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Zach LaVine is the Timberwolves’ X-Factor

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The Minnesota Timberwolves hope a rising young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine can lead the organization to a height the Kevin Garnett era never reached – a championship.

In the midst of Minnesota’s 28th season, the franchise has only made eight playoff appearances (seven of which have been first-round exits).

In 2004, Minnesota advanced to the Western Conference Finals led by Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Since then, the Timberwolves have failed to qualify for the playoffs for the past 12 seasons.

Minnesota was one of the trendy picks to make the Western Conference playoffs heading into this season thanks to the hiring of coach Tom Thibodeau and the addition of fifth overall pick Kris Dunn, who spoke with Basketball Insiders earlier this season.

“We’ve got to learn,” Thibodeau said after a recent loss to the New York Knicks. “Winning is hard in this league. Winning is hard and it’s a competition. It’s not a show. It’s a competition. If you want to win, you look at the teams that win consistently, they do all the dirty work and they put all the things that are necessary into winning and that’s what we need to learn and certain points of the game like a home run shot is not what we need.”

Thibodeau knows a thing or two about winning, as he amassed a 255-139 (.629) record in five seasons as the Chicago Bulls’ coach. Under Thibodeau’s tutelage, Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in league history while Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng developed into All-Stars.

Thibodeau’s coaching career has come full circle as head coach of the Timberwolves since he began his coaching career as a 32-year-old assistant with the Timberwolves in 1989. Subsequent assistant coaching stints for Thibodeau included the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics before he earned the head coaching position with the Bulls.

After a month on the job under Thibodeau, LaVine described what it’s like playing for the vaunted defensive savant.

“He’s actually really cool,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “He’s on you; he wants the best for you and the team. And as a young player, that’s what you want. You want somebody that’s going to be straightforward and knowing that you did something wrong so you can fix it and do it better next time. He’s very defensive-oriented and for me, I’ve always been good on the ball, but off the ball has been my weak point and he’s helped me a lot already this year. I feel like it will get better and better.”

For Thibodeau, these types of defensive tips LaVine mentioned are part of a long learning process to instill winning habits in his young team.

“For us, the focus is on improvement, just keep growing,” Thibodeau said. “As long as we’re doing the right things and obviously, I’m closer being there every day, I see how they are in the meetings, how they practice and how they prepare. As long as we’re doing the right things, we’ll continue to improve. So that’s our challenge. Right now we’re pretty close, but there has to be a consistency. I think they’re understanding. When you have young guys, it’s understanding also what goes into winning, how hard it is to win in this league and how hard you have to play all of the time. Not some of the time, all of the time. This is a hard league. We have high character, good work ethic, and I think we will improve.”

While Towns, Wiggins and LaVine have all spent the first month soaking up wisdom from their coach, Thibodeau has also learned more about his trio.

“I think the big thing is that we have great versatility and obviously what Zach, Wiggins and Karl have done, I think they’ve gotten a lot better,” Thibodeau said. “The challenge for them also is not only playing well themselves but bringing the best out of everybody on the team. I think when we’re at our best, we’re very connected both offensively and defensively.”

Towns has become more aggressive this season, averaging three more attempts per game while becoming increasingly consistent beyond the arc at 38 percent. Wiggins, who never shot above 31 percent from downtown, is currently shooting 38 percent.

In his first season as a full-time starter, LaVine has made an early case for the league’s Most Improved Player award and is showing flashes of All-Star potential while averaging 20 points per game. LaVine is shooting a career-best 46 percent overall (including 53 percent on all two-point field goals) and he’s become automatic at the foul line shooting 89 percent. At 21 years old, LaVine’s 37.2 minutes per game ranks fourth in the league.

“Us three young players, as long as we continue to put the work in, we’ve got a very high ceiling,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “The sky is the limit. We’ve just got to put it together even this season. It’s a very long season, you can always turn things around. As you can see, two or three quarters we’re great and top in the league in a lot of different stats, and playing very well with 10-15 point leads, but one quarter can change the game. If you get that together, that’s the part that we need.”

If Minnesota’s young core can eventually grasp Thibodeau’s defensive concepts fully with their length, speed and freakish athleticism, they have the potential to be a defensive powerhouse. All the tools are there, but early this season has been about reading the instructional manual and figuring everything out.

Towns, Wiggins and LaVine have proven to be an elite offensive trio. The only other trios with all three players averaging 20 points per game are Golden State’s trio of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and Cleveland’s trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Cleveland’s trio is in its prime. Golden State’s trio is entering its prime. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s trio is merely scratching the surface of how good they can be.

While Wiggins and Towns came into the league with extraordinary expectations as former No. 1 overall picks, LaVine has drawn a buzz from fans around the league for his gravity-defying dunks at All-Star Weekend for the past two seasons. However, as LaVine comes into his own as a full-time starter and continues to display his full arsenal over time, he believes he can participate in more than a Slam Dunk Contest. LaVine’s goal is to participate in the main event and become an All-Star down the road.

“Looking up at the legends and stars of the game, I’ve been to All-Star Weekend two times already, and you want to be at the Sunday night game,” LaVine said. “It’s a big thing. We watch it, and it’s a big accomplishment. I think I’ll get there soon.”

While Towns and Wiggins are the more heralded components of Minnesota’s trio, LaVine has equally enticing All-Star upside and has the chance to play a pivotal role in delivering the franchise’s first championship with Thibodeau at the helm one day down the road.

“You have your own goals and whenever I step on the court I think of myself, that’s the confidence you have to have, that you have to be the best player on the floor and that’s the confidence I have,” LaVine told Basketball Insiders. “If I continue to do what I have to do off the court, putting my hard work in, I can see myself being one of the better players in the NBA.”

While the trio may be young pups now, imagine what the next decade could look like as they evolve into wolves in their prime?

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About Michael Scotto

Michael Scotto

Michael Scotto is a Senior NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders in his sixth season covering the league. He also works for The Associated Press focusing on Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks game coverage.