There are times, when Zach LaVine is hot, when he is scoring in bunches, when all that athletic ability is on display, that the second-year Timberwolves guard nudges right up to the edge of extraordinary.
LaVine drives, he dunks, he hits long three-pointers. And you think, maybe …
But then there are the struggles. When LaVine is playing the point, there are times he makes fans wonder what the point of it all is. The times when the ball movement stops and the half-court offense stagnates and his defense becomes a problem at the other end.
One of the livelier debates this young season among those regularly watching the Wolves is where LaVine should play. The 20-year-old began training camp at shooting guard but was quickly moved to backup point guard by interim coach Sam Mitchell in a move that might have been made mostly because of the way the current roster is structured.
This isn’t a debate that will end soon.
But, in many of his recent outings, LaVine, the No. 13 overall pick in the 2014 draft, has shown that as he grows and learns the NBA game, he will have to play somewhere.
“I love him,” Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said before Sunday’s game. “I’m a big LaVine fan. I think he can really score the basketball. He’s tough to guard. I think he’s still trying to figure out where he is in the league, learn his teammates, where he can go and when it’s not a good time to go. When he learns that? He’ll be a very potent scorer.”
The past four games, thrust into the starting lineup by Ricky Rubio’s hamstring strain, LaVine has shown both the wonderful and the woeful sides of his game.
He has scored 51 points the past two games. Over the past four he has averaged 21.0 points, shot 46.3 percent, with 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists. There have been stretches when he scored in bunches and, for those minutes, dominated play.
But there also have been times when he struggled. He had eight turnovers in a loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 10. He has struggled on defense, especially with the pick-and-roll. Clearly, the Wolves offense doesn’t run as well with LaVine in charge as it does when Rubio is healthy.
But he’s learning.
“With Ricky being out, we’ve asked a lot of Zach,” Mitchell said. “I think every game he has started so far he’s getting a little bit better. More comfortable. We ask a lot of him at both ends of the floor. To his credit he’s trying to do it and working hard. All we can do is continue to ask him to play hard, to play with confidence.”
That never has been a problem.
LaVine’s quickness, athletic ability and 6-5 size make him a difficult player to guard. Perhaps his future lies at off guard. Perhaps, with experience, he can feel more comfortable at the point. Ultimately his role might be as a classic combo guard the Wolves can rely on for instant offense.
For now, he is merely trying to do what is asked of him.
“I feel like I’m in almost the same situation as last year,” LaVine said. “I’m learning [the point] position after spending almost the whole offseason on the two-guard spot. It’s almost like you have to restart at the point guard spot. But I’m learning something different in each game. Mistakes are going to happen. But I’m going to play my hardest. I’ll go out and play my heart out. You can’t ever fault how hard I play.”
Friday, as the Wolves attempted a fourth-quarter comeback at Indiana, LaVine played the final quarter at off guard with veteran Andre Miller at the point. LaVine scored 13 points in that role and the Wolves nearly came back from a hole created, in large part, when LaVine was at the point.
Sunday against Memphis, LaVine was limited by foul trouble, but he still managed to score 13 points in eight fourth-quarter minutes, winding up with 25 points in 17 ½ minutes.
After Monday’s practice, LaVine and Nemanja Bjelica worked for almost an hour with Kevin Garnett on the nuances of pick-and-roll defense, an opportunity LaVine relishes. And one he needs.
“It’s hard at the point guard spot, it’s a lot different than the two-guard spot,” LaVine said. “Lots more pick-and-rolls. You’re the front of the defense. But I’m getting better.”