Do Yourself a Favor: Watch UCLA Freshman Zach LaVine Play

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 11th, 2013

Anyone who watched Missouri beat UCLA last Saturday probably came away impressed with the Tigers’ backcourt trio of Jordan Clarkson, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown. The three guards combined for 63 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and attacked UCLA’s defense from inside and out, on the break and in the half-court, on spot-ups and dribble penetration. The Tigers were impressive, so it was no surprise to see them ranked no. 24 in the AP Poll released on Monday. If you watched Missouri beat the Bruins, you might even be inclined to argue that the Tigers deserve a higher ranking. I was impressed with Missouri. I think it was underrated heading into the season. Now that coach Frank Haith is done serving a suspension that – if we’re being totally honest – should have kept him away from the sidelines far longer than five games, the Tigers are in position to climb the rankings in the coming weeks, and maybe even challenge Tennessee and LSU for the de-facto SEC regular season bronze medal (i.e., the team that inevitably finishes behind Kentucky and Florida for third place). But what really struck me about Saturday’s game had nothing to do with Missouri. Near the end of the first half, Bruins freshman Zach LaVine pounced on a Tigers turnover just beyond his team’s three-point line, dribbled the length of the court, took off from one step inside the paint and flushed home a ferocious, one-handed windmill dunk.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard of LaVine. I knew coming into the season he was one of the nation’s better freshmen – though one who was more overlooked than he otherwise would have been in most years because of how loaded this freshman class is. I knew he was a good athlete, someone who could score, someone who could give the Bruins another scoring threat behind guards Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. But this – one of the most impressive breakaway dunks I’ve seen from any player at any level – was something I wasn’t quite prepared for. So I spent some time looking around on YouTube, found this clip, rewound each of LaVine’s dunks at least three times and quickly came to the conclusion his jam against Missouri was downright mediocre by comparison.

So LaVine is a great dunker. If he keeps making plays like the one he did against Missouri, his name will become synonymous with the throwdown. And considering the following quote he gave to the Daily Bruin, you can probably expect a few more highlight dunks from LaVine this season. “If I have a breakaway against Arizona – this year if I have a breakaway, I’m going between the legs,” LaVine said. “The world will definitely see a lot of top-10 dunks. Hopefully a lot of flashy, electric dunks in the open court.”

If LaVine continues to play as well as he has so far, and if UCLA competes for a conference championship and a high NCAA Tournament seed, his reputation will transcend the dunk entertainment realm. LaVine has carved out a role as a sparkplug scorer off the bench. In nine games this season, the Bothell, Washington, native is averaging 14.2 points, 2.1 assists and 25.7 minutes per game(the third-highest playing time average on the Bruins, meaning LaVine, while not a starter, categorically, is playing starter’s minutes). Only once this season – in a 31-point win over Oakland on November 12 – did LaVine not score in double-figures. LaVine is also one of the most efficient scorers in the country; his offensive rating (138.9), effective field goal percentage (72.8%) and true shooting percentage (72.6%) are all top-30 figures in their respective categories. LaVine is shooting 50 percent from three, 71 percent from two, and turning the ball over on just 10.6 percent of his possessions. The 6’5″, 180-pound freshman is at his best when – you guessed it – running the break. According to Synergy scouting data, LaVine is averaging 1.59 points per possession over 39 possessions in transition this season.

Some of those points, such as the two he scored late in the first half off Mizzou’s turnover, have come off dunks. Others have not. LaVine is a well-rounded player – skilled and athletic enough to be projected by NBADraft.net as the no. 5 pick in the 2014 draft, ahead of Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Duke’s Rodney Hood, Indiana’s Noah Vonleh and Australian sensation Dante Exum. That’s a lofty projection, and maybe he won’t wind up as a top-five pick. Maybe he will. LaVine would probably be best served sticking around one more season to improve his playmaking ability, especially if he intends to play point guard in the NBA (NBADraft.net compares him to Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook).

Every national media outlet that covers college basketball has churned out thousands of words about the 2013 freshman class, focusing mostly on the “big three” of Randle, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins. Those three will continue to be dissected all season long, but it’s important to remember this class isn’t good solely because of its top-end quality. It’s also good because of the depth – the wealth of talent throughout the class’s top-100 players – it boasts. LaVine, left out of the McDonald’s All-American game, was ranked 44th in the 2013 class by Rivals, and he’s already proven himself one of the best freshmen in the country. Make sure you catch him at least once this season, because he may not be around at this time next year.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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