Hard-working LaVine silences critics with play in first two seasons

MINNEAPOLIS--Basketball trainer Drew Hanlen still has the screenshots stored on his phone. Highly respected NBA analysts called his client Zach LaVine a "project" leading into the 2014 NBA draft. Many doubted LaVine's decision to leave UCLA after...

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine (8) dribbles in the third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at Target Center in a preseason game last week. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine (8) dribbles in the third quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies at Target Center in a preseason game last week. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS-Basketball trainer Drew Hanlen still has the screenshots stored on his phone.

Highly respected NBA analysts called his client Zach LaVine a "project" leading into the 2014 NBA draft. Many doubted LaVine's decision to leave UCLA after his freshman season, and most didn't see him having early professional success.

After Minnesota selected LaVine 13th overall, SBNation wrote the Timberwolves "picked a guy who might spend more time in the D-League than the NBA." Yahoo's Jeff Eisenberg called the Wolves' selection the "ultimate boom-or-bust" pick, adding a season in the D-League "would almost certainly benefit" LaVine.

LaVine has never played a D-League minute.

Instead, he spent his first two seasons compiling accolades. He's the two-time NBA dunk contest champion, made the all-rookie second team and was the Most Valuable Player of the 2016 Rising Stars Challenge.


LaVine averaged 16.4 points after the all-star break last season, shooting 44 percent from three-point range over the final 28 games. One of the league's best athletes, he has developed into a dynamic scorer and is well on his way to becoming a premier three-point shooter and an all-around offensive threat.

"When I talk to scouts," ESPN's Brian Windhorst said, "one of the things they say to me is, 'Wow, Zach LaVine's a real player.' "

LaVine admits that pre-draft "project" label, which now seems laughable, drives him to this day.

"I like making people ... look stupid or take back their words, stuff like that. I'm all for that," LaVine said. "I know I have big goals. I'm very confident in myself. I always knew what I was capable of doing.

"It's always good when you prove people wrong."


LaVine's hoop while growing up in the Seattle area was a cardboard-like backboard nailed to a tree with a rim from Goodwill attached. It took a beating through the years.

Since his son was as young as 6 years old, Paul LaVine had to call Zach in at night just to eat.


"He would stay out there all day," Paul said.

That's a compliment to LaVine, but give his dad some credit, too. Paul told Zach if he made 120 straight shots, he could get a new pair of Jordan shoes. That wild goose chase kept Zach outside for hours. So did the father-son "road trips," where they would drive around to numerous outdoor courts in the area, hoisting shots up at each one.

Years later, not much has changed.

Reggie Miller, one of the greatest three-point shooters in NBA history, recalled watching LaVine stay in the gym and launch threes for an hour or two after pick-up games were finished.

"This is a guy that's put a lot of time in the lab during the offseason," Miller said. "Good to great players, they work on their deficiencies during the summer."

LaVine spends much of his offseason in Washington, where shooting remains one of his primary prerogatives.

Paul described his son's offseason routine as such: LaVine often would start his day with agility drills and weight lifting. After that, he goes to shoot in his parents' backyard. Then he'll go to an area gym and put up more shots. When he comes back home, he'll shoot outside again. And toward the end of the night he'll do one of two things: go find a game to play in the area, or shoot one last time before bed.

"The more shots, the better you are," LaVine said. "So you might as well (shoot) if you have the ability to now. It's always good to pay in your craft."


LaVine said the hoop nailed to the tree remains, if for no other reason than to remind him of his humble beginnings. He has since upgraded, now working with the Dr. Dish shooting machine he purchased-his dad's idea. Still, he has to be one of very few NBA players who continues to shoot in the driveway.

"It just shows how passionate he is about basketball," Hanlen said. "He really loves basketball, he really wants to be special, and he's willing to put in the work to be special. I think a lot of people like the idea of being special, but that requires a special work talent, a workload, and they're not willing to do it. But Zach is."

LaVine shot 39 percent overall from deep last season, 34th best in the NBA. But he continues to improve his craft. After LaVine's rookie year, Hanlen worked with him on moving the ball from above his head to just above his eyebrow, making his shot one fluid motion.

This offseason, the focus was on LaVine's balance. The goal was to eliminate any twisting and turning in the air for LaVine, concentrating on having a good, wide base to create a solid foundation for when he leaps and lands.

With those tweaks, LaVine's work ethic and ability to rise above just about any defender, Hanlen, who also works with Andrew Wiggins, thinks 40-percent shooting from three-point range is a definite possibility. Hanlen has worked with some of the game's best knockdown shooters-guys like Kyle Korver and Brad Beal. LaVine, Hanlen said, is one of the best.

"As he improves his shot selection and as he continues to develop consistency with his balance," Hanlen said, "his numbers are going to skyrocket."

LaVine doesn't seem overly interested in going for a dunk contest three-peat this season. Instead, Paul said, his son wants to win a three-point shootout title. He doesn't think Zach is quite as good as guys like Klay Thompson or Steph Curry yet, but ...

"I can't bet against him," Paul said. "Because he's one of them guys where if he's going to work on something, he's just going to go out and do it."


A player is usually deemed "a project" if he picked up the game late or hasn't developed the skills to match his athleticism.

That was never LaVine.

Paul would bring his son to the YMCA when Zach was young and have older guys take on Zach in exchange for a couple Gatorades. Paul also would try to get his son into 5-on-5 games against people much older, bigger and stronger.

"They would say 'Come on, man, he's too little,' " Paul said. "And I would say, 'No, he can handle his own.' Then people would say, 'Oh my goodness, he's out there hitting jump shots.' So he's always had that confidence."

Which allowed him to play up a few age brackets every year until he reached eighth grade. LaVine led his high school conference in scoring every season from his freshman year on.

"You go back home, people know him as a scorer," Paul said. "He gets buckets."

It was commonplace for LaVine to get 35, 40 points a night at Bothell High School. Still, that wasn't enough for LaVine to earn national accolades, likely thanks to a lack of exposure. He wasn't a McDonald's All-American. He wasn't invited to the Jordan Brand Classic.

Instead, he received the project label, which likely stemmed from his time at UCLA, where LaVine came off the bench and played sparingly in the postseason.

"When he came off the bench," Paul said, "all he could show was his athleticism."


LaVine was thrown into the fire at the beginning of his NBA career, starting half the season at point guard. That showed at times, as LaVine averaged 2.5 turnovers per game.

You'll have to excuse the young guard, who still is adapting to running a real offense. LaVine played point guard in high school, but his job description didn't entail all you might expect. His high school team never even ran a pick and roll.

"All he did was brought it up and shoot," Paul said. "They ran no plays. It was basically Zach running the show for four years. ... Like I told everybody, when Zach goes to college and they tell him to take a down screen, he's like 'What is that?' "

Paul LaVine said his son's first "great teaching" came under Flip Saunders during his rookie season with the Wolves. LaVine proved to be a quick study, learning enough to competently run an NBA offense.

Still, he never looked 100 percent comfortable and confident on the court until he made the move to starting shooting guard alongside Ricky Rubio last season. That's when his play hit a new level.

LaVine credited his uptick in performance to having stability in terms of when and where he would play. Finally, he was able to develop a comfort level with his role.

"I think the game has slowed down for him now," new Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. "He has a really good understanding of what he's looking for."

The next step for LaVine is to improve defensively. Luckily for him, that's Thibodeau's specialty. Already LaVine, who is the type of athlete who could shine on the defensive end, said he's learning more about defensive terms and positioning.

"He has the tools to be a great defender," Hanlen said. "Now it's just about understanding what spots to be in, how to use his athleticism and length to his advantage.


LaVine recognizes the positives of being a high-flying highlight reel.

"You get seen that way," LaVine said.

But now it's time to be seen as someone who can do more than throw down.

"He's a super-talented athlete that has been improving at a rapid rate over the last couple of years," Hanlen said. "The dunk contest kind of overshadows how good a player he really is."

LaVine is likely the best athlete every time he steps on the floor and also can be the best shooter. That's a combination rarely seen in the NBA.

Prior to the NBA draft two years ago, Hanlen said the goal was to make LaVine a hybrid between Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry, two of the game's top guards. That impossible comparison looks more realistic each day.

"He's on the path to being that hybrid," Halen said. "What I would say is the athleticism and the defense and the kind of mentality of Russell Westbrook with the finishing touch and shooting ability of Steph Curry. ... If he comes close to those skills that each one of those guys have, that's an all-star in the making."

That's a stated goal for LaVine, who has mentioned Team USA aspirations.

But you don't hear those types of expectations thrown out much for LaVine. Those are often reserved for Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota's two No. 1 overall draft picks.

"Those are two No. 1 picks. Two Rookie of the Years," LaVine said. "I've won second-team all-rookie, Slam Dunk (competitions) and MVP of the Rising Stars game, but sometimes that's overlooked. And I'm fine with that. I understand what I can do. The real basketball people out there understand. I feel like I'm a young, up-and-coming player as well. So long as I strive and we do what we need to do on the court, I think everything will take care of itself."

LaVine is used to being underestimated, a continuing trend that started in high school, carried over to college and is still present today.

And he's all the better for it.

"He's always had a chip on his shoulder, and he's always been overlooked," Hanlen said. "That's kind of what's fueled him his entire career, and I think that's why he is such a great worker. And I think that's why he's going to become such a great player."

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