Stock Watch: Zach LaVine (UCLA)

Overview

With UCLA playing a majority of its games after 10 pm on some obscure cable channel, many college basketball fans haven’t had the chance to see Zach LaVine in action, and that is an absolute travesty. Averaging 14.4 points on 62.3 percent shooting, including a 55.9 percent mark from downtown, LaVine has been the model of efficiency over the first eight games of his college career, and has seen his NBA Draft stock skyrocket over the past week, placing the 6’5” guard firmly in the lottery discussion.
The former four-star recruit was one of the most underrated prospects in the star-studded 2013 recruiting class. LaVine is a Russell Westbrook-type, in both his background and physical ability, however, his playing style is more similar to that of Kyrie Irving. LaVine was a major sleeper prospect as a high schooler, bursting onto the scene during his senior year, and earning a Top 50 ranking from every major recruiting service. Similar to Westbrook, a fellow UCLA point guard and a former 3-star recruit, LaVine possesses an elite handle, and ridiculous bounce, but what sets him apart is the consistency and in-the-gym range of his jumper.
It has taken just a matter of weeks for LaVine to establish himself as one of the premier scoring guards in all of college basketball, and while ESPN and the primetime media outlets remain infatuated with Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker, LaVine deserves to have his name mentioned when discussing the top freshmen in the country.

Strengths

He is one of the best ball-handlers in the college ranks, but LaVine’s jumper is his true weapon, which gives you an idea of just how good a shooter he is. With a natural fade to his shot, LaVine gets excellent lift on his jumper, has a high release point, a quick, feathery release, and a consistent stroke. He has legit NBA-range, and has shown the ability to knock down threes off the dribble, spotting up, or coming off screens. He can flat out score from anywhere on the floor, and according to hoop-math, he is converting 70.6 percent of his shots at the rim, and 69.2 percent of his mid-range jumpers, which leads the Pac-12. LaVine spent most of his high school career at shooting guard, and flashes a high basketball IQ on the offensive end, especially off the ball, where he is extremely active and effective coming off screens.
A scoring guard, LaVine was a 2-guard in high school, and is in the early stages of his transition to point guard, yet he has made major strides as a distributor since stepping foot on campus. He has a complete arsenal of dribble moves, including a devastating inverted crossover and a right-to-left cross that leaves defenders looking silly. His hesitation, and triple-threat moves are the most effective, as defenders are forced to honor his range, allowing LaVine to blow by his man and get into the lane. His handle and quick first-step allow him to create dribble penetration, draw an extra defender, and create space for teammates to get open looks from the perimeter, but he needs to spend more time running an offense in order to learn the intricacies of the point guard position, and gain hands-on experience operating the pick & roll. To this point, LaVine is averaging 2.1 assists and 0.9 turnovers, which equates to a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
There are a couple of question marks concerning LaVine’s ability to make the switch from a scorer to an effective floor general, but as a point guard, his size and length are major assets. At 6’5”, he has the size and lateral quickness to defend multiple positions at the next level, and as he adds strength, he has the potential to be a lockdown defender on the perimeter. Athletically, LaVine exhibits an explosive leaping ability, a quick-second jump and elite quickness on the ball. He is a showman in transition, punching some NBA Dunk Contest-worthy jams, including double-pumps, one-handed flushes and the ability to take off just inside the free-throw line. Finishing on 68.4 percent of his attempts around the rim, LaVine has been consistent making plays through contact, but I would like to see him be more aggressive. He has attempted just 14 free-throws all season, whereas, teammate Jordan Adams has already taken 59 free-throws.

Weaknesses

In high school, LaVine had one duty, and one duty only: get buckets. As a senior, the Seattle native averaged 28.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. In his first 8 games in a UCLA uniform, LaVine has played a similar role, providing a scoring punch off the bench, while logging a majority of his minutes with the second unit. The emergence of fellow freshman Bryce Alford, and the passing ability of point-forward Kyle Anderson has given LaVine the title of go-to-scorer while he is on the floor, a role in which he is flat-out dominating. However, the presence of Alford and Anderson has limited LaVine’s ability to showcase his development as a point guard. LaVine’s NBA Draft stock depends on his distributing ability, which is difficult to measure until he gets some more reps at point guard.
LaVine can score from all three levels on the offensive end, but he needs to continue to round out his all-around game. In his current role, LaVine is a little too one-dimensional, posting per-game averages of 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 0.9 steals. He has the athleticism, speed and quickness to be a factor in every facet of the game, but that hasn’t been the case to this point in the season. His versatility and effectiveness on the defensive end will benefit from LaVine adding strength to his frame. At 6’5”, he has a wiry frame and weighs in at just 180 pounds. He is remarkably skinny, and can get bullied at times, especially when matching up against veteran 2-guards. He has the size and frame to add at least 15-20 pounds of muscle to his frame without affecting his athleticism and explosiveness.

Looking Forward

Overall, LaVine is a top-tier talent with the scoring prowess, athleticism and potential to be a top ten pick down the road. As a freshman, LaVine’s ability to increase his stock will hinge on how UCLA uses him as the season advances. Hopefully, Steve Alford gives him a shot to run the point full time and replace Norman Powell in the starting five. LaVine has little to no experience running the pick & roll, or operating a half-court offense, and logging some minutes at the helm will help him gain invaluable experience. It’s unfortunate that UCLA didn’t ease him into the starting role during the first month of their non-conference slate, as the Bruin’s schedule gets a little rough over the next month before entering PAC-12 play.
It’s a small sample size, but statistically speaking, LaVine has been one of the best scorers in the country. According to KenPom, LaVine ranks among the top ten players in the country in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. He is also 23rd in the nation in offensive rating, which measures overall offensive efficiency. Granted, at this point in the season the Bruins’ stiffest opposition has been Drexel and UC Santa Barbara. Over the next month, UCLA’s games against Missouri on December 7th, and Duke on December 19th will present LaVine with a national stage, and an opportunity to put his scoring ability and skill progression on full display.
In the most recent update to TCT’s Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects, LaVine has jumped into the top 10, coming in at No. 8 overall, and No. 3 at the point guard position. Catch him while you can. There is still a chance he comes back, but at this point, he is a legitimate one-and-done prospect.

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