replacement-level defending from LaVine and better shot selection on offense will lead to a legitimately solid player – all at just 20 years old.

It’s time to find out if that’s too much to ask.

All stats courtesy of except for shot chart from

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