Earlier today, Zach LaVine decided that he isn’t particularly fond of playing for Steve Alford at UCLA and declared for the NBA draft. LaVine’s primary qualms with Alford were that he was not entrusted with enough ball handling duties, and that he did not receive enough feedback from the coach. So instead of spending another season at Alford’s whim, LaVine decided to test the NBA draft waters. I strongly agree with LaVine’s decision to leave for a number of reasons. NBA teams are going to offer players superior development in general, and that’s doubly true for LaVine based on his role at UCLA and reported relationship with Alford. Further, he has the hype to go in round 1 based sheerly on potential, and it would have been an uphill climb to elevate his draft stock any higher. I believe his stock would be more likely to plummet if he stayed in school, so it’s best for him to get guaranteed money while he can.
As for his NBA prospects, scouts are high on him for precisely two reasons: he can make 3’s and he can jump through the roof. Having both traits is a sure way to become overrated by scouts, as both are immensely valued and do not come in tandem exceptionally often. The hope would be that he develops his passing and ball handling to become a versatile offensive threat, and that he develops his defensive acumen to become an athletic stopper as a 6’5 combo guard. It is easy to imagine this developmental when these two strengths jump out in your face by watching him. The more subtle skills such as handling, passing, and rim touch are more difficult to assess, as are quickness and defensive instincts on the other end. But before we get too excited for his NBA prospects, it is worth exploring where they may lie based on available info.
Chad Ford emphatically kicked off the Zach LaVine hype machine after his hot start in non-conference play, rating him as a top 10 pick and noting that scouts perceive him as “Russell Westbrook with a jump shot.” Apparently scouts who watched him in high school believe that he has the PG skills to develop into a Westbrook type in the pros. I already partially debunked this, but I will post some of the noteworthy stats now that UCLA’s season is complete. UCLA rotates 5 guards/wings, here are their respective assist rates, half-court rim scoring splits, and complete half-court scoring splits. Note that LaVine is the best transition scorer on the team so this angle undersells him a bit, but the half-court provides the more pertinent sample toward NBA projections:
|Player||AST%||Rim FGA/40||Rim FG%||FGA/40||eFG%|
This isn’t necessarily proof that LaVine cannot be a PG, rather that he does not play like one at UCLA. Whether this is a greater indictment of LaVine’s skill level or Alford’s usage of him is up for debate. It’s likely a combination of both, and if nothing else it does make it difficult to feel confident about his current level of PG skills. Jordan Adams and Norman Powell do not have significant ball handling roles either, but it hasn’t stopped them from posting similar assist rates and drastically better half-court scoring splits than LaVine, especially at the rim. In my sample of watching LaVine, I have not been impressed with his handle, court vision, or passing. That said, he has also had few opportunities to show them off and he has shown a few glimmers of hope. When Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams were suspended for a game vs Oregon, he played 46 minutes in a double OT affair and finished with 18 points 7-17 FG 5 assists 0 turnovers in 46 minutes. Oregon’s defense is mediocre and the bulk is not staggering for such a high minute total, but the 0 turnovers is encouraging. And while his box score vs Florida in UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss does not look good, he did penetrate through Florida’s stingy defense and get to the rim on two occasions, finishing 1/2 on his layup attempts.
His PG skills are not his only ability in question. His rim finishing also appears to be lackluster, as he converted just 55.4% of rim attempts in spite of the majority coming in the open floor in transition where he can do things like this:
In spite of his electric open court dunks and infrequent half-court attacks, he still hasn’t been a prolific finisher. And it’s not like he’s making up for it by drawing fouls: he attempts just 0.23 FT’s per FGA. This likely has something to do with his lack of bulk, as he is only listed at 180 pounds. This can be somewhat mitigated by hitting the weight room and adding muscle. But his strength will likely always be lacking, and he will only face bigger and stronger opposition in the paint in the NBA.
Even if we solely analyze the scenario where he develops his handles, passing, and body better than expected, that still doesn’t necessarily mean he will be a good player. His decision making, court vision, and defense all remain unproven. His vision and decision making are difficult to assess without many attempts at penetration, and defense is difficult to assess with UCLA primarily playing a zone. If there is a signal forecasting his future, steal rate would likely be the best indicator. After all he is an elite athlete and plays in UCLA’s gambling zone defense that finished with the 46th best defensive TOV% and 178th eFG%. Any sort of elite instinct or feel for the game should result in a high amount of turnovers created considering the circumstances, so let’s see how he fared in comparison to his fellow perimeter players:
This is not particularly encouraging. Jordan Adams is a player with lackluster tools and great feel for the game, and you can see that it resulted in over twice the steal rate as LaVine. Kyle Anderson also has poor speed and athleticism, but was able to generate more steals with his length and anticipation. Norman Powell is a raw athlete who had just a 1.8% career steal rate before having the chance to play in Alford’s zone. Bryce Alford is a 6’3 untoolsy player whose value lies in his skills, and the fact that he is narrowly behind LaVine in both blocks and steals does not speak well for LaVine’s defensive playmaking ability. While LaVine’s steal rate is the same as Andrew Wiggins and higher than that of Aaron Gordon (1.8%), that must be taken with a grain of salt since they play in conservative man to man defenses.
One LaVine pet peeve on mine is that he simply does not grasp that 3 > 2. He takes off the dribble jumpers with either his toes or his heels on the arc regularly. While this is something that can be coached out of him, it comports with the notion that his feel for the game is questionable.
Overall LaVine reminesces of slightly smaller Gerald Green as a prospect, and that can be seen as both a positive and a negative. On one hand Green appeared to be a complete bust early in his career, as he contributed approximately nothing his first 4 seasons and then fell out of the league for 2 years. On the other hand, at age 28 he has resurrected his career and proven to be a reasonably useful player under Jeff Hornacek. I believe that current Gerald Green is LaVine’s realistic upside, where he is placed in a situation to accentuate his strengths rather than developing an entirely new dimension to his game. One positive is that he has excellent body control and can stop on a dime to hit catch and shoot jumpers coming off of curls. Further, he does appear competent at shooting off the dribble, although I may be mistaken without having seen his off the dribble splits. And it is possible that I am underselling his PG skills, and he will get a chance to show off his ball handling ability in workouts.
Overall his two positives are worth something, especially with the possibility that the unknown aspects of his game prove to be stronger than expected. However, it is worth noting that his laundry list of negatives places a significant damper on his overall value as a prospect. Just because his strengths stand out does not mean that his warts are non-existent: they are present and they are plentiful. He likely will get drafted in round 1, but I believe he is overrated and is at best a fringe 1st round pick.