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.