At the end of UCLA’s basketball season in March, college hoops pundits and fans alike lambasted freshman guard Zach LaVine’s decision to turn pro.
The skepticism was reasonable, and perhaps even accurate. LaVine started off his short tenure with UCLA with a bang, averaging 13 points a game for the squad’s first 11 tilts. In that same time period, LaVine shot at a 55 percent clip (and at a 43 percent rate from downtown). But after that, LaVine’s performance suffered dramatically. After the Duke game (shortly before the start of the conference play), in which LaVine scored just 7 points off of 3-for-12 shooting, the freshman sensation would average just 7.8 points a contest, shooting at an embarrassing 38 percent clip from the floor, and a pedestrian 34 percent clip from downtown. Given his primary talents and skills were tailored around scoring, these are concerning numbers.
Yet, LaVine’s showing at the NBA combine has negated nearly all of that. With teams, scouts, and media members lauding his raw athleticism and disconnected set of skills, LaVine has somehow found himself squarely in position to be taken by a lottery team in the upcoming draft. After a disappointing season left NBA draftniks wondering whether LaVine would even be a first-rounder, it’s apparent that he’s probably not falling out of the lottery, and he’s most certainly not dropping into the late-20s.
This story should sound somewhat familiar to UCLA fans, though. During the 2012-13 season, and for some time afterwards, LaVine was shooting up the recruiting rankings, too.
When LaVine committed to UCLA in June 2012, he wasn’t exactly an obscure prospect. ESPN ranked LaVine as the 97th-best recruit in the country, and was a pretty solid four-star prospect. His raw athleticism was still what made him so attractive to those on the high school basketball scene in Bothell, WA, but back then, his shooting capabilities and his size—in his senior year in high school, he was a modest 6’3”—prevented him from being considered a blue-chip, five-star recruit.
Soon, though, as he began to make his way through the recruiting scene in the summer of 2012 and beyond—particularly his senior year at Bothell High—he swiftly jumped up the recruiting rankings. Once given four stars by Scout, he saw his rating upped to five by the time his senior year had finished. Yahoo!’s Rivals eventually moved him up nearly 100 spots in their rankings, from the 140th slot to the 44th slot. In the ESPN 100, the jump was nearly a 50-spot skip, from No. 97 to a final slot of No. 50. All this, of course, happened rather rapidly. And though it’s not uncommon for lesser-known recruits to climb rankings in their senior year, LaVine’s ascent is a bit of an anomaly.
Of course, the circumstances between then and now are a bit different. Much of LaVine’s climb in the recruiting can be attributed to his performance in his senior year. His current climb up NBA mock drafts, on the other hand, are almost entirely the result of a slew of workouts and practice sessions (though the latter generally occurs in front of extremely famous and extremely rich NBA coaches and executives).
The point is, though, that teams, recruiting services, and scouts are prone to fall in love with Zach LaVine’s set of skills and talents. He’s freakishly athletic, and in the NBA, potential almost always outweighs actual production. That’s why elite college basketball players like Doug McDermott had to wait four years before getting a serious look by lottery teams, and that’s why LaVine is projected to go No. 17 in DraftExpress.com’s mock draft, despite having the lowest PER of any of their top-38 prospects.
None of this is to say LaVine’s decision was right or wrong, or that any team who selects LaVine will make a good or bad decision. Plenty of underwhelming college basketball players go on to have long and fruitful NBA careers. (And UCLA fans are no strangers to this; look no further than one-and-done Jrue Holiday and backup guard Russell Westbrook.)
But this does mean that selecting LaVine is a gamble for NBA teams. While landing LaVine as a blue-chip recruit is hardly a risk for any college squad, NBA teams are limited to just one first-round pick, unless they’ve given up significant assets to obtain another one.
LaVine’s familiar with meeting rising expectations, and so far, to these eyes, he’s 0-for-1 in doing so. Here’s to hoping he’s 1-for-2 by the time his basketball career is over.