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LaVine eager to prove he's much more than a dunker

Comfortable at shooting guard, Minnesota's high-flying backcourt player has put up solid numbers since the All-Star break

POSTED: Mar 9, 2016 1:04 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


Zach LaVine, who has started nine of the last 11 at SG, has averaged 17.3 points, 3.5 boards, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals.

Not once but twice, Minnesota's Zach LaVine defeated the most remarkable dunkers the NBA could throw at him, beating back the likes of Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, Andre Drummond, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo and Mason Plumlee to win and then defend the Verizon Slam Dunk title at All-Star Weekend.

What the Timberwolves' bouncy backcourt player is doing these days, though, is even more challenging: He's taking on a field of dunk champions and trying to position himself more at the "complete player" end of their spectrum than at the "dunker and done" end.

I pride myself on definitely being more than a dunker.

– Wolves' Zach LaVine

For every Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins and Kobe Bryant who has participated in and won the competition on All-Star Saturday, there is a Harold Miner, Nate Robinson and Fred Jones, players for whom the dunk contest served as the high points of their NBA careers. The vast majority of winners fall somewhere in between -- Cedric Ceballos or Dee Brown might represent the median -- and the goal for a young player like LaVine is to gain traction as a solid NBA player, rather than languishing as a one-trick pony.

A pretty stratified group to begin with, it's even more so when built solely off the contest's multiple winners. Then it's Miner and Robinson to the left, Jordan and Wilkins to the right and Jason Richardson defining the middle.

Richardson, the 2002 and '03 dunk champion, never made an All-Star team. But playing for five teams across 13 seasons, he averaged 17.1 points in 857 games and topped 20.0 points in three seasons. He posted a lifetime PER of 16.3 and precariously ranks 100th in league history for field goals made (7,123).

LaVine, who'll turn 21 on Thursday, started only 47 times in his first 131 appearances but has locked in of late. Since the All-Star break, he has started nine of Minnesota's 11 games at shooting guard and averaged 17.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 35.9 minutes while shooting 49 percent overall and 40.7 percent on 3-pointers. He has scored 20 points or more 14 times in 2015-16 compared to 10 last season.

The hand-wringing in the Twin Cities over LaVine's limitations when used at point guard is over for now. His work at shooting guard has moved Andrew Wiggins into the small forward spot. LaVine boosted his profile and made his name with the sort of aerobatics he only rarely dares in a game -- a 360-degree version of which came Monday night against Charlotte -- but he knows his worth as an NBA player will be determined below and between the rims.

Play of the Day: Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine gets the outlet and finishes with the highlight, 360 jam to excite the road crowd.

"It's all how I go for it," LaVine said in Milwaukee the other night, after the Timberwolves' 116-101 loss. "I pride myself on definitely being more than a dunker. Younger fans are always going to see that because they haven't experienced basketball. But I feel like everybody in the NBA knows I'm not just a dunker."

Against the Bucks, peeved interim coach Sam Mitchell sat out starters Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Ricky Rubio in the fourth quarter, unhappy with their effort. LaVine and Gorgui Dieng escaped that fate, and while LaVine's defense has extensive scaffolding in place as a work in progress, few in or around the team question the energy or intensity he brings to it.

In fact, there's a sense that the cool Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 Draft in which LaVine went No. 13, could stand to work and push himself more like his frenetic teammate.

"I've always thought I was talented," LaVine said, "But I've prided myself on that. I've never seen hard work fail."

The point vs. shooting guard debate is moot for now, with either Rubio or rookie Tyus Jones next to LaVine through most of his minutes. It dated back to his earlier Wolves days, when the late Flip Saunders had him play the point at the Las Vegas Summer League and felt his charisma and personality could orchestrate teammates even if his decision-making at age 20 was seriously raw.

There was carryover this season, too, that didn't go so well.

Verizon Slam Dunk: Zach LaVine

The Timberwolves' Zach LaVine talks about defending his title ahead of the Verizon All-Star Slam Dunk contest.

"He struggled at the beginning of the year," veteran Tayshaun Prince said, "because we were trying to have him run the team. Early in the year, he couldn't figure out when to shoot and when to make plays, when to read the game in certain situations. He was thinking too much. Now he's more relaxed. We're playing him off the ball more, which is more comfortable for him."

Mitchell, eager to have his interim tag removed and stick around, has committed himself lately to developing the young guys. Getting the most out of LaVine at the moment means keeping him at the two. Meanwhile, time and strength work will help the 6-foot-5, 189-pounder get stronger, enabling him to push back better as a defender.

"People always think [young players are] going to struggle more offensively," Mitchell said. "But it's the defense where they mostly struggle. In college, you may see some pick-and-rolls but you don't' see it as often. And you can't have the quality of players. These guards today are really, really good. They know all the tricks."

LaVine has the physical attributes -- quickness, wingspan -- to thrive defensively and just needs experience and trust.

"I think the toughest thing is," Mitchell said, "when you're disconnected from your guy, still feeling comfortable that you're doing the right thing. Because it's an uncomfortable feeling to come across to the other side of the floor and show and help and bump, and do things you have to do knowing you can still get back to your guy."

In Minnesota's hierarchy of promising young players, Wiggins was tabbed to be a future star before he played his first game. Towns came in with lofty expectations and has exceeded most of them. Only LaVine -- something of a surprise pick in 2014's lottery -- has the chance to overachieve.

He was thinking too much. Now he's more relaxed. We're playing him off the ball more, which is more comfortable for him.

– Wolves' Tayshaun Prince on LaVine

One thing that might help to keep the native of Renton, Wash., locked in is his status as a Saunders favorite in their year together. The Wolves' coach and president of basketball operations passed away in October from complications related to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma treatment. But he still has an unseen hand on LaVine's shoulder.

"It was tough," LaVine said. "After he drafted me, he gave me a little piece of paper that had my name on it. Said 'I was going with you all the way if your name still was on the board.' It's hard. He made my dream come true. He had very high expectations for me and thought very highly of me. So I don't want to let him or his family down.

"You're always going to remember. It's never going to fade. Time is a little bit like scars. There's still a little bit of the scar."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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