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How Zach LaVine Can Help Your Favorite NBA Team

An in-depth look at UCLA freshman guard Zach LaVine’s game, how he can help at the next level and where he needs to improve in order to be a successful pro.

Yannis Koutroupis

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Through the first month of the season, UCLA freshman guard Zach LaVine was one of the most talked about freshmen in college basketball and a fast rising NBA draft prospect. LaVine, a 6’5 combo guard who chose UCLA over the likes of Louisville, Arizona, Texas and a dozen other high-major programs, came in as a top 50 recruit, but not necessarily a surefire one-and-done player. There was the belief, especially as his inconsistency became more and more problematic, that he would stick around for his sophomore season. However, LaVine officially declared for the 2014 NBA Draft last week, which means it’s time to break down his game and look at how he could help your favorite NBA team.

2013-14 stats: 9.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 0.9 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 1.1 TOPG, .441 FG% (127-288), .375 3PT% (48-128), .691 FT% (47-68)

His biggest strengths

LaVine is an impressive athlete with really good length and size for either guard position, although his advantages are greater at the point than they are at the two. UCLA played one of the 15 toughest schedules in college basketball this year, so his body of work is primarily against good competition. He excels in transition and has the ability to finish above the rim when he gets into the lane with some momentum. When he’s filling the wing in transition, he looks every bit like a NBA player.

Defensively, he does a nice job of using his quickness to stay in between his opponent and the basket. He has good hands and instincts, understanding how to best utilize his physical assets. With his length LaVine can afford to give quicker players a little bit of space while still being able to contest them if they opt for the jump shot.

Although quite streaky as a shooter, LaVine is a threat spotting up and demands attention all the way out to the NBA three point line. He moves well without the basketball and is effective coming off of screens, where he’s a threat to either catch-and-shoot or attack off the bounce.

At 19 years of age (his birthday was on March 10), LaVine possesses the valuable combination of youth, athleticism and scoring ability that will earn him some money at the next level.

Is he a point guard?

No, not right now at least. In fact, he may never be – and that’s alright.

This year UCLA’s offense ran around Kyle Anderson, limiting our opportunities to see LaVine in charge of the facilitating. That played much more towards his strengths, though, as LaVine looked far more comfortable when just looking to score than he did trying to make plays for others.

LaVine was particularly unimpressive as the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. He turned it over more often than he found the open man. In fact, in the rare instances he was looking to pass off the pick-and-roll, he regularly just tried to force it to the roll man.

His lack of court vision was also painfully evident in drive-and-kick situations, which typically resulted in a tough, forced shot rather than a quality look from whoever is open.

That’s the primary concern with putting the ball in LaVine’s hands to run a pro-style offense. His shot selection and decision making skills left a lot to be desired at UCLA. If he couldn’t get by his defender with his initial crossover, which did get him by plenty, he’d simply settle for a contested jump shot. When the defense collapsed on him in the paint he seemingly had tunnel vision, trying to score over the top of multiple defenders rather than making the right play.

A second year at UCLA could have gone a long way in helping him improve in this area. LaVine was undoubtedly told that, though, by the people who were close to him and advising him on this decision. It’s going to be important that LaVine sell himself properly during the pre-draft process. While he may hold the most potential as a point guard, right now he doesn’t have the body of work to back up that he can play the position at the next level. He needs to showcase what he does well, scoring the basketball, and acknowledge that he is willing to work on his point guard skills, if asked. If teams start looking at him solely as a point guard, they’ll likely be a lot more hesitant to invest in him.

Where can he improve?

It’s easy to say if LaVine could become a point guard at the next level he’s going to be great. The transition from a scoring-focused two guard to a lead guard in the NBA is one of the most difficult to make, though. There’s a long list of undersized two guards who play in the D-League and overseas who will tell you they’re the right system away from stockpiling assists like Chris Paul, but LaVine shouldn’t feel pressured to try and be anything he’s not. Instead, he needs to focus on doing what he excels at even better.

A lot of LaVine’s inconsistencies as a shooter can be pointed to his tendency to drift after his shot. This is particularly an issue when LaVine looks to shoot off of the dribble. Far too often he’ll be several feet, either left, right, or backwards from the original spot where he took the jump shot. By holding his form a little longer, making sure he goes straight up and down when shooting and always being squared up to the basket, LaVine should find himself hitting at a much more regular rate. He already has a quality stroke and a quick release, he just needs to be more fundamental with his jump shot from the chest down.

At 180 lbs. there isn’t a team in the league that won’t look to really add some weight to LaVine’s frame upon drafting him. His lack of strength really impacted his ability to finish in the interior, as it didn’t take much to get him off balance and affect his shot.

Once he adds some size to his frame, LaVine should start embracing contact more rather than shying away from it. He got to the line just 1.8 times a game; that’s unacceptable for someone with his first step and athleticism.

The added strength will also help him defensively. UCLA played a lot of zone this year, which made it tough to evaluate LaVine’s man-to-man defensive skills. He won’t be playing much zone in the NBA and if LaVine doesn’t add muscle he’ll find himself stuck behind screens and bullied by bigger guards in the low post regularly.

From a ball handling standpoint, LaVine needs to tighten up his handles, become comfortable with more moves than just the standard crossover, utilize jab steps and head fakes more often and develop a floater/short jump shot to go to rather than over penetrating and trying to force a layup attempt when there’s better opportunities from just a little further out.

Who does he compare to in the NBA?

This is always one of the more popular topics that comes up when talking about draft prospects. Everyone loves to hear NBA comparisons, but are quick to discount them at the first sign of a difference between the two players.

It’s important to note that no two players are exactly alike. And just because two players have an immense about of similarities doesn’t mean they’re going to have identical careers. I could go on and on about how Randolph Morris had the same size and strength of other successful pros, or how many players under six foot failed to boost my argument as to why Isaiah Thomas wasn’t going to make it in the NBA – every individual is different and there’s far too many factors that go into making or breaking a career to create a formula.

With that said, you know you want to hear a comparison, everyone does. The names that you’ll most often hear associated with LaVine are Russell Westbrook because they come from the same program and Westbrook didn’t look anything like a true point guard at UCLA either. However, Westbrook is a real rarity and an elite player who has been given the freedom to run the team while still having the green light to shoot at will. He’s the exception when it comes to shooting guards becoming point guards, not the norm. The better comparison is Jordan Crawford, who will always be known for his scoring ability but has come a long ways as a playmaker.

Where will he end up?

By declaring after a poor finish to the season, LaVine’s workouts and interviews will hold more weight than the average prospect’s. He’s going to be heavily scrutinized for his late season struggles and it’s going to be important for him to hold himself accountable, not place the blame on his coaches, system or teammates – as just as they may be.

With the next two months holding the potential to really sway his stock one way or the other, it’s hard to nail a definitive range for him.

One team that jumps out as a particularly good fit for LaVine is the Phoenix Suns. They could have as many as four first round picks, but will have no less than three (their own, Washington’s and Indiana’s – they’ll receive Minnesota’s as long as it’s not in the top 13). The Chicago Bulls could also give him strong consideration, and they will have at least two mid first round picks. Memphis, Utah, Dallas and San Antonio are other potential landing spots drafting in the bottom half of the first round.

The mid-to-late portion of the first round is probably the most likely place to project LaVine. While he does hold enough potential to make a team in the lottery fall in love with him, he was also inconsistent enough at UCLA to scare everyone in the first round away from the idea of giving him a multi-year, guaranteed contract. Barring any unknown red flags surfacing between now and draft night in late June, though, it’s hard to imagine him lasting long in the second round, should he surprisingly end up there.

LaVine’s declaration for the draft came almost immediately after they were eliminated by Florida in the Sweet 16, so hopefully he is already in the gym with a pro trainer and working off the court with a media specialist to ensure he’s as ready as he can be for the most important three months of his life that are ahead.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA

The Best of the Undrafted Players

David Yapkowitz breaks down the best players who weren’t drafted in Thursday night’s NBA Draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Ben Wallace, Raja Bell, Avery Johnson, David Wesley, John Starks; those are just a few former NBA players who didn’t hear their name called on draft night, yet went on to have pretty impressive careers.

Each year there are a few undrafted players who end up making a team’s roster and turn out to be solid contributors. This past season, players like Ron Baker of the New York Knicks, Yogi Ferrell of the Dallas Mavericks, and Derrick Jones Jr. of the Phoenix Suns went undrafted in 2016 yet ended up as regular rotation guys for their teams. In Ferrell’s case, he became a starter.

With the 2017 NBA Draft come and gone, here’s a look at some of the top undrafted players who might be able to strengthen a team’s roster.

Johnathan Motley

Johnathan Motley was the best player on a Baylor team that was a No.3 seed and made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. He averaged 17.3 points per game on 52.2 percent shooting and pulled down 9.9 rebounds per game.

At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, Motley is definitely in the mold of a versatile wing player who can play multiple positions and thrive and in today’s NBA. What he needs to do, however, is improve his outside shot. He shot only 28.1 percent from three-point range. One crucial aspect for hybrid forwards is to be able to step out and hit long range jumpers.

His stock often fluctuated in various mock drafts; some had him going in the first round, others in the second. Per The Vertical’s Shams Charania, Motley signed a two-way contract with the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday.

P.J. Dozier

P.J. Dozier was one-half of South Carolina’s star duo that helped propel them to a Cinderella run to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament. The other half, Sindarius Thornwell, had his name called, but at the end of the night, Dozier was still waiting.

Only a sophomore, Dozier was the second leading scorer for the Gamecocks with 13.9 points per game. He was always projected to go in the second round on most mocks and perhaps he came out a bit too early. The talent is there though.

He can have success as a team’s combo guard off the bench. He will need to work on his shooting though. He shot only 40.7 percent from the field, 29.8 percent from three. He’ll be in summer league with the Los Angeles Lakers, and from there will hope to entice a team to bring him to training camp.

Melo Trimble

Melo Trimble might have been one of those players that needed to strike while the iron’s hot. Two years ago, he was talked about as a probable first-round pick had he declared for the draft after his freshman year at Maryland. Instead, he stayed until his junior year and his stock fell.

He actually turned in an impressive junior campaign with 16.8 points per game, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. He shot a respectable 44.4 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three-point range.

Trimble will play summer league with the Philadelphia 76ers, and like most undrafted free agents, will look to turn his performance into a training camp invitation. He probably projects to be a backup point guard should he find a place in the league. He had first round and possible lottery talent before, however, so maybe all he needs is an opportunity.

Devin Robinson

In today’s game, where teams put a premium on versatile, do it all type players who can play multiple positions, Devin Robinson certainly fits that description. Robinson is a long, athletic forward who can step out and hit outside jumpers while locking up his opponent’s best wing scorer.

Florida had a surprisingly solid run in the NCAA Tournament and Robinson was a big part of that. His junior year, his best year yet, saw him average 11.1 points per game on 47.5 percent from the field and 6.1 rebounds. He showed a much improved outside shot, connecting on 39.1 percent of his looks from downtown. In the tournament, he upped his averages to 28.3 points on similar shooting percentages.

Robinson will be in summer league with the Washington Wizards, a team that often times lacked production off their bench last season. Depending on how he performs in summer league, don’t be surprised to see him on the Wizards roster come opening night.

Nigel Hayes

Playing in the shadow of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker in years past, Nigel Hayes was given an opportunity as a senior at Wisconsin to show what he could do as the focal point of an offense. His numbers didn’t jump off the page, but he did play well enough to be given a shot at making a team’s roster.

His 14 points per game were good enough to tie teammate Ethan Happ for the second leading scorer on the team. As a power forward, he was actually the second leading assist man with 2.7. One area he’ll need to improve on to make an impact in the NBA is his outside jumper. He shot 39.6 percent from three his sophomore season. This year it was down to 31.4 despite taking a similar number of attempts (2.5 and 1.9 respectively).

Hayes looks to be one of those players in between positions. He lacks the quickness and range to thrive at small forward but is a bit undersized at the NBA level for power forward. He is an incredible energy player, though, and players like that have been able to carve out nice careers. He’ll be in summer league with the Knicks, and given their current state of affairs, they need all the help they can get.

L.J. Peak

In the mock drafts that projected him to be drafted, L.J. Peak was most likely going to be a second round pick. That’s not to say he doesn’t have first round talent. He’s a big guard that can play both guard positions.

Despite Georgetown’s futile record this season, Peak was a standout. He was the team’s second-leading scorer at 16.2 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field. He was also their top playmaker, dishing out 3.5 assists. In the NBA, he most likely can find a role for some team as a combo guard off the bench. He only shot 32.7 percent from the beyond the arc, however, so if he wants to make an impact in the league that’s one area he’ll need some work.

He’s set to go to summer league with the Houston Rockets. Depending on what roster moves the Rockets make, it will be tough for Peak to make the final team. They already have two guards capable of playing both guard spots off the bench in Lou Williams and Isaiah Taylor. Taylor’s contract isn’t guaranteed, but he probably has the inside track due to his familiarity with the team. In any case, a strong summer showing should lead Peak to a training camp invite with another team, if not the Rockets.

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NBA

NBA PM: Losers Of The 2017 NBA Draft

Who were the two parties who came out of draft night worse off than they went in? Spencer Davies explores.

Spencer Davies

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As the book closes on the 2017 NBA Draft, the league takes a bit of a break before going full throttle into the free agency portion of the off-season.

Before we get there, though, Basketball Insiders will take a look at the winners and losers of Thursday’s draft to get you caught up. Our own Benny Nadeau already took care of the former, so this piece will focus on the two parties who came out of the night worse off than they did going into it.

Early Entrants Going Undrafted

The amount of talent in this year’s draft class was undeniable, so those that decided to come out of college too soon instead of returning to school for another year suffered tremendously.

Let’s take a look at some notable undrafted players that entered as underclassmen:

Kobi Simmons

Simmons was an interesting story this past season with the Arizona Wildcats. It was a difficult one-and-done season for Simmons, as he had trouble converting on the perimeter (33 percent) and contributing anything other than scoring.

In the first couple of months as a freshman, he was basically an every game starter and played at least 28 minutes per game for the team. As the year wound down, though, the 6-5, 175-pound shooting guard barely saw the court, and the time he was given came during blowouts.

His decision to enter the draft was questionable and a gamble, and most teams saw it the same way. Luckily for Simmons, he was reportedly able to come to an agreement with the Memphis Grizzlies on a free agent contract.

P.J. Dozier

A player that surprisingly didn’t get selected was P.J. Dozier from South Carolina. In his sophomore season, the 20-year-old swingman took on a much heavier workload and dramatically improved his game on both ends of the floor.

Dozier was one of the best defenders in the SEC and in the entire NCAA, as well as an aggressor on offense. He was not bashful and took his new role in stride. Over the course of one year, he attempted six more field goals per game and upped his three-point success by 8.5 percentage points.

He also snatched almost two more rebounds per game and averaged nearly two steals for the Gamecocks. Dozier going undrafted was a head scratcher, but the Los Angeles Lakers made sure he landed on his feet with a deal.

Isaiah Briscoe

Briscoe is more of a hybrid type with a bulky build for a backcourt player. In two seasons under John Calipari at Kentucky, he was pretty consistent with his game as somebody who will give you a little bit of everything.

He’s not particularly a good shooter, but he can get some rebounds and dish it out to make the right plays. You’ll see that with when he’s playing for the Philadelphia 76ers in Summer League.

Antonio Blakeney

Blakeney—a sophomore guard from LSU—proved that he can shoot the basketball and be a pure scorer (17.2 points per game) when given the opportunity, but what about the defensive end of the floor? He’ll need to work on that, as well as his all-around game that won’t make him a one-dimensional threat.

He hasn’t received an offer from a team yet, but he’ll likely get a chance to showcase his talents in either Orlando or Las Vegas.

The trend here seems obvious—if you’re a shooting guard and haven’t gotten at least three years of college experience, it may not be wise to declare. Executives understand that they need players with the “do-it-all” quality and not just pure scorers that can’t bring more than one or two skills to the table.

Chicago Bulls

Over the past week, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Jimmy Butler and his future with the Bulls. There were rumors all over linking him mainly to the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the dark horse candidate to land the All-Star was the one to pull the trigger.

After the first selection in the draft was made, the Minnesota Timberwolves came to an agreement with Chicago that reunited Butler with his former coach of four years, Tom Thibodeau. The deal came a few weeks after an exit interview regarding the team’s direction that reportedly went well.

The 27-year-old’s trainer didn’t hide his displeasure about the move, but it’s understandable from the perspective of VP of Basketball Operations John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman, who strived to “set a direction” for the franchise.

However, what they received in return for Butler was not nearly enough for a man that is just now entering his prime as one of the best two-way players in the game today. In exchange for Butler, the Wolves sent Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine to Chicago. Furthermore, the Bulls were able to move up nine spots in the draft, but it cost them their 16th pick to do so.

LaVine is as exciting as a player as any young talent in the NBA, but he’ll enter the season coming off a brutal ACL tear that ended his year prematurely. It will probably be a little while before the 22-year-old sees the floor, and, as the centerpiece of this trade, it’s definitely risky not knowing how he’ll respond to the injury.

While Dunn could have plenty of promise as the starting point guard of the future, his rookie season in Minnesota left a lot to be desired. The only defense of his inclusion as one of the key pieces in this transaction is being a top five pick in last year’s draft with untapped potential.

With the seventh overall selection, Chicago drafted Lauri Markkanen out of Arizona. In his lone season under Sean Miller, the seven-footer was a key cog in the Wildcats’ run in the PAC-12 and NCAA tournaments.

The talent is clearly there as a sharpshooting stretch four or five, but with Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic already in the mix at power forward, the fit may be a problem. He could see some time at center, but remember, Robin Lopez, Cristiano Felicio, and Joffrey Lauvergne are holding down the fort there, too.

Markkanen’s situation will all depend on if qualifying offers are made to Mirotic, Felicio, and Lauvergne.

To add the cherry on top of the Bulls’ rough night, they excited some fans of the organization when they took Jordan Bell out of Oregon early in the second round. That hope quickly diminished when the Golden State Warriors paid $3.5 million for the pick, and Chicago agreed to send him to the Bay.

Bell was one of the sexier names in the draft for a good reason, but the money was more important to the Bulls, who will have some more decisions to make this summer with their veterans on the roster likely not wanting to be a part of the rebuild.

Without their superstar of the last three years, and still with an inexperienced head coach like Fred Hoiberg to develop the young talent brought into the organization, it’s going to be a little while before basketball is king again in the Windy City.

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NBA

Hawks Didn’t Expect John Collins To Fall To 19

Newly-minted Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk had a relatively easy decision drafting John Collins at 19.

Buddy Grizzard

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During Travis Schlenk’s first NBA Draft as Atlanta GM, fortune smiled as center John Collins of Wake Forest, a player rated highly on Atlanta’s draft board, fell to the 19th pick.

“Through the whole week, we had guys ranked, and he was the highest guy there,” said Schlenk to assembled media at the Omni Hotel, adjacent to Philips Arena. “We thought he’d go a little higher. We had a couple options on the board to move back, but once we saw that John was going to be there, we didn’t entertain any of those.”

Schlenk added that Atlanta also tried to move up but was unable to execute a trade.

“We did have some conversations about trying to move up,” said Schlenk. “We had one player that we targeted that we really wanted to move up for but were unable to do so.”

The process of building the team’s draft depth chart was collaborative, Schlenk added, which meant Collins’ selection was by consensus rather than by decree. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was among those whose input factored into the selection.

“I have a lot of faith in the group that was here before I got here,” said Schlenk. “They’ve been a huge asset to me coming in here in the middle of this process. As I’ve stated all along, I view Coach Bud and I’s relationship as a partnership. It doesn’t do us any good to take a guy that he doesn’t like, so he’s got a voice in it for sure.”

Schlenk was asked about areas where Collins needs to improve and didn’t shy away from questions about his defense.

“That was kind of the knock on him at Wake Forest,” said Schlenk. “But a lot of times, especially in college — when you’re the main focal point — you’ll see the best offensive player doesn’t want to get in foul trouble so he can stay on the floor. We interviewed him in Chicago. That’s what he said: “Coach Manning said, ‘Don’t get in foul trouble, I can’t afford to have you off the court.'”

The Hawks GM also talked about Collins’ shortcomings as a shooter.

“One of the first things we’re going to work on with him is a jump shot,” said Schlenk. “In college, all his scoring came in the post. And he’s got a good post game. We just need to extend his range out, especially the way we play and the way the league’s going.”

But overall, Schlenk was extremely positive about the opportunity to add a player with the upside of Collins, a player who is far from a finished product.

“Last year you saw his athleticism, and then the big jump that he’s made from his freshman year to his sophomore year,” Schlenk said. “Obviously, being the most improved player in the ACC, you see the growth he’s made. And he’s still a 19-year-old kid, so there’s still a lot of room to grow.”

In the second round, Atlanta selected shooting guard Tyler Dorsey, who shot 56 percent from three and averaged 23 points during Oregon’s run to the Final Four. The Hawks also selected 6-10 French center Alpha Kaba of Mega Leks, a likely draft-and-stash candidate. With Collins’ youth and lack of polish, it may take some time to judge Schlenk’s first draft. But fortunately for him, the decision was a relatively easy one since the team didn’t expect Collins to fall all the way to 19 where Atlanta could grab him.

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