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The Curious Case of Zach LaVine

UCLA freshman guard Zach LaVine had a roller coaster season that began with a lot of excitement and became less productive as conference play began. Should the Atlanta Hawks choose him at #15?

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

No player in the 2014 NBA Draft is as puzzling to evaluate as UCLA's Zach LaVine. Less heralded than his superstar freshman counterparts, LaVine stormed on the college scene as the surprise of pre-conference season. Playing with projected first round prospects Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, his athleticism and shooting stroke made him a fast-rising phenom.

LaVine's play dipped as the competition level increased for PAC-12 conference play. As he competed against more talented opponents, his athletic ability was unable to overcome his deficiencies. Simultaneously, his perimeter shot deteriorated. Despite the drop off in performance, a strong showing at the NBA Draft Combine has made him one of the hottest prospects in recent weeks. His potential and need for development has him linked with Atlanta in mock drafts. NBA teams are left to ask a lot of questions about who he is and who he can be. Is he a point guard or a shooting guard? Does he have the ceiling to be a star? Can he translate his athleticism to the defensive end of the floor as he matures? Can he shoot or did he simply have a hot streak to open the season? How long until he can help a team?

There are questions about every prospect, but no college player in the draft may have as unclear a projection as LaVine. His small sample size of college play reveals a remarkable athlete who remains a long way from helping an NBA team. With the Atlanta Hawks in need of more athleticism while possessing a deep roster, should Danny Ferry choose LaVine and offer a space for him to patiently develop into a valuable NBA player?

At 6'6 with a 6'8 wingspan, LaVine has the size to play either guard position. With his height and wingspan having both grown by 2+ inches in the last 2 years, it is still possible that he could grow more in the next 12-18 months. With a 33.5" standing vertical leap and 46" maximum vertical jump, it is possible that he could play both wing spots by adding weight to a thin frame (181 pounds). The versatility offered in a single player makes him attractive and a possible fit with almost any NBA team. His potential as a wing player is more intriguing than the limitations he brings as a scoring point guard.

LaVine burst onto the scene in the 2013-14 college season by scoring in double figures in 9 of his first 10 college games (none against NCAA tourney teams). He showed surprising poise as he recording a better than 2:1 assists to turnover ratio. While it is difficult and often unfair to compare prospects to NBA players, LaVine's physical gifts largely compare to UCLA alum Russell Westbrook. Highlights of his early play at UCLA reveal how his explosive play could translate to the NBA (Note: For fans interested in Kyle Anderson pay attention to the play-making skills he reveals in some of LaVine's highlights):

While LaVine's physical gifts are on display in the video, it also reveals his limitations going forward. LaVine has a relatively good value for securing the basketball, but lacks the ability to make good decisions as a creator. In spite of his great physical tools, he does not possess signature moves to get by an opponent and mostly relies on a quick first step. When pressured, he depends upon a sidestep move to his off-hand prior to launching a jump shot. It is mostly an effective move but one that may not project as an asset in the NBA--particularly if his shot does not become more effective.

Most of his highlight reel plays and made shots occur in open space. In the half-court setting, he becomes very limited offensively. Young players are typically better in the open floor and Zach should get better at playing in smaller spaces as he matures. Improving his slight frame and gaining better understanding of angles and offensive flow are bound to come in time. However, he will enter the NBA as a vastly inferior player at the point guard position. His reduced playing time later in the season was a product of his ineffectiveness in running a team in the half-court setting and providing little discipline in his defensive effort. LaVine's tendency to leak out on defense (which can be seen in the video) results in him getting dunks worthy of fan excitement and Sportscenter highlights. At the NBA level, those same plays will get him time sitting on the bench of quality teams just as he did later in his time at UCLA.

LaVine mostly feasted on inferior competition in his freshman season. He began to struggle against teams where he could not beat people with superior athleticism. In his 4 games against elite teams--Duke, Arizona (twice), and Florida--his limitations were fully exposed. LaVine was 9 for 31 from the field and only 2 of 13 from the three-point line. He had 4 assists against 7 turnovers while being completely lost on defense. In his first 10 games, it appeared an insult to refer to him as a "project." At times later in the season, it was difficult to even identify him as an NBA prospect due to him disappearing from games. This was most evident in the postseason where he was not a factor for the Bruins. In his last 5 games, he managed to score only 11 points and missed all 10 of his three-point attempts. After scoring in double figure in 9 of his first 10 games, he managed to do so only 4 times in his last 18 games. It is difficult to find successful NBA players whose play dropped off at such an obvious level during a college season.

Most guard prospects have some level of question regarding their perimeter shot translating to the professional level. The translation of a shot to the NBA is volatile. Players like Trevor Ariza and Demarre Carroll were terrible shooters in college, yet have become effective shooters as NBA wings. LaVine appears to be a capable shooter looking over the course of his season statistics, but challenges arise when further breaking down his film and statistics.  LaVine opened the season going 19 for 34 (56%) from the three-point line, but was only 27 for 96 (28%) the rest of the season. He has multiple flaws in his shooting approach and appears to rely too much on his physical tools. He is effective at making unbalanced shots and often approaches shooting with an unrealistic level of reliance on making off-balance perimeter shots. He brings the ball down low prior to releasing the ball which allows defenders more time to close space. In recent workouts, you can see this flaw revealed repeatedly, although many people are blinded by his potential to win an NBA dunk contest:

LaVine is not just a capable athlete, he has elite physical tools even at an NBA level. These gifts only makes it more puzzling that he managed to only have 6 blocks during a full college season. He either lacks any regard for being committed on the defensive end of the court or the instincts to react to opponents. Most of his steals came outside of his on-ball defense. Offensively, it is alarming how rarely he attacks the basket. He only took 68 free throw attempts on the year while managing to shoot a pedestrian 69% from the free-throw line.

LaVine lies somewhere in the spectrum between Russell Westbrook and Gerald Green. In the right developmental situation with the appropriate work ethic, he could become an NBA star. The debate in selecting him could center around how long a team believes he will have to develop before he can contribute. Closer to Green as a raw project than Westbrook, LaVine has two red flags in selecting him in the first round: 1) His skill level is at least 2-3 years away from being ready to contribute to a good NBA team, and 2) Film of his college season and recent interviews show a player who wants to be a star more than he wants to be a great basketball player.

There are multiple players in a deep 2014 draft who have high ceilings and are much closer to contributing to a good team. The two biggest projects likely to go in the first round are Clint Capela and LaVine. Capela can be stashed for 1-2 years and also has a defensive skill set that will help him contribute as a role player sooner than LaVine. Currently ranked 30th on the Peachtree Hoops Draft Board, LaVine may move up at the next update due to his combine performance. However, there are 20-25 better prospects for Atlanta in the 2014 NBA Draft.

LaVine has an excellent chance to become a star in the NBA. If he adds weight, develops as a finisher in the lane, corrects flaws in his shooting stroke, and translates his athleticism to the defensive end; he can be an unstoppable force with tremendous versatility. His immaturity in skill for a player of his age despite access to good coaching places serious doubts about him maximizing his gifts.

LaVine would be very fortunate to land in a place like Atlanta where the front office is willing to be patient with a draftee. A franchise more interested in winning games than dunk championship would be wise to pass on LaVine. If a team is looking for an athletic project, Clint Capela, Jerami Grant, and Damien Inglis are likely to be drafted later than LaVine and bring more credible production and translatable skill. While a team might choose to select him in the lottery, it makes sense for one of the teams with multiple first-round picks to select him and be patient with his development (example: the Boston Celtics at #17 in the Peachtree Hoops Mock Draft). If Danny Ferry is convinced that LaVine is committed to putting in the work to be great and maximize his abilities than he could be a steal for Atlanta at #15, but the film does not show a player prepared to work toward greatness. Either of his UCLA teammates expected to go in the first round would be better selections.

For a deeper look at Zach LaVine, take a look at his DraftExpress video profile: