All-Star Weekend is 66.6 percent complete. The Rising Stars (Rookies & Sophomores) Game was Friday night. The Wolves had 4 players participating; 2 on the International Team and 2 on Team USA (Wiggins, Gorgui, Shabazz, LaVine). Andrew Wiggins led the international squad to victory, and earned Game MVP honors.
Last night was the three-point shootout and dunk contest. Steph Curry, unsurprisingly won the shootout. He hit 13 straight at one point. It seems appropriate he wins a contest that celebrates his signature skill in the same season that he will probably win league MVP and has a great chance of also winning a title (and, presumably with that, a Finals MVP honor). Curry’s awesome.
But the big story of last night and the entire weekend is Zach LaVine. We had high expectations for what he might do in the dunk contest — because videos like this one exist — and he came through on the big stage. LaVine caught the ball off the bounce, pulled it between his legs and did a one-handed reverse jam on the baseline. In his next dunk, he caught the ball off the bounce again, but this time swung it behind his back and flushed it home with his right hand. Those were possibly the two greatest dunks in contest history. He made each on his first attempt.
LaVine’s third and fourth dunks were comparatively disappointing but that had more to do with the expectations he set by his first pair than anything wrong with the dunks themselves. (Also, he didn’t connect on the first try in the final round, which takes a little bit of the shine off.) He caught the ball off the stanchion and went under his leg for the final slam of the night. He made that look easy. Victor Oladipo made one really cool dunk, but was no competition for LaVine, who won the contest easily.
This was LaVine’s biggest career moment BY FAR. So we broke down our thoughts on Zach LaVine’s big phat All-Star Weekend below the fold.
Patrick J: All-Star Weekend is Zach LaVine’s stage. As a 19-year old rookie who was drafted more on potential than on skill, he’s been arguably the worst player in the NBA this season. He clearly is not ready for the NBA. But he was born ready for All-Star Weekend.
Let’s look at each thing he did.
BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge
First, he played a rookie-sophomore game (“BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge“) that pitted first and second year players from the United States against the best first and second year international players in the NBA. It was a at once a combination of the typically breakneck-paced, sloppy, “no defense played,” type of rookie-sophomore all-star game and an Olympic Gold Medal game because of the U.S. vs World format. You could tell that the foreign team was more skilled, and it also boasted great talent like Andrew Wiggins. The U.S. youngsters simply weren’t as good. But the U.S. players didn’t want the shame of losing to the foreigners.
Zach LaVine thrived in this bizarre environment. He the game for what it was–an all-star game where the pace was fast and the defense was lax. He sliced and diced through the defense for dunks and pretty lay-ins and scored 22 points for the Americans. His shooting percentage was good, and you could see that he stood out as a player, with certain talents that clearly exceeded his peers (other than Andrew Wiggins). He did stuff like this.
LaVine played really hard and didn’t want to lose the game. He seemed to treat the game like it was the f*ckin’ Olympics. And that was awesome.
NBA All-Star All-Style
Second, on Saturday, the NBA put on its first-ever fashion show (run by LeBron James) featuring participants from All-Star Weekend. Chandler Parsons and Jeff Teague and JR Smith and Boogie Cousins (!) were in it. Oh, did I mention that Zach LaVine also turned up among the NBA’s male models?
This event, while hokey as could be, is probably the best example of the NBA interacting directly with celebrity. Kevin Love loves celebrity, and I was surprised he didn’t manage to find his way into a runway walk in some kind of fancy suit. It seems that Parsons is the new Love.
Or maybe LaVine is the new Kevin Love, at least in how he loves the spotlight and the spotlight loves him.
LaVine wore a very sleek, very “presidential” suit down the runway.
Then he did another runway walk in a Twins jersey with a beautiful model on his arm.
Okay, now the NBA is interacting directly with celebrity. Zach was pumped.
Here’s an interesting thing about the fashion show: It was the kind of thing Andrew Wiggins would never do.
Do you remember how nervous and uncomfortable Wiggins looked when ESPN did that interview with him this summer before the Cavs finally traded him to the Wolves?
His discomfort with the situation was palpable. I think this extends to the kind of non-basketball celebrity spotlight that LaVine actively strives to cultivate. This may mean nothing, but the Wolves’ two rookie freak athlete upside guys could not have more different personalities.
Sprite Slam Dunk Competition
Third, we could again see this in the Slam Dunk contest, and more than in any other event. LaVine shined brightly in the rookie-sophomore, US vs. World, game on Friday night, and walked the runway in a fashion show on Saturday afternoon. But the night he’d been waiting his whole life for was Saturday night. That was going to be when he would show the world that he was the best slam-dunk champion in NBA history.
And you know what? I believe he did it.
LaVine dunks like Vince Carter, but he’s shorter and faster. He does dunks that are similar in concept and style, but he carries them out with a higher degree of difficulty and at almost double the speed. In my opinion, there’s never been a better slam-dunk champion than Zach LaVine, and it isn’t even close.
This is a big moment for Zach, even though none of it tells us anything about whether he’ll ever be able to help the Timberwolves. It’s the top story on ESPN.com.
The Wolves are never the top story on ESPN.com, unless they’re trading their franchise player. Writers are saying that Zach LaVine saved the dunk contest, which had become stale in the period between Dominique Wilkins and Vince Carter, and in the years after Vince Carter. We now have a third great dunk champion.
Assuming the euphoria and hype of last night’s performance stands the test of time, LaVine will always be remembered as maybe the best dunker ever. And for a guy who loves the glitz and glam and was blessed with the gift of being able to leap 46 inches off of the ground, he will now forever have the street cred he’s been craving since high school.
This is admittedly a stylized account of what the weekend might’ve meant to Zach LaVine. For him, it might’ve been like winning a gold medal in the Olympics or like being Eminem winning the final rap battle in 8 Mile or Rocky Balboa finally getting his title shot in Rocky I (or II, sort of), as I tweeted:
Are you buying? Or do you think LaVine just sort of rolled with the punches and things ended up going well for him?
Andy G: Well, here’s the thing:
I don’t think Zach LaVine gets nervous. So while I have no doubt that this was his basketball pinnacle (to date) and that he was and is UNBELIEVABLY excited about everything that happened, I doubt he was thriving off any sort of nervous energy. I think he’s cool under pressure, which is one reason why I have some hope that this whole “develop an NBA guard out of 6’5” raw athleticism” project might just pan out. I don’t think he worries about mistakes, and that’s key because he makes a lot of them in games right now. And getting discouraged is usually counterproductive.
The first time I saw LaVine in person was at media day, when the Wolves players were cycling through the conference room for 10-minute segments, fielding a bunch of questions and offering up (mostly) chiche’ responses.
Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, newcomers to Minnesota, seemed nervous. They took questions with a teammate by their side, to deflect some attention on the other. They gave short, quiet answers to questions that hoped for some elaboration.
He happily enjoyed the process, flying solo and opening up the Q & A with a question of his own posed to the seated press: “Sup wit y’all?”
LaVine may not be a good NBA guard yet, and who knows: maybe he never will be. But he doesn’t know that or particularly care about that either. According to Flip Saunders, LaVine is a gym rat, practicing with Wiggins and others at night, after they’ve gone home from practice and gotten a bite to eat. So I’m not saying he’s unprofessional; far from it. I just think he has an endearing lack of awareness right now that things like doing all-time great dunks in front of Dr. J and Rihanna and Chris Paul and James Harden and Russell Westbrook… it’s (Biden voice) a big fuckin’ deal.
Not to get basketball-serious here when we’re talking dunks and All-Star Weekend, but don’t you think that this best-anyone-has-seen combination of verticality and agility should be moldable into at least a “pretty good” NBA guard? It’s not like he has an ugly jumper or weak handles either.
Obviously this is why Flip drafted him?
Patrick J: That’s the idea. And I agree with the gamble. Yes, he has one of the best combinations of verticality and agility we’ve ever seen. He has a solid stroke, even if he isn’t yet taking good enough shots to be an efficient or effective scorer. And he has solid, if slightly unrefined/undisciplined, handles. There’s a lot to like there.
He wants to be a great basketball player. That’s how he wants to be remembered. Not as “he played in the NBA,” and not as “he was a decent NBA player.” He wants to be remembered as a great NBA player, who also changed the style of the NBA.
He’s a gym rat, and that’s a good thing. You have to be in order to be a great NBA player. There’s no substitute for reps to achieve your full potential.
What’s troubling is that LaVine doesn’t seem to be learning very quickly. LaVine cannot run the Wolves offense when he’s the lead guard, which is probably the position from which he would be best able to exploit his unique speed and athleticism. He shirks playmaking because he fears he’ll make a mistake that will lead to a turnover. He also has failed to pick up basic defensive concepts, especially pick and roll sets.
So the question is, if LaVine is such a gymrat, why isn’t he improving more given his natural talent? Is his BBIQ that low?
Contrast LaVine with Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins looked uncomfortable in the team’s initial games. He was tentative, and was much more comfortable playing a role in the shadows as the team’s designated defensive stopper than as its primary option on offense. To his credit, Wiggins has learned over the course of the season how to operate as the team’s main scorer, and it showed when Kevin Martin and Pekovic and Ricky Rubio were injured.
Maybe this is an unfair comparison, but the point is, we’re not seeing LaVine improving at the thinking man’s parts of the game. You and I once had a coach who constantly said, “Basketball is a simple game.” It was usually after someone made the high school equivalent of one of the dumbass mistakes that LaVine makes night after night after night. I don’t think the coaching staff is doing a good job of developing him. They’re also failing with Anthony Bennett. But that’s another story for another day.
Andy G: Another thing Flip has said, along the lines of what you’re getting at, is that Wiggins has improved and learned to recognize immediately when he has done something wrong. He has also said specifically that LaVine has not reached that point yet.
We could praise the coaching staff for Wiggins’ development or rip them for the continued struggles of LaVine and Bennett. But in Zach’s case, I have been more impressed than disappointed, relative to my (extremely) low expectations for him, this year. Not knowing that Ricky would get hurt, I didn’t think LaVine would crack the regular rotation. Everybody knew he was a project. He didn’t start on his college team and his college team wasn’t even that great. He was a raw athlete. If you told me before the season that he’d have over 1,000 minutes played before the All-Star break, I think I would’ve expected (even) more disastrous results than we’ve seen.
But he’s shooting over 41 percent from the field and logging over 5 assists per 36 minutes. That’s nothing impressive for NBA-guard standards but it least evidences some level of competence. He’s had some nice moments. He’s had 12 games with double-figure scoring, and 11 games with at least 5 assists. He had that Laker game where he scored almost 30 points and led his team to a win. That was a little bit of a revelation in terms of seeing what he can do when he’s hot. In a January 28 game versus Boston, he shook off some early (and expected) struggles dribbling against Avery Bradley to play a dominant stretch in the third quarter, ending the game with 17 points and 6 assists in a win.
So he’s shown us some stuff, and I think more patience than usual is required for LaVine’s development.
As far as the Wiggins comp goes, I think that has more to do with Andrew’s mental toughness and intelligence than anything wrong with Zach’s. As time goes on, Wiggins shows more and more promise as a potential superstar who will impact most facets of the game. I’ve written a fair amount this year about how difficult I imagine the challenge to be of “trying to improve individual skills during real NBA games.” As a cross-sport example, see how Tiger Woods — the greatest of all time in his sport — has withdrawn from competitive play, indicating that his play is “not acceptable for tournament golf,” and that he will take the time he needs to improve.
Zach LaVine and most NBA players do not have that luxury of hiding from the spotlight to improve. He’s gotta do it in front of the cameras and in real competition. So again: this, to me, is more a case where Wiggins deserves praise and LaVine deserves our patience.
In any event, that was one helluva show last night. Congrats to Zach LaVine, we can’t wait to see what he has in store in future dunk contests to come.