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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. 







































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.

Blue Blood Schools Again Taking Country's Best Talent

The McDonald’s All-American Game is no longer the only big event on the all-star circuit, but it is still the most prestigious. If you look through the game’s rosters over the last decade, you will recognize most of the names. Even the guys who didn’t make the NBA usually had great NCAA careers. The programs who reel in multiple players from the McDonald’s game are the sport’s blue bloods - not every elite player from the class of 2014 was in Chicago, but most were.

You can see that in the distribution of this year’s crop. There were 13 schools represented at the game, but only five with multiple recruits - Duke and Kentucky with 4, UNC with 3, Kansas and UCLA with 2. In college basketball, the ability to consistently attract elite recruits is what separates good jobs from the great. If any of those jobs came open, every coach in the country would at least listen. There’s no substitute for talent and those schools always have it.

For a school like Seton Hall, securing the commitment of even one McDonald’s All-American can be a program altering move. Isaiah Whitehead is the first player from the McDonald’s game to go there in 14 years. Getting the first is always the hardest - elite players want to play with other elite players, whether it’s in college or the NBA. Whitehead, the only player in this year’s game headed to the new Big East, will be a marked man for the next four seasons.

Kentucky, in contrast, has so many McDonald’s All-Americans they don’t even know what to do with them. There will be more elite recruits coming off their bench next season than there will be in the entire Big East conference. John Calipari is the only coach in the country who can run off a kid from this game and not think twice - Kyle Wiltjer (2011) averaged 17 minutes a game in two years in Lexington before deciding to transfer to Gonzaga this season.

His recruiting class last season was considered one of the best of all-time and you can make the argument that this year’s bunch is even better. Karl Towns and Trey Lyles aren’t as big as Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, but they are more skilled and more comfortable playing on the perimeter. It’s the same story in the backcourt - Tyler Ulis and Devon Booker project as better shooters than the Harrisons, who shot 42 percent and 37 percent from the field as freshmen.

In five seasons at Kentucky, Calipari has made an Elite Eight and three Final Fours. No matter who decides to go pro in 2014, he shouldn’t miss a beat in 2015. Towns has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick while Lyles and Booker both have first-round measurables. Even without the five projected first-rounders from this year’s team - Randle, Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, James Young and Andrew Harrison - the Wildcats have a McDonald’s All-American at every position.

Duke could lose two lottery picks - Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood - and be a better team next season. Jahlil Okafor, the consensus top player in the class of 2014, gives the Blue Devils a legitimate post presence at the center position, something they have not had in many years. Okafor means Marshall Plumlee, a McDonald’s All-American in 2011, will spend another year on the bench after averaging six minutes per game in his first two seasons in Durham.

On the perimeter, the three other McDonald’s kids from this year’s class - Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow - will be competing for minutes with one from 2011 (Quinn Cook) and 2012 (Rasheed Sulaimon). For the most part, everyone on Duke can shoot 3’s, which will allow Okafor to play in a tremendous amount of space around the rim. If there’s a weakness on next year’s roster, it’s at PF, where they might have to get by with a four-star recruit.

Even with the addition of Louisville, things should be back to normal in the ACC, with Duke and UNC fighting for the crown. The Tar Heels never recovered from losing PJ Hairston to eligibility issues and they struggled to space the floor and score from the wings all season. Next year, they are bringing in two McDonald’s All-Americans on the wings (Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson) to complement the one they have at PG and the four they have in the frontcourt.

Kentucky might be the only team in the country with the size to bang with Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Joel James. NBA scouts will learn more from watching the UNC big men in practice than they will from watching them against most of the ACC. The Tar Heels didn’t have enough perimeter shooting to exploit their size this season, but next year’s group, with Marcus Paige running the show, should blow most teams off the floor.

Kansas has a chance to be better without Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. Bill Self runs the most consistent program in the country because he doesn’t need his McDonald’s All-Americans to dominate as freshmen. Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre won’t have to carry the Jayhawks - they will be playing off Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor. With no other Big 12 team represented in Chicago, Kansas will be favored to win their 11th consecutive league title.

UCLA’s lack of size was exploited by Florida in the Sweet 16, but that should change in the coming years with the additions of Kevon Looney (6’9 210) and Thomas Welsh (7’0 230). With Brice Alford, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell still in the fold, the Bruins will just need their young big men to catch and finish around the rim next season. When Looney and Welsh start putting on weight, they are going to be way too big and skilled for the vast majority of the Pac-12.

When a coach can throw multiple McDonald’s All-Americans at every hole on his roster, it makes his life pretty easy. And when you are bringing in 2-3 a year, you aren’t held hostage to every recruiting mistake or off-court incident. Imagine the Miami Heat getting a lottery pick in every draft and you can see why there isn’t much parity in college basketball. A single-elimination tournament gives every team a chance, but some teams get more chances than others.

The blue-bloods were a little down this year, which opened up room for a team from the Missouri Valley Conference to get a 1 seed and made the NCAA Tournament more wide open than usual. However, with so much of the elite talent in the class of 2014 concentrated in so few schools, 2015 could look a lot more like 2012, when Kentucky and UNC dominated the sport. In college basketball, the rich don’t stay down for too long. They just get richer.

Balance Remains Key To Winning In March

While the underdogs are the story of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the favorites take the stage in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. The cutdown from 64 to 16 isn’t nearly as brutal as the one from 16 to 4. A team might sneak through the first weekend due to a favorable draw, but the quality of play ratchets up quickly the further you go. The talent gap shrinks as the field narrows and any weakness a team has will eventually be exposed.

That was the story on Thursday night, which featured two of the best games of the Tourney - Florida 79, UCLA 68 and Arizona 70, San Diego State 64.

After playing the America East champs in the first round and a middling ACC team in the second, Florida faced the second best team in the Pac-12 in the third.

Arizona, after rolling through the champions of two mid-major conferences in the first two rounds, faced a steep challenge from the Mountain West champs in the third.

The games between the 1 and 4 seeds in the South and West brackets were heavyweight matchups. Florida was the No. 1 overall seed and had won 28 straight games; UCLA had as much talent as any team in the country and was coming off winning the Pac-12 conference tournament. Arizona had a 31-4 record and was ranked in the Top 5 for most of the season; San Diego State had a 31-5 record and had not slipped out of the Top 15. All four teams had multiple NBA prospects.

The Florida game came down to rebounds - the Gators had a +10 margin on the glass, including 10 offensive rebounds. UCLA went into a zone early, hoping to exploit Florida’s inconsistent perimeter shooting. However, one of the problems with zones is that it’s harder to rebound out of them, since none of the defenders have a box-out assignment. So while Billy Donovan’s team missed plenty of shots, going 8-21 from three, they rebounded enough misses to make up for it.

The Bruins had a ton of perimeter talent, but they didn’t have the size and athleticism upfront to match-up with Patric Young (6’9 260), Will Yeguete (6’8 230), Dorian Finney-Smith (6’8 215) and Chris Walker (6’11 220). UCLA started two jump-shooting big men in the Wear Twins, who combined for only 8 rebounds. Tony Parker, their biggest player at 6’9 255, was still a year away - he picked up three personal fouls in only 10 minutes of action on Thursday.

Their weakness on the glass meant the Bruins were playing uphill for most of the night. The 1-on-1 talent of Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine fueled runs throughout the game, but they could never close the gap and get a lead. Florida always had an answer, either on the first shot or the second shot or the third. UCLA couldn’t turn them over consistently either, so they were never able to make up the possessions they lost on the defensive glass.

The Bruins were an offensive-minded team that played just enough defense to survive. Against lower-seeded teams like Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, their overwhelming edge in talent made up for their inability to impose their will on defense. However, against an elite team, it doesn’t matter how many points you can score if you can’t protect your defensive glass. Florida exposed UCLA’s weaknesses in a way their opponents in the first two rounds couldn’t.

San Diego State was the polar opposite of UCLA - an elite defensive team that played just enough offense to survive. When the Aztecs were at their best, they were using their athletic advantage to turn teams over and get out in transition, getting points going from defense to offense. In the half-court, their lack of post play and perimeter shooting made them limited offensively, especially against teams with the size and athleticism to protect their defensive glass.

Arizona, like SDSU, played elite defense and could play an NBA-caliber athlete at every position on the floor. The difference was they had better shooters and more skilled players in the frontcourt, allowing them to run much better half-court offense. They turned the tables on Steve Fisher’s team - turning them over and scoring points in transition, before the Aztecs could set their defense. San Diego State had four assists on 10 turnovers; Arizona had 14 assists on 7 turnovers.

As long as Sean Miller’s team took care of the ball, they could force San Diego State to stay in the halfcourt and beat them from the perimeter. And with their season on the line, the Aztecs couldn’t make enough shots when it counted - shooting 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from three. All those misses allowed them to grab 18 offensive rebounds and keep the game close, but the Wildcats pulled away late, forcing a few huge turnovers and getting easy points on run-outs.

While UCLA could only beat you with offense and San Diego State could only beat you with defense, Arizona and Florida could beat you with both. An elite team can beat you in multiple ways. Some nights the shots aren’t falling, so you have to be able to dig in on defense. Some nights the other team can’t miss, so you have to be able to keep up. Just as important, a balanced team can exploit any weakness in the other team’s roster. They don’t leave points on the board.

In a one-and-done tournament, you never know who you are going to play or what type of team you will have to face. Match-ups can be a tricky thing - the Midwest was supposed to be the region of death, but the No. 3 seed lost to the 14 in the first round and the first seed lost to the eight in the second. A favorable draw will only take you so far; eventually you are going to run into a team with the pieces to expose any hole on your roster. That’s why the best teams have the fewest holes.

One of the age-old debates in basketball is whether offense or defense wins championships. The answer is neither - you need both. A team that plays good offense and good defense is going to have the edge over a team that plays great defense and average offense or great offense and average defense. That’s why balance is the key to winning in March. Arizona and Florida were more balanced than San Diego State and UCLA and that’s why they are moving on.

NCAA Tournament Day 2

The joy and pain of the upset, playing with reckless abandon, Muhammad's eligibility, Friday's crazy runs, and the coach who concerned me the most on Friday.

March Madness Through The NBA Lens (Round Of 64)

While the NCAA Tournament has cachet all its own, one way of looking at the Tournament from the perspective of NBA talent evaluators. Here are the games and prospects most worthy of your attention for the round of 64.

Major Conference Tournaments Day 4

Bill Walton quotes, the fate of early college enrollees, is Ryan Harrow a curse, angry coaches, and the end of the Georgetown vs Syracuse rivalry.

Freshman Prospects Before New Year's: Shabazz Muhammad

Shabazz Muhammad projects as a high energy slasher with a developing mid and long range game. As the season progresses, look for him to improve considerably and become one of the nationís most un-guardable weapons, not to mention a surefire top-5 NBA draft pick.

Is Youth An Excuse?

If you want your team to have a great season, it isnít enough to simply get better. You have to get better at a faster rate than your rivals. One thing I have said in the past is that teams that play a lot of freshmen have the potential to improve the most.

Schools Primed For Offensive Improvement

UCLA, Utah, USC, Arkansas and Butler are five teams that have added enough pieces to project a substantial improvement in their offensive efficiency for the 12-13 college basketball season.

Comparing The Conferences

The Pac-12 has been suffering through a long dark period. The Big Ten has been dominant (at least in the pre-conference schedule) for the last few years. Should we expect a change this year? Is the Pac-12ís slump over? Is the Big Tenís boom about to come to an end?

Team-By-Team Gold Medal Winners

The Jazz and Thunder have had the most Gold Medalists since the USA began bringing NBA players in 1992, while Duke leads amongst colleges. How do the other 29 NBA teams rank?

Notes On The 2012 Jordan Brand Classic

Anthony Davis wanted to wear Michael Jordanís number in this game last year. This year no one chose to wear #23. Maybe people are right when they say this yearís class of high school seniors is missing a larger than life star.

2012 Pac-12 Power Rankings

Washington won the regular season championship, but were ranked fifth statistically in a conference that was bunched together in the top half.

Major Conference Tournaments Day 2: Big East, Pac-12

How important is it to have Jim Calhoun on the sideline, Oklahoma's late game gamble, and other observations from Wednesday of Championship Week.

Who Is Hot, Who Is Not

When it comes to February in college basketball, some teams get better, the rest get left in the rear view mirror. Here are the teams that are surging and falling over their past 10 games.

Top NCAA Coaches Of Past Five Years

There are a lot of complicated ways to evaluate college coaches, but in this edition we look at the coaches with the best per possession numbers over the last five years.

Freshmen Bring Hope

Teams that play a lot of freshmen are the most likely to improve as the season goes on, while those with a lot of experience are more likely to plateau. In this piece, we examine freshmen minutes for every major school in the country.

College Continuity

The average BCS team loses 38% of its minutes each offseason. Teams that have more returners also have more continuity and more early season wins. Here is how they rank.

Pac-12 Prospect Watch List

The Pac-10 may have morphed into the Pac-12 this offseason, but the extra 24 players hasn't resulted in any surefire lottery players even though there are several sneaky good prospects.

Talent Squandered: College Basketball's Ultimate Underachieving Teams Since 2003

Georgia Tech in 2003 with Chris Bosh, Michigan State in 2006 with Shannon Brown and Paul Davis, Connecticut in 2010 one year before winning the championship and a 2010 North Carolina team with Ed Davis, John Henson and a host of other top recruits.

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