NBA DRAFT: Timberwolves select point guard Zach LaVine in first round
Marcus R. Fuller
St. Paul Pioneer Press
A star from UCLA dominated the headlines leading up to Thursday night’s Timberwolves draft — and now the talk of draft night is about another UCLA product becoming Kevin Love’s teammate, for now, with athletic freshman point guard Zach LaVine selected at No. 13.
“This morning I got up, put in a piece of paper, put his name down hoping he’d be there,” Wolves coach Flip Saunders said. “Fortunately for us, he was there.”
Will the 6-foot-6, 180-pound LaVine be able to fit in the backcourt alongside Minnesota’s current floor general, Ricky Rubio?
What does it mean that Wolves coach Flip Saunders didn’t pick a frontcourt player to possibly fill the void left if Love is traded away this summer?
Those questions weren’t what bombarded Twitter, though, after Minnesota’s first draft pick Thursday.
It was whether LaVine used an expletive when getting up from his table at Radio City Music Hall in New York, right after NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced the former Bruin was selected by the Wolves.
“I didn’t see it, but I would doubt it,” Saunders said when asked if believed LaVine was upset. “Because I talked to his agent the whole time. His agent talked that this was where he wanted to come. He thought it was a great opportunity for him.”
Regardless, all that seems to be certain right now is that LaVine has the potential to be an exciting rookie as a highlight-reel dunking sensation.
His YouTube pre-draft dunk videos display his reported one-step, 46-inch vertical leap.
“One need we did have is the ability for somebody to create and get to the basket and do things in the open floor,” Saunders said. “He is a multi-position player. He can play some (shooting guard), play some (point guard). Athletically he’s the best athlete in the draft.
“He has great speed, and… I believe he has the ability to be an elite two-way type player.”
But the Seattle-area native started only one game in college last season while averaging 9.4 points, 1.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds a game in 24.4 minutes as a freshman. He shot 37.5 percent from three-point range.
LaVine, who worked out for the Wolves on Monday, had to fight for playing time with returning starters Jordan Adams and Norman Powell, and Bryce Alford, UCLA coach Steve Alford’s freshman son.
“It was a tough situation at UCLA with some of the players they had,” Saunders said. “They were all competing with each other. He kept professional when he was going about doing things.”
LaVine scored a game-high 21 points in November against Nevada, but he went through a stretch scoring below double figures in seven straight Pac-12 games.
In the last nine games, LaVine averaged just 5.1 points, including a combined eight points in three NCAA tournament games.
“He has to improve on his finishing,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said on the draft telecast. “But you can’t teach the athleticism that he’s got in the NBA.
Saunders gambled by drafting another freshman from UCLA last year in forward Shabazz Muhammad, who struggled in his rookie season.
At 19, LaVine might not be ready to be an impact player immediately, but Saunders said, “Sometimes you have to try to hit a homerun.”
“Some players who are ready made, they’re only going to be doubles hitters,” he said. “This guy has the opportuinity to be a home-run type of player with development.”
Saunders sees LaVine and Rubio playing well together.
Rubio, who is currently enjoying the World Cup in Brazil, thrives in the transition game, which also happens to be LaVine’s strength.
LaVine displayed ability to knock down outside shots in college, but his best attribute as backcourt player other than his athleticism might be his ability to handle the ball at his size.
Saunders said LaVine could be as tall as 6-7 when he’s done growing.
The early comparisons are to another former UCLA combo guard in Oklahoma City Thunder all-star Russell Westbrook.
“He’s got ball skills,” Saunders said. “He’s not a guy who just runs and jumps and is limited, can only dribble one dribble, two dribbles. He can handle the ball. He’s got the ability to shoot.”
LaVine has got athletic bloodlines with his father, Paul, having played in the United States Football League and NFL, and his mother, C.J., having played softball.
As a senior in 2012-13, LaVine was named the state of Washington’s player of the year at Bothell High School, where he averaged 28.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
He played with incoming Gophers freshman Josh Martin for one season.
“I’m next!” Martin joked recently about going one-and-done.
“Very exciting to see a kid who was my childhood friend and teammate get a chance to be in the NBA,” he said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.