It was happening again. Zach LaVine couldn’t hit a shot. For the first 39 minutes of UCLA’s dusting of Utah in February, the Bruins’ sixth man had gone without a basket. There were two clanked 3s, a pair of missed free throws, and even a botched bunny after an offensive rebound. When LaVine stepped to the line with 30 seconds left, he was just 1-for-7 on the day.
UCLA’s student section was already abuzz, with their third straight conference win in hand, but as LaVine waited for the ball, they focused their chatter on the freshman standing at the line. The game equaled LaVine’s worst of the season from the floor, but even worse, it was just the latest in a nightmarish stretch. In his previous six games, LaVine had shot 7-of-36, but when the chant from across the court began, it wasn’t an attack. It was a plea.
One more year! One more year!
Coming to UCLA, LaVine was a highly sought-after West Coast product, but he was dwarfed on a national level by the best incoming class in recent memory. He was the best player in the state of Washington, sure, but he wasn’t a McDonald’s All American. He wasn’t even Matt Jones, let alone Jabari Parker.
It took only a few weeks for that to change. LaVine started the season ablaze from behind the arc: 3-of-5 against Drexel, 4-of-6 against Nevada, 4-of-5 against Northwestern. When UCLA traveled to Columbia, Missouri, for its first real test of the year, it did so as the 18th-ranked team in the country. At that moment, LaVine was shooting a blistering 56 percent from 3.
With about three minutes left in the first half of that game, a Mizzou guard slipped taking a pass near the top of the key. The ball took one bounce before falling to LaVine, who took off down the floor. He got about three feet inside the free throw line before taking off, executing a windmill, and trying to tear off the rim.
To those paying attention, LaVine looked like a future NBA star. He was long, explosive, and he could shoot. Their games are different, but with LaVine’s sixth-man status and reputation as a point guard in high school, the inevitable comparisons to fellow UCLA-bred guard Russell Westbrook began. “That’s where the appeal started to come from,” says ESPN.com draft expert Chad Ford. “People saying, ‘There’s another Russell Westbrook in this draft.’” Ford’s list of top-100 prospects, a bible for many draft watchers, is based on input gathered from scouts and decision-makers throughout the NBA. The week after the Missouri game, Ford listed LaVine as the 10th overall pick. He wasn’t alone. NBADraft.net had him fifth — ahead of the highly touted Julius Randle and Dante Exum.
What’s happened since is a peek into the up-and-down life of a late-developing lottery pick. Less than two weeks after the game against Missouri, UCLA met Duke at Madison Square Garden. It was a mess. LaVine missed nine of his 12 shots, many of which seemed rushed, forced, or both. It was his first poor game of the season, and what followed — and has since whenever he’s struggled — points to the gap between him and college basketball’s top shelf: Parker, Andrew Wiggins, and Aaron Gordon. Those three came into the season with a reputation built on AAU dominance or Team USA success that carries them on even their worst days. “You don’t have anyone freaking out when Aaron Gordon goes 2-for-11 from the free throw line,” Ford says. “If LaVine has a 1-for-7 shooting night from the field, it scares guys.” For most GMs, the high-profile matchup against Parker’s Duke was their first live impression — one Ford says often matters more than any film could. As the performances became more uneven, LaVine fell from Ford’s top 10 to the later part of the lottery. The most recent slump has thrust him into the back half of the first round.
“Of course you know everything that’s going on,” LaVine says of the draft talk. “It pertains to your life.” LaVine is sitting in an empty Pauley Pavilion, two days removed from his struggles against Utah. He’s wearing his UCLA practice gear: a white tank top, blue shorts, and a pair of white padded shin sleeves with his student ID peeking out of his right sleeve. “It’s crazy,” he says. “You see it happening, but I’m not trying to pay attention to that. It’s hard not to, but I’m trying to just win games right now, live in the moment, enjoy college.” The moment for LaVine is constantly changing. He’s too far in now. It’s hard to enjoy much when a group of men he’s never met are playing ping-pong with his fate.
LaVine is a product of the ’90s, that time when Michael Jordan was ending and Kobe Bryant was beginning. Bryant is still LaVine’s basketball ideal, but it was Jordan who first got him interested in the game. It wasn’t what Jordan did against the Jazz or Sonics. LaVine was born in 1995. His defining Jordan performance was against a team of talent-stealing Martians. Sometime around age 5, LaVine saw Space Jam for the first time. Within a year, he wore out that VHS tape. “It would finish, and he would just turn it back on,” his father, Paul LaVine, says.
Basketball became an obsession. The family backyard was a training ground for learning to imitate moves from his favorite basketball compilations, like the Stephon Marbury–hosted Ankle Breakers. LaVine had a gift for mimicry and, eventually, a gift for repetition. It would serve him well as his father pushed LaVine to refine his jump shot. Paul would arrange five inflated kiddie pools around the arc, each filled with balls bought at the local Goodwill, and have LaVine replicate the NBA 3-point contest over and over. As Zach got older, the drills evolved — big ball, heavy ball, one-dribble pull-ups — but the routine’s spirit remained the same. “We just put in hours and hours,” the younger LaVine says. “Countless hours.” Before games, after games, it didn’t matter. The pair shot every day, even in rainy Seattle. When the cold came, LaVine chose a pair of gloves over a heated gym.
LaVine spent most of his early basketball career dominating the suburbs outside Seattle. But as the boy moved toward high school, Paul brought him to play with Seattle Rotary, which boasted some of the best talent in Washington. LaVine came across — and still trains with — many of the big-name players to come out of the state (Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford), but during his time at Bothell High School, he made the transition to Friends of Hoop, the AAU program run by Bothell’s coach, Ron Bollinger. UCLA assistant Phil Mathews first took notice at a Las Vegas tournament, Paul says. Paul, a former USFL player for the Portland Breakers who spent a year with the Seahawks, was a San Bernadino native raised on UCLA basketball.
By his junior season at Bothell, LaVine had shot up to 6-foot-3, and as he grew, so did his standing among West Coast recruiters. LaVine’s backyard imitations had begun to travel way above the rim. When his backyard shooting routine would end, LaVine would dunk for hours, replicating dunk contests old and new until he was too tired to get off the ground. He was still slight, but his frame, his ability to explode, and his shooting took his game to another level. He averaged more than 27 points per game his senior year, but national recognition lagged. Missing his junior AAU season with a broken hip didn’t help, but both Ford and LaVine acknowledge that being from Seattle is a liability, too. “Coming out of the Northwest, not many people get recognized out of there,” LaVine says. He was elected Mr. Basketball in Washington in his final season, but it still wasn’t enough to land him on the McDonald’s All American team. According to ESPN.com, he was the 50th-ranked prospect in the country.
The start to LaVine’s freshman season at UCLA was a validation. “I felt I did enough in high school to get recognized with [the top] players,” he says. “I played all the AAU games with them. I went to all the different camps with them. And I performed. So I came here with a chip on my shoulder. Once my name started getting circulated around a little bit, I said, ‘Yeah, I told you so.’ I always had confidence in my game.”
LaVine’s old routine — hours of 3s followed by hours of dunks — unwittingly prepared him to become a valuable prospect for the modern NBA. He doesn’t have much patience for the midrange, and neither do many forward-thinking NBA front offices. At UCLA, LaVine has played off the ball mostly. But back at Bothell, he was the team’s primary ball handler. That bouncy, smooth-shooting 6-foot-5 point guard is what has some NBA teams salivating. “When you look at a prospect that has his size for his position, his athletic ability, and the fact that he’s shooting the basketball with really that unlimited range, that’s one of the sort of holy grails for NBA prospects,” Ford says.
When the Bruins visited USC earlier this month, those skills were on display within two minutes of LaVine checking in off the bench. On UCLA’s first play out of a timeout, LaVine was thrown a lob he had to go over an opposing defender to even catch. The dunk attempt slammed off the back rim, but his ability was clear: LaVine hops out of the gym. One possession later, LaVine sprinted around two screens to drill a corner 3. The next time down, he caught the ball at the top of the key, took two dribbles, and barreled toward the rim. Waiting for him there was 7-foot-2, 270-pound Omar Oraby. As LaVine elevated toward the rim, he careened off the massive Trojans center and the ball spilled from his hands.
LaVine, still just 18, knows he needs to work on his physical strength. “I have a slight frame right now,” he says, laughing. “I feel like I’m not done growing yet. I feel like my body will mature a little bit more.” Whether LaVine can add weight or not, his lack of muscle is only a functional problem. The more significant one may be organizational.
Although it takes only three trips down the floor to see what initially made LaVine a projected lottery pick, the next 15 show why he’s had trouble staying there. In high school, LaVine was the centerpiece of his team’s offense; at UCLA, he’s just another piece. “It was a big-time change, coming off the bench,” LaVine says. “And then not being a big part of the offense, not getting shots. One game you’ll get 12, one game you’ll get four. That was a big difference.”
It’s not a complaint, he says, just an adjustment. UCLA lacks a true point guard in its starting lineup. Fellow first-round prospect Kyle Anderson plays the role of facilitator as a point-forward type. When LaVine comes off the bench, it’s often with Bryce Alford, who usually handles the ball. Gone are the games with 20 shots for LaVine — instead he has to make the most of his six or seven.
Freshmen are going to have days when hardly any of those scant few shots fall, but Ford says that with someone like LaVine, evaluators are quicker to seek out the faults. “I just think that with LaVine, the difference is that because he wasn’t projected as high at the start of the season, when he struggles, they’re just as quick to jump off the bandwagon as they were to jump on,” Ford says. “The preconceived notions coming in, especially for freshmen, are really, really hard to shake. It takes a lot to ruin your draft stock when you’re really well thought of by scouts. It’s much harder if you’re not a highly ranked young man coming out, to prove yourself the other way. There’s a double standard there.”
LaVine sees it the same way. “Their names have already been out there, and their names have already been on the highest stage,” LaVine says. “Coming here, a lot of people knew of me, but they didn’t know really about me. I’ll always have something to prove.”
Last Tuesday night, LaVine met his dad outside his Westwood dorm. Paul had made the trip to Los Angeles a few days earlier, knowing his son’s struggles were weighing on him. The Bruins were set to travel north the next morning, for a two-game stretch at Stanford and Cal. Before they left, Paul and Zach decided they needed one more shooting session, outside, just like they had back home. After a few minutes of shooting and talking, the lights at the park went out, but that didn’t stop them. The dark is no worse than the Seattle rain.
Paul is the one who keeps up with the NBA talk. He was the first to notice LaVine’s rank on NBADraft.net, and ever since, he’s read everything he can find. “We try to keep it from Zach,” he says, “but kids can find anything.” For his part, LaVine says he truly doesn’t seek it out. “Whatever pops up in my Twitter feed,” he says. “That’s about as far as I go on that.”
No one could blame him. The highs came quick, and the lows even quicker. Even without constantly monitoring where he’s ranked and why, a freshman season is sure to be filled with unfamiliar rumblings of doubt. The need he feels for his father, for the comfort of asphalt under his feet and a cold ball in his hands, has less to do with the prospect of an NBA career than with the foreign feeling of basketball being a struggle.
It’s not too late, not with college basketball’s most important stretch just about to begin. In his last two games, he’s 6-of-11 from the field and 4-of-7 from 3. As March looms, it’s a reminder that the tumble he’s taken in the past month can turn around just as fast. “If he gets hot in March, he’s going to be right back in the conversation,” Ford says. “Because he does have that skill set, that length, that athletic ability — that, combined with his ability to shoot the basketball, teams really covet.”
The late-night shooting session came just a few hours after LaVine sat folded into his seat at Pauley, answering questions about his future. It wasn’t Dad and a basketball, but the suggestion his game was well suited for the NBA, and that his struggles were merely a blip, was enough to evoke a smile. “Hopefully, man,” LaVine said, shaking his head. “Hopefully.”