What are the next steps for Timberwolves’ Zach LaVine?


It’s been awhile since the Minnesota Timberwolves have been this exciting.

Sure, there have been good squads here and there (though none have made the playoffs since 2004), but none have been as fun to watch as the one we’re seeing currently. And none have shown quite the promise this squad comprised of so many talented young players looks to be.

Zach LaVine has embodied the team’s season thus far. The uber-athletic guard has shown huge strides after a lackluster preseason and has shined in key moments. Of course, he — just like the team — has had a few bad games here and there, but as of late LaVine has risen to the occasion.

Earlier in the season, it seemed as though LaVine had found his niche as the first guard off the bench, letting Ricky Rubio run the show with Andrew Wiggins as the off-guard. However, with Rubio out during a span of four games, LaVine played exceptionally. In those games without the team’s captain, the less prominent “Bounce Bro” averaged 21 points, four rebounds, and four assists per game as the starting point guard.

On the season, the second-year player out of UCLA is averaging 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game in just over twenty-four minutes. All three statistics are all higher than his numbers from last year. And not only has he strengthened those numbers, but he’s also improved his efficiency. LaVine is shooting over 45 percent from the field and almost 39 percent from beyond the arc.

LaVine hasn’t just thrived as the point guard in the starting lineup, but he’s looked very comfortable as an off-guard, too, and especially with Rubio as his leader. In games against the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Detroit Pistons (in which he scored 17 points, 13 points, and 14 points, respectively), LaVine played very well next to Rubio. They even shared ball-handling duties occasionally, which helped take pressure off of Rubio and has helped LaVine’s development.

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Coming off the bench as the second unit’s starting point guard will do the most to speed up LaVine’s development. Although he doesn’t project to play the one full-time in the future, letting him play there will allow him to progress in his leadership, playmaking abilities, and in his basketball IQ as well.

With that being said, what’s next for LaVine in his path to becoming a solid contributor for our Minnesota Timberwolves?

If we’ve noticed anything about LaVine in recent games, it’s that he doesn’t lack confidence. He took the potential game-tying shot against the Orlando Magic in crunch time and has been aggressive in searching for his shot offensively as of late. LaVine has had double-digit shot attempts, and is converting a fairly high amount of those takes. This is why one of his next steps is to keep shooting.

Like most stars in this league, LaVine has to become a top-notch scorer if plans to become an all-star. Encouraging him to shoot more and more will allow him to develop his offensive game. He’s already a good outside shooter, but he needs to improve his mid-range shot (even though Timberwolves fans want the team to stray away from that look) and he could always improve around the rim.

Statistically, LaVine has been decent at creating his own shot. He has the second highest unassisted field goals made percentage on the team next to Ricky Rubio, and he’s shooting a decent percentage on those looks. LaVine has developed a nice pull-up jumper that he has relied on to score his points, and so far, it hasn’t been too shabby.

Obviously, LaVine needs to fine-tune his passing ability. Like I’ve said before, he doesn’t project to be a point guard in the future (especially with Rubio as the presumed starter for at least a few years), but he is still going to need to make plays — which he’s done an alright job on this season — for this offense with or without Rubio on the court.

The sophomore guard doesn’t have a very high assist-turnover ratio, and his per-36 and per-100 possession assist numbers don’t quite stand out, either. He’s really going to have to focus on creating looks not only for himself, but for his teammates as well.

There’s a lot to be excited for with Zach LaVine. There’s also a lot to be desired.

One area he has to improve is his defense. LaVine has the body and the athleticism to guard both ones and twos — his 6-‘5″ frame and 40-inch-plus vertical are going to come in handy. But for now, he’s a raw perimeter defender who hasn’t quite figured out how to use his length to his advantage. That will come with both time and good coaching.

It’s not just the eye test that shows LaVine has been so-so defensively; advanced statistics also back up that claim. For instance, his defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) is in the negatives, coming in at -1.5, and his defensive win shares are at 0.3. Both of those numbers are up from last year, but there’s definitely more room for improvement.

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LaVine has the capabilities to become a really good player in Minnesota; some say he may have a higher overall ceiling than Karl Towns and even Andrew Wiggins.

Of course, who knows if he’ll ever hit his ceiling. He’s got a long way to go, and there are a lot of spots for him to improve.