Takeaways from Timberwolves’ Zach LaVine’s All-Star Weekend

Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Minnesota Timberwolves player Zach LaVine (8) during the slam dunk contest during the All-Stars Saturday Night at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Minnesota Timberwolves player Zach LaVine (8) during the slam dunk contest during the All-Stars Saturday Night at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports /

The Timberwolves had a pretty full All-Star Weekend for a team that didn’t even have any players in the main event.

Andrew Wiggins played well for the World team in the Rising Stars Challenge and nearly led them to a comeback victory.

Karl-Anthony Towns also played well in the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday and took home the crown in the newly formatted Skills Competition on Saturday night. The inclusion of big men in the competition made the event more exciting than it’s ever been, and Towns winning made it a great start to All-Star Saturday.

For as well as Wiggins and Towns did in their events, the weekend belonged to Zach LaVine. He started by winning MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge on Friday night, putting up a line of 30 points (13-20 FG, 2-3 3P), seven rebounds, four assists, and a steal.

The Rising Stars game is perfectly suited to LaVine’s style of play; an exhibition where he doesn’t have to play much defense and the opposing defense does next to nothing to stop his high-flying act. In addition to the numerous dunks LaVine had, he threw in a couple of threes to round out his night, showcasing what he’s brought to the Wolves this year.

While it would be foolish to assign significant weight to a game like this, it would be similarly foolish to ignore everything about it. LaVine was able to show that he’s one of the better young players in the league, at least on offense. His game is rapidly developing on that end, and it was apparent while watching this game.

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He’s been playing out of position again for much of the season, but being thrown in at point guard has helped him develop some much needed basketball skills. LaVine was extremely raw coming out of UCLA, illustrated by the fact that he came off the bench for his lone season there.

Playing LaVine at point guard has helped him improve his ball-handling, decision-making, and passing, and his basketball IQ has risen dramatically since he entered the league.

It is clear that he is beginning to pick up some lessons from Ricky Rubio, especially when he runs the pick-and-roll. He has begun to thread some pocket passes recently that he wouldn’t have even seen as an option at the beginning of the season.

He’s also starting to force some passes that aren’t quite there, but that’s all a process of learning what passes he can and cannot make. It’s good that he’s looking for those passes instead of solely being focused on scoring.

LaVine still has a ways to go to become a good NBA player, especially on defense, but his ceiling is just a notch below Towns and Wiggins. He has a long way to go to catch up to those two and it is unclear if he’ll ever realize all of his potential, but his play this season has been extremely encouraging. LaVine’s improvement has been vast this season, and his MVP performance should be another shot of confidence for his future.

The main event of LaVine’s weekend, of course, was the Slam Dunk Contest. He was able to (albeit somewhat controversially) defend his title against Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic in a contest for the ages. It didn’t even take until the conclusion of the contest for people to start comparing it to the classic 1988 duel between Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan as the best dunk contest ever, but let me tell you something: this was hands down the best dunk contest ever.

I know that people get nostalgic about that 1988 competition. I know that ‘Nique and Jordan have huge fan bases and that they are two of the best dunkers ever. But the stuff we saw in this competition was outrageous. Unreal.

It tested the limits of the imagination for what a human can do in the air before powering a ball through a hoop that’s 10 feet high. The 1988 competition had great dunks from classic players, but this? The creativity and execution LaVine and Gordon exhibited made this the best Slam Dunk Contest ever.

In trying to be as unbiased as possible here on a Timberwolves blog, let’s say Aaron Gordon had the best dunk of the night, but Zach LaVine had a stronger body of work by the slightest of margins and that got him the win.

And if the scores weren’t capped at 50, Gordon may have won the whole thing after this dunk:

While Gordon’s other dunk where he grabbed it from the rotating mascot was also ludicrous, I thought that this LaVine dunk was the second-best dunk of the night:

The aesthetics of that dunk are beautiful. Zach LaVine glides while he’s in the air. It looks effortless for him, which makes it all the more astounding.

The best part about Gordon and LaVine trading 50s was that it only took them one try for all but one of their dunks. They still would have been ridiculous if they needed more than one try, but the audience had no idea what was coming until it happened.

If a dunker tries something crazy and fails the first time, it’s still exciting when they get it, but a little of the novelty has worn off. That didn’t happen with LaVine or Gordon, and that’s partially what made the contest so breathtaking.

In addition, as much as I hate ties in anything, this dunk contest deserved to be a tie. Aaron Gordon definitely didn’t lose the competition, and it’s hard to say that LaVine won it. For the absolutely absurd display that they put on, the NBA should have named them co-champs.

Everybody won with this dunk contest: the NBA, the fans, and Lavine and Gordon.

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Alas, the NBA gave LaVine the trophy, and Gordon went home with half of the fans thinking that he was the rightful winner. The dunk contest likely won’t affect LaVine as an overall basketball player, but it did reinforce one crucial life lesson: if you get the chance to see Zach LaVine dunk, take it.

It’s the closest you’ll get to watching man fly.