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Zach LaVine: Everything's Contextual

- The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for just $3.99.

The other little part came from the one time out of two hundred when you would walk into the ballpark, find a seat on the aluminum plank in the fourth row directly behind the catcher, and see something no one else had seen - at least no one who knew the meaning of it. "If you see it once, it's there," says Erik. "There's always been that belief in scouting."

- Moneyball

Zach LaVine did not have an incredibly productive season as a freshman. There was no real reason he needed to declare for the draft - he was the second guard off the bench for UCLA and he averaged nine points a game. The Bruins lost in the Sweet 16 and his playing time decreased as the season went on. He’s the Platonic ideal of the one-and-done mentality, a guy who viewed college basketball as a pit stop to the NBA and became a pro as soon as he possibly could. 

Season

G

MP

FG

FGA

FG%

3P

3PA

3P%

FT

FTA

FT%

RB

AS

ST

BK

TO

PF

PTS

2013-14

37

24.4

3.4

7.8

.441

2.1

5.7

.375

2.1

3.1

.691

4.2

1.8

0.9

0.2

1.1

1.9

9.4

If you caught him on the wrong night, when he played only 10-15 minutes and spent most of his time spotting up off the ball, you would have wondered what the big deal was. He didn’t have a very consistent role in the UCLA offense. He was the fourth or fifth option and he didn’t have the chance to play with the ball in his hands  often. LaVine took more than 10 shots only 8 times all season, but if you caught him on some of those nights, he was doing some wild stuff.

I’ll never forget a game they played against Arizona State in early January, when he absolutely went off. He had 15 points in a 10-minute stretch in the first half - it was one of the most incredible stretches of basketball I’ve seen in a long time. He was effortlessly stroking step-back 3’s, doing windmills on the break like it was nothing and going wherever he wanted to go on the court. After a season’s worth of highlights in one half, he took one shot in the second.

That’s how it went for LaVine this season. He was backing up Jordan Adams, a high-level NBA prospect in his own right. When he was on the floor, he was usually playing with Kyle Anderson, another first-round pick in this year’s draft and Bryce Alford, a fellow freshman who scored 31 points in a game. Norman Powell, the Wear Twins and Tony Parker all got shots too. It was Anderson and Adams team and LaVine was one of many players in their supporting cast.

The only other game where he was given a chance to be a primary option came against Oregon, when Adams and Anderson were serving a one-game suspension. LaVine had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in a 2OT loss - the only time all season where he played more than 30 minutes in a game. With Adams and Anderson gone, he would have played a ton as a sophomore, but he chose to go pro anyway, to the consternation of the college basketball media.

The assumption is that a guy with such a limited role as a college player is a long way from helping an NBA team, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Everything is contextual - a player can only be as good as the minutes and the role he’s given on a team. Not every freshman gets to walk into a situation like Kentucky and play 30-35 minutes a night. Some guys end up in situations where they can only get a certain amount of minutes, regardless of their talent.

From a tools perspective, LaVine is one of the most talented guards to come into the league in a long time. He’s not as big as Andrew Wiggins, but he’s every bit as athletic and he’s far more skilled. This is why I don’t trust high school recruiting rankings - I don’t understand how you could watch LaVine and think he is the No. 50 player in his class. He’s 6’5 180 with a 6’8 wingspan, he can jump out of the gym, shoot from anywhere and handle and pass like a PG.

He ran point for his high school team and that’s the position he might end up playing at the next level. He’s not nearly as thick as Russell Westbrook, but he’s a better shooter who can have a similar impact on the game. He would be bigger and faster than nearly everyone else at the position, which makes your life as a player pretty easy. LaVine may not be a pure PG, but he had a 1.81 assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman, a sign he makes good decisions with the ball.

He will need to gain some weight if he stays at SG, but he will be in the top 1% of athletes in the league regardless. While I doubt he will be given a starting spot right away, I think he’s much closer to helping an NBA team than his college stats suggest. His ceiling is Goran Dragic with Gerald Green’s athletic ability - I really don’t think there’s a limit to how good he can be. In my opinion, he has stardom written all over him. I’ve seen it once, so I know it’s there.

- This was an excerpt from Jonathan Tjarks' e-book about the NBA Draft that can be purchased for $3.99.

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