Prospect Profile: Zach LaVine

UCLA’s Zach LaVine wasn’t among the top 100 prospects entering his freshman season, but he has worked his way up the draft board projections based on his athleticism and upside. This led LaVine to declare for the 2014 NBA Draft despite not being a starter this year. It was most likely a difficult decision for the 6’5″ shooting guard, but ultimately it came down to his future. LaVine disappeared at times on the Bruins bench and was not guaranteed a more prominent role in his sophomore season. LaVine’s father, in an interview with Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News, likened the decision to a breakup: “It’s like a marriage. If it doesn’t work out, you get a divorce. I don’t blame anybody.”

LaVine’s season was primarily defined by his inconsistency. His 18-point, eight-rebound, three-assist outburst against Oregon in late February displayed what he is capable of contributing, but he also had games like the Bruins season-ending loss to the Gators where he logged just five points and two rebounds. That illustrates the maddening inconsistency of LaVine, but his ceiling might make it difficult for teams looking for value in this year’s draft to ignore him. The potential reward with him is very high, but that doesn’t make him a sure thing at the next level.

In 37 games played, LaVine averaged 9.4 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, and 0.9 SPG in 24.4 minutes per game. His slash line was .441/.375/.691. These aren’t numbers usually linked to prospective first round draft choices, but with LaVine, all the talk revolves around his athleticism and potential. Athleticism, size, scoring ability and [being] a combo guard” is what one NBA scout told Adam Zagoria of when explaining why LaVine’s name has been so hot in draft circles.

Up to this point, all LaVine has demonstrated is the ability to catch, shoot and dunk. He hasn’t displayed much in the way of advanced offensive skills yet. That isn’t necessarily his fault, since Coach Steve Alford didn’t run many pick-and-rolls or isolation plays LaVine’s way. According to Kenpom’s advanced stats (subscription required), the percentage of possessions LaVine was used in was just 19.3 percent. Seeing how infrequently he was asked to create, it would be unrealistic to expect that LaVine would be ready to significantly contribute to an NBA rotation in his first season.

NBA teams love players who can shoot, and based on LaVine’s numbers, along with his high-flying athleticism, that’s what he looks to be able to provide. But despite having elite quickness and athleticism, LaVine only averaged 1.6 free-throw attempts per game and rarely took the ball to the basket in half court sets. This is a required skill to be an effective scorer in the NBA. With his physical tools it is a part of the game that LaVine should be able to improve on with hard work and adding weight to his 180-pound frame.

The biggest bonus to his game might be his ball-handling ability. LaVine didn’t get many opportunities at UCLA to demonstrate his skill, but when he had the chance, he showed an excellent ability off the dribble. This gives him the label of a combo-guard, but not in the way used to describe a scorer too small to play the 2. If LaVine can show he can handle the ball like a point guard, this would make him a very tough defensive assignment in the NBA.

The player that many scouts compare LaVine to is former Bruin Russell Westbrook. His combination of size, speed, athleticism, and ability to play both guard positions is what draws those references. Westbrook was far from a finished product when he left UCLA, but was further along in his game than LaVine, who could have benefited greatly from a second collegiate season like Westbrook did.

Outside of his offensive inexperience, LaVine is extremely raw defensively as well. UCLA ran a lot of defensive zone schemes that aren’t utilized in the pro game, and observers have noted that LaVine appeared lost when the Bruins would switch to man-to-man defense. Sam Vecenie of Orlando Pinstriped Post wrote, “He [LaVine] just legitimately has no idea where to be and when to help in a man scheme.

LaVine does have the physical potential to become an effective perimeter defender, with his quickness, athleticism, and long arms. But having the potential and realizing it can be two very different things. Even if LaVine is able to make strides, I believe he’s at least a couple of seasons away from being an adequate NBA level defender and he’ll require some serious time in the D-League to make those improvements.

Whichever team selects LaVine will need to be patient, which is not always something that lottery teams or those picking in the middle of the first-round can afford to be. In current mock drafts he is slotted as a mid-to-late first round choice. NBA and have LaVine going 17th,  Bleacher Report places him 24th, and Draft Express has him going 29th. Chad Ford of ranks LaVine 14th on his Big Board.

I’m a fan of a team taking LaVine in the mid-20s where he could potentially turn into a steal down the line. He has tremendous upside and potential, but he needs a lot of development time. LaVine also needs to add at least 15-20 pounds to his frame to be able to physically compete in the league. With another season at UCLA I could see him entering the discussion as a late lottery pick. Instead, he’s going to have to learn on the job, which will lower his immediate impact and value as a pick. I’m high on LaVine’s athleticism and upside, but he’ll need whatever team that drafts him to show patience in letting him develop as a player.

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