Friday, March 28, 2014

Zach LaVine is a Blank Slate

On the surface, a freshman guard with Zach LaVine's numbers (9 points and 2.5 rebounds a game) declaring for the NBA draft is ridiculous. Why would a player who wasn't even a starter on his college team think he was ready for the next level?

However, let's pretend for a second that every bit of hype you have ever heard or read about LaVine is true. If he really was one of the best SG's in the country, would he have been able to show it at UCLA this season?

On the perimeter, UCLA started a 6'9 sophomore point forward (Kyle Anderson), a 6'5 sophomore shooting guard (Jordan Adams) and a 6'4 junior combo guard (Norman Powell). There isn't a freshman out there who was going to come in and take either Anderson or Adams spot in the line-up. They were proven college players and first-round NBA prospects before the season even began - UCLA was always going to be their team.

With Anderson and Adams dominating the ball, the other starter on the perimeter needed to be a defensive-minded player who could play off the ball and guard multiple positions. That's a role for an upperclassman with experience like Powell, not a hot-shot freshman guard whose never had to play off the ball before in his life.

Not only was LaVine coming off the bench, he had to share time with Bryce Alford, the coach's son. Alford didn't have nearly LaVine's talent, but he's a good player in his own right, averaging 8 points and 3 assists a game as a freshman. 

As you can see, LaVine was at the bottom of a very long pecking order in Westwood. Even when he was in the game, he was playing with some combination of Adams, Anderson, Powell and Alford, all guys capable of making things happen with the ball in their hands. 

In essence, he was like Terrence Ross in his first season with the Toronto Raptors. A shooting guard needs the ball in his hands to impact the game - they aren't big men who can just dominate by rebounding and playing interior defense. But when you don't play a lot and you don't get a lot of chances to play with the ball when you are in the game, it can be very hard to get into any kind of offensive rhythm.

If LaVine was the man but the political situation at UCLA meant he couldn't be The Man, what would we expect? We'd expect him to be very efficient - 44% from the field and 38% from three - and we'd expect him to have more positive players than negative ones as a decision-maker - 1.8 assists on 1.1 turnovers. When Adams and Anderson were suspended for a game, we'd expect LaVine to thrive in a bigger role, which he did in UCLA's OT loss to Oregon in February, when he put up 18 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. 

When you are evaluating LaVine, you have to look beyond his statistics because there's no way any 18-year old guard in his situation would have put up better statistics. How would he look if he had dominated the ball and played 30+ minutes a night? We don't know - we can only project.

By leaving school before he was "ready", LaVine became one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2014 draft. My prediction? He's going to make some team in the middle to latter stages of the first round look very, very smart. I don't have any numbers to back this up - I just see a blank slate with every tool you could possibly want out of a big-time guard.

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