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Rook Looks Vol. III: LaVine & Wiggins

By Chris Horton @HortonBBallSite

For Rook Looks Volume Three (or Trois) we switch it up by heading up north to focus solely on rookies from Canada’s neighbors to the south, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Zach LaVine, PG Minnesota Timberwolves

There were so many great things about watching the Minnesota Timberwolves on their local broadcast: the SportsCentre BottomLine (yeah, Centre) that only runs hockey scores and stats, using the pun “Rock Stars” to describe curling athletes (do we even call them athletes?), and this moment of brilliance (sorry, Norris). What I didn’t enjoy were stretches of game time in which 40% of the people on the court were named Robbie Hummel, Jeff Ardiens, Anthony Bennett, and Joe Ingels. Equally disappointing was Zach LaVine's dull January.

Zach LaVine on paper and Zach LaVine in action are two completely different things. LaVine has tantalizing athleticism (as showcased here) but rarely does it translate into the game changing, freakish plays of which you know he is capable. All too often it simply results in an off balance 20 foot jumper with good elevation.

I equate LaVine to my grandmother’s dining room. It is a fantastic room with everything you could want, seating for twelve, spacious, perfectly lit, and adorned with ornate serve ware. It is a sight to behold; and it is fantastic (like Gator Basketball), in theory. Can we use this marvelous room? HELL NO! Especially not every day. Thanksgiving, Christmas, that’s fine. But rarely does it get any practical use. So with that, the Timberwolves fans are left waiting for Christmas. Hopefully for them, LaVine doesn’t only bear gifts during a one hour period in New York during Valentine’s Day weekend.

Although LaVine leaves me longing for more, I should have known better. Exactly as I detailed in my KPIs & Team Fit article, Minnesota was not a good fit for LaVine. In fact, the more I watch the more it is looking like a match made in NBA purgatory. In short, LaVine has a tendency to take low percentage midrange jumpers, as he showed during his stint at UCLA. Timberwolves Coach Flip Saunders has a propensity to utilize heavy doses of midrange jumpers while eschewing three point attempts. If this was the pre-three point line ABA, this wouldn’t be so bad. But it’s not. It’s 2015 and that is not what wins in this NBA.

Whether by circumstance (injuries to Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin) or design, LaVine has the second highest usage rate amongst all rookies at 20.2. Essentially, this means LaVine plays a key part in over 20% of all Timberwolves possessions. When usage rate is that high, decision making is absolutely critical. As far as LaVine's decision making, shot selection is the biggest area of opportunity. Far too often, LaVine settles for unnecessarily off balanced deep twos. LaVine particularly likes going to his left and using a ball screen to free himself for these sometimes head-scratching shots. 37% of LaVine’s shots come from between 16 and 23 feet from the basket (the least efficient area on the court to shoot from). Of those attempts, LaVine makes only 35%. While LaVine’s reliance on midrange jumpers seems strange for a person of his athletic ability, what I’ve noticed is that LaVine struggles with strength and ability to play through contact. This lack of physicality seems to be a deterrent to the possibility of any early Allen Iverson or Dwyane Wade-esque reckless attacking.

Additionally, LaVine showed he needed to tighten up his ball handling, especially in the absence of Rubio in January. Again, this is another aspect of LaVine’s game that limits his ability to attack the rim; but as a point guard (or a shooting guard forced to play point guard) it also limits playmaking, ball security, and overall effectiveness. In fact, LaVine’s turnover rate (number of turnovers committed per 100 possessions) is 16.0, while fellow rookie point guard Jordan Clarkson’s turnover rate is far less (9.2) with nearly identical usage rate.

With this team-fit and LaVine’s shortcomings considered, it should have been less of a surprise that LaVine struggled in the role he was thrust into in the month of January. This is how my pre-season KPIs have changed:

Andrew Wiggins, SG Minnesota Timberwolves

Oh, Canada! Thank you for Andrew Wiggins. You really tried with Anthony Bennett, but you got it right with Andrew Wiggins. As you should have already heard by now, Andrew Wiggins found his stride in December and he hasn’t looked back.

Interestingly enough, one of the keys to Wiggins’ progression has been Shabazz Muhammad, the 14th pick in the 2013 draft. Wiggins has not benefitted from the cautionary tale of Muhammad’s rookie season, but rather the matchups Muhammad is currently creating for this Wolves roster. When Wiggins and Muhammad share the floor, Muhammad attracts the bigger stronger defender. This is beneficial to Wiggins for multiple reasons. Standing six foot eight but only 200 pounds, Wiggins struggles with big, physical players. Eventually, Wiggins will fill out his body and gain strength but he’s not at that point yet. Fortunately for Wiggins, his lack of strength at this point leaves him matched up with two guards who don’t possess his height. Consequently, Wiggins is able to shoot over these guards while simultaneously being less encumbered physically.

The assets the made Wiggins a star before the NBA continue to lead him to success at the highest level. Wiggins’ athleticism is incredible. His first step gets him past defenders easily and he then rises effortlessly for a variety of finishes. I was struck by Wiggins’ ever growing in-between game. He uses midrange pull ups, floaters, tear drops, and dunks, of course. Wiggins doesn’t yet perform his array of finishes with both hands, but you can tell his repertoire is still expanding.

I am most intrigued by the development of Wiggins’ post play. The all-time greats eventually develop into lethal scorers and facilitators from the post: Michael, Kobe, Bird. Wiggins’ post game is still in its infancy, but again, I see potential and growth. Although Wiggins can seem uncomfortable with his back to the basket (he still often faces up in the post to use his quickness from a more familiar starting point), he has shown willingness as a passer and exceptional vision. In fact, Wiggins’ post passing was one of the aspects of his game that impressed me the most.

Despite Wiggins’ success in the past couple months, he still suffers from some typical rookie pitfalls. At times, Wiggins gets caught ball watching as the player he is supposed to be defending finds open space in scoring positions. Moreover, Wiggins still shows some of the same developmental opportunities he showed at Kansas University. If Wiggins was a running back in the NFL, his coaches would encourage him to keep his pads low. In the NBA that equates to getting lower when dribbling to create leverage and protect the ball from pesky, smaller defenders. Wiggins to still too high and loose with the ball, luckily for him, his athleticism often erases potential dribbling errors. Even more frustrating for me, however, is Wiggins shooting stroke. Wiggins received both criticism and skepticism regarding his shooting ability. I have always believed in Wiggins’ stroke and I still do, but I yell at my TV whenever he doesn’t follow through. The stroke is there, the consistency is not.

With or without my yelling, Wiggins had a great January. His usage rate, player impact estimate, effective field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, and assist ratio were all the highest of any month this season. Wiggins boosted these numbers while simultaneously having the lowest turnover rate he has had in any month. Clearly, Wiggins is figuring things out. Wolves fans, however, better hope he doesn’t figure out one thing; and that’s what previous Timberwolves franchise players figured out before him – titles are hard to come by in Minnesota.

Here is how my KPIs have changed after analyzing Andrew Wiggins during the month of January:

Stay tuned for the next Rook Looks article featuring Boston Celtics point guard Marcus Smart and Denver Nuggets big man Jusuf Nurkic...

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