LaVine at Point Guard: An Ongoing and Complex Question

2015 NBA Slam-Dunk champion Zach LaVine

We have a Zach LaVine issue.

He’s been playing a lot of minutes at point guard and many feel that this is a bad idea. The Wolves are winning more than most expected before the season (4-5 record, as of last night’s loss at Indiana) but possibly less than they could’ve, if LaVine played fewer minutes at the point. It’s a difficult question — whether playing him there makes any sense — and probably not answerable within a great deal of certainty.

What we know:

  • LaVine is not good at point guard; not yet anyway. He is not a strong enough ball-handler to initiate good team offense, and he is a very, very poor defensive player, when tasked with defending point guards. Eric in Madison of Canis Hoopus wrote an outstanding piece this morning that details why playing LaVine at point guard has been a losing proposition for the Wolves this season. I strongly encourage readers to click through and read his piece, if you have not already.
  • He is an unbelievably explosive athlete; possibly the greatest leaper in the history of the game. LaVine’s performance in last year’s dunk contest rivaled the best ever, including Vince Carter’s 2000 exhibition that many thought could never be topped. If in this year’s contest he tries to dunk from the high school three-point line, I won’t be completely surprised. LaVine, though very skinny and in need of more upper body strength, sometimes blows past a defender with a first step that leaves people wondering what might be in store for him if he ever learns the nuances of the game. His physical upside as a guard who destroys defenses off the bounce seems unparalleled.
  • LaVine has had some success playing off the ball, in his short NBA career. Last night at Indiana, he played much better next to Andre Miller, and eventually ended the game with a not-at-all-shabby line of 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. His plus-minus was a net-zero, and without digging into the details I’m sure that it was decidedly positive when he was playing at the two instead of the point. After the All-Star Break last season, LaVine shot a clean 38 percent (38 out of 100) from three-point range, and of those, 34 were assisted. (Also, for what it’s worth 32 of them were “above the break” threes, farther out and more difficult than threes shot from the corners.) Making assisted threes is a valuable shooting guard skill, even if it isn’t necessarily the play that best signifies Zach’s upside.

What we don’t know:

  • Are all of these point-guard minutes in NBA games the ideal way to develop his game for the future?
  • Would it make more sense to play him more at shooting guard in NBA games?
  • Would it make more sense to give him point-guard minutes in a D-League setting?
  • How much do in-game minutes matter for development, as opposed to developing in practice?
  • Is LaVine at point guard stunting the potential development of the players who share the floor with him? Players like Shabazz Muhammad, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gorgui Dieng?
  • Could this Timberwolves team fight for a playoff spot, if Ricky Rubio quickly returns to full health and they move forward with a better use of the backup point guard minutes – either via a minor trade or simply playing Andre Miller over LaVine?

As I started with, this is really difficult to assess with much certainty. If LaVine had less physical upside, I think the answer of what to do with him (sit him on the bench) becomes clearer. But the athleticism is spectacular, the upside is there, and the Wolves are smart to make his development a priority. Also, I think that a basic “lead guard” if not “true point guard” skill is exploding past a defender and wreaking havoc in the paint. LaVine doesn’t necessarily NEED to play point guard to hone that practice, but the sorts of things he’s asked to do at point (bring the ball up the floor, dribble against pressure defense, drive-and-pass) are more likely to improve his penetration skills than the in-game experience of playing off the ball, which inevitably involves more floating and cutting.

The last two questions listed, the one about LaVine’s teammates and the one about gunning for a playoff spot, I find to be more important than some. Maybe I’m impatient or short-sighted, but I really find there to be a big difference between winning and losing, and I find the jump from loser to winner to not only be incredibly exciting to watch (as we saw in Ricky Rubio’s first season) but also far less of an inevitability than we sometimes expect.

I really believe that Karl-Anthony Towns is the real thing. I’ve never watched a Timberwolf rookie and felt so sure of this after only 9 games. With Towns, it isn’t that he shows flashes of greatness (like Garnett, Love and Wiggins before him) as much as he shows a ready-made game. He has a game that is prepared to win NBA games right now. In some respects he is more similar to rookies Stephon Marbury and Ricky Rubio before him (though he seems better than both of them) than Garnett, Love and Wiggins. As his minutes increase (currently averaging 29 per game) Towns could potentially be an All-Star THIS YEAR.

With Towns being this good, right away, and with the rest of the roster fairly developed, I see no reason why the Timberwolves should artificially lower their own expectations of success, by teaching Zach La Vine how to play point guard in the middle of the season. The core nucleus of this team is Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, and each guy can still log 30 to 40 minutes per night while they try to win with smart team strategy that builds winning muscle memory. Last night, late in the game, Miller initiated an attack that ended with Wiggins diving baseline behind Paul George at the right time to catch a feed for a layup. I’d like to see him develop those instincts in a winning setting next to somebody like Miller, more than I’d like to see him post up and receive a flimsy feed from LaVine with 7 or 8 on the shot clock. The former is easier and maybe its better-developing purpose seems counterintuitive compared to what Wiggins went through last year as a go-to guy, but I don’t think so. I think Wiggins and Towns would both benefit from learning to play the right way, and then seeing over time how they can use their high-level talents to expand. And I think that this is more likely to happen without LaVine learning how to play point guard during games.

On his most recent podcast with Joe House, Bill Simmons got to talking about the Wolves, their coaching situation, and their refreshed possibility of making the playoffs, in view of Towns’s immediate impact. Simmons said the following things:

  • “My only question is, you have Towns and you have Wiggins, who I would say are the best two building blocks on the same team that anyone has right now, and you could even argue going back to Durant and Westbrook in the late 2000s for two young guys on the same team who are both studs and there’s something here.”
  • “If I’m [Tom Thibodeau] don’t I wanna coach this team?”
  • “They should get through this year, make their mistakes, be a lottery team….”
  • “I do think they’re a playoff team if properly managed…Towns is…” (end of discussion)

Simmons was discussing the Wolves in the context of whether Sam Mitchell should be the coach, or whether the Wolves should immediately pursue someone better (like Thibodeau) but his stream of consciousness assessment carries over to this LaVine Question, and whether this season is one for winning games, or for something else.

It’s an ongoing question in a long season, and — for LaVine — hopefully a long career. Maybe in a year or two, LaVine will be carving up defenses off the dribble and we might look back at this Point Guard Basic Training as a foundation-setting phase. Or maybe he’ll never develop into an all-around helpful NBA player and this will seem like a wasteful experiment.

I guess for now, I just hope Ricky Rubio gets back to full health, so the available point guard minutes are diminished, but there will be pivotal sequences this year no matter Rubio’s health that hinge on the LaVine-Miller alternatives, and the big-picture implications will be there hovering.



Filed under Timberwolves

5 responses to “LaVine at Point Guard: An Ongoing and Complex Question

  1. Nice, I had a similar post the other day. Feel free to check it out!

  2. Thelonious

    Point Guard Basic Training is a great way to put it. A few high school coaches I’ve talked with have been proponents of having someone who’ll eventually be their go-to scorer play the point earlier in their career. They say that, among other things, playing point (and sometimes getting frustrated with teammates who don’t get open) teaches them to move better off the ball and understand their role in the offense. Maybe Zach’s success at the 2 in limited minutes is a result of PGBT, but I’m not sure how much more he can learn.

  3. Ron

    I keep seeing posts that rail against this kid. I just wanna say that I agree he is not a natural point guard however, he is a natural player who flashes genius on the court while obviously playing a position he did not train for in Summer time. He said he trained for 2 guard work.. I will say this that he is truly a special talent that Wolves nation will appreciate once his veterans show up to play on regular basis. BTW, Rubio needs to show he can stay healthy so don’t blame Zach if he is better than any other back up point on this roster when forced to play unnatural position.

  4. For those who don’t know, Bjelica played as PG in Red Star under S. Pesic. This is one of the reasons why Bjelica won the MVP – being skilled in all areas of the game.
    So, these minutes at PG might be very beneficial for Zach / Wolves future and it might be paid back in future wins. Who knows ?
    As of now, it’s very frustrating and painful to watch wolves game when ZL is orchestrating offense.

    • jmndodge

      We were impressed with his PG play a couple games when Rubio was hurt. When Rubio is healthy – he is PG with a 2nd unit – and that makes a big difference. I’m not suggesting that Zach run the offense with Towns/Bjelica/Prince/WIggins/ – while Rubio runs Dieng/KG/Bazz/Martin – although it might be interesting to see. Hopefully Sam in practice has seen this combination – even if the fans never get the pleasure(horror?) of the experience.