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Zach LaVine and the Minnesota Timberwolves' Learning Curve

The Timberwolves' Zach LaVine has given both his backers and his critics plenty to crow about during the early days of this NBA season.

by ​Jared Dubin
Nov 10 2016, 3:36pm

Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Timberwolves have begun the 2016-17 season with just two wins in their first seven games. Two of their five losses were to teams they had been widely expected to beat, the Sacramento Kings and Brooklyn Nets. For a team that had designs on a playoff berth entering the year, this is not a great start. However, there are silver linings to be found—if you want to look for them.

The schedule through the rest of the first month of the season brings with it tough challenges in contenders like the Clippers, the Celtics, and the Warriors, but also opportunity to make up ground in dates with the 76ers, the Pelicans, the Suns, and the Knicks. The Wolves' record in games that were within five points in the last five minutes of regulation (which tends to regress toward .500 over time) is 0-4, indicating that they've been unlucky in close contests so far and that their true talent level is not reflected in their record.

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Further strengthening that case is the fact that, as of Wednesday morning, Minnesota is one of seven NBA teams (along with the Spurs, Hawks, Raptors, Jazz, Clippers, and Hornets) ranked in the top half of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They're within 0.1 points per 100 possessions of having a top-ten offense despite the fact that starting point guard Ricky Rubio has missed four of the first six games.

Minnesota's foundational players are flashing skills that show why the team is justifiably building so much of its future on their backs. Karl-Anthony Towns (22.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists per game) continues to look like a superstar who will be a perennial top-10 player. Andrew Wiggins is still not rebounding or making plays for others on a consistent basis, nor defending up to his true potential, but he is scoring like never before, with an attack fueled by repeated trips to the free throw line. No. 5 overall pick Kris Dunn, thrust into the starting lineup three games into his NBA career, has mostly held his own defensively and, unlike Rubio's previous backups, has kept Minnesota's offense afloat in the wispy-haired Spaniard's absence.

C'est LaVine. Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

And then there's Zach LaVine. In many ways, LaVine is a swing player for the Wolves both now and in the future, and he works well as an avatar for the team as a whole. He is young, brimming with potential, and has athleticism oozing out of his bones. And he has given both his backers and his critics plenty to talk about during the early days of this season.

LaVine's offensive skill set has been on full display—never more so than in Wednesday night's game against the Orlando Magic, when he dropped 37 points and made seven of his nine attempted three-pointers. His scoring average and his efficiency have increased yet again, and as he's shifted mostly off the ball, he's ramped up both the volume and the connection rate of his three-point attempts (48.9 percent on 6.4 attempts a night) while still also attacking the rim at the same rate and getting to the line more than ever before (4.1 free-throw attempts per game).

His shot attempts have been redistributed, too: his move to full-time shooting guard has turned him from a player who often created his own looks off the dribble to one who now sees a majority of his shots created for him. He's taking more than four spot-up shots a night this season, up from 2.2 per game last year. LaVine insists he's comfortable shooting both ways, but the numbers tell a different story. He's yet to crack even 37 percent on shots taken off the dribble during any of his two-plus seasons in the league, per NBA.com's SportVU data, while he's never shot south of 40 percent on spot-up opportunities and was connecting on 45 percent of his spot-up threes prior to Wednesday's explosion.

LaVine just looks supremely confident offensively so far, and with pretty good reason. He's blessed with nearly every tool a wing player needs to be successful offensively, thanks to his rare combination of jaw-dropping athleticism and silky outside touch. "You just gotta read how they're playing you," LaVine said. "If you're not putting down shots early in the game, they might sag off you. That's when you gotta knock one down to get them back up. [Then] get out in transition, go to the hole a couple times and then they're backing off you, then you're open for the shot. If you're good at both of them, it's extremely hard to guard. When I'm hitting my shots, there's not a lot people can do."

His experience working as a primary ball-handler as both a starter and a backup during his first two seasons, at times an undeniably ugly experiment, also helped make him a more well-rounded offensive player—one capable of doing the kind of things any secondary ball-handler needs to do in order to keep the offense moving. "I still play point guard in a pinch—bring it up, all that good stuff," LaVine said. "So I feel like it helped me out a lot."

And, of course, he is still one of the league's most electrifying players when he's able to get out in transition. LaVine is one of 16 players league-wide averaging at least four points a game on fast breaks alone. The breaks themselves are breathtaking, with LaVine at times appearing to levitate far above the rim, seemingly having to force his body down toward the ground in order to complete the dunk. "I just try to get up, man," LaVine said. "I'm a showman. I try to put on a show. But at the end of the day it's two points. I just put a little flash to it and it's kind of cool."

And it is. There's no doubt about that. But it would be a whole lot cooler if LaVine could translate more of what makes him thrilling offensively to the other end of the floor, where his performance still leaves much to be desired. It was a fairly common refrain when Tom Thibodeau took the Timberwolves coaching job that he'd have to teach LaVine to play defense from the ground up, based on how the neophyte performed on that end through the first two years of his career. It's fair to say that education is ongoing.

"I think he's making progress," Thibodeau said. "He's still not where I think he could be but he's put a lot of work into it. I like his preparation. He's studying hard and I think he's learning."

When you have some more learning to do. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Learning is good. You have to learn what to do, where to be, when to be there, and perhaps most importantly, why you have to be there, before you can put defensive concepts into action. While LaVine can use his athleticism as a cover for individual deficiencies, it's not a workable salve for a lack of comprehension of the geometry of the court, and how that geometry is affected by the movement of players on both sides. "It's more understanding not only the individual part of it but the team concepts as well," Thibodeau said, singling out the specific area where he needs to see more from LaVine on the defensive end. "Anticipation, reading the ball better—I think those things he can improve upon."

Those things will take time, and luckily for the Wolves, they still have time on their side. LaVine is still just 21 years old, after all, and if he even approaches average defensively, his offensive gifts will make him a hugely positive player. Wiggins is only 21, as well, while Towns hits legal drinking age next week. If Minnesota wants to, it can keep that trio together for at least five more years after this one, assuming the new collective bargaining agreement doesn't change too much about the structure of extensions to rookie contracts. That's plenty of runway to figure things out on the go. With Thibs in their corner, the safe bet is that the day they put it all together comes fairly soon.

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