Christmas Day

Acrobatic Zach LaVine taking his overall game to new heights

The two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion has added a reliable 3-point shot to his arsenal this season

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The Minnesota Timberwolves have the honor of playing on Christmas Day for the first time in their history, and so a national audience anxiously waits to see if they’re entertainment-worthy. Karl-Anthony Towns is gathering steam as the next great big man as is Andrew Wiggins, their flexible forward.

But for serious thrill value, you want to see Zach LaVine on a breakaway, with nothing between him and the rim except his imagination.

In that scenario, everything will rise at once: Fans, hopes, and of course LaVine, highest of all, in preparation of him doing something very unfair with the ball.

He’s the most fabulous dunker in the game, and has the back-to-back Slam Dunk Contest titles to prove it. He’s someone with a devilish combination of flair, vertical, harmony and best of all, the desire to please.

We hate to break the news to those expecting a flashback to the epic 2016 Slam Dunk Contest, but LaVine is more likely to make a 3-pointer tonight against Oklahoma City (8 ET, ESPN) than a behind-the-back 360. He’s more liable to capitalize on the double-team thrown at Towns and connect on an open look from 20 feet than a tomahawk dunk. Or maybe, in the event of defensive traffic in the paint, he’ll just settle for a reverse layup.

LaVine’s game, you see, is maturing. Not quickly, not all at once, and not fully just yet. But he’s no longer exclusively a dunk artist, either. This evolution is good news for LaVine, for Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau and for the Wolves at large. The NBA graveyard is filled with dunkers who were superb athletes first, and as a distant second, basketball players. LaVine is beating this typecast and proving it no longer fits the path of his career.

He’s on pace to make 240 shots 3-pointers, which would be more than his previous two seasons combined (194). As a result, his scoring is up, from 10.1 points per game as a rookie, to 14 last season to 20.7 ppg in 2016-17.

“He’s gotten better every year,” Wiggins said. “I know how much work he puts into improving, and it’s showing.”

But the biggest hike for LaVine is playing time as his 37.9 minutes per game leads the league. That’s more minutes per game than LeBron James (37.2 mpg), James Harden (36.7) and Russell Westbrook (31.3) — three superstars who carry more weight and responsibility with their teams.

In his first two seasons, both under different coaches, he didn’t crack 30 minutes a night. Thibodeau evidently needs LaVine on the floor, if only to give the 21-year-old ample chances to develop into the star player Thibodeau thinks he can be, provided he keeps developing.

“He’s made a big jump,” Thibodeau said. “But still, defensively there’s room for growth. Rebounding has to improve, playmaking has to improve, but scoring he has worked really hard.”

Thibodeau had a reputation in Chicago for shoveling minutes, maybe too many, on certain players, but this is a different case. Like Towns and Wiggins, LaVine brings a young body that can take the burden. Besides, the goal for the growing Wolves is to allow these young players to make their mistakes and experience their growing pains now.

LaVine, for example, is averaging only three rebounds a game. Thibodeau wants him to make better decisions with the ball, finish games stronger and tighten up on defense.

“How do you speed up that process?” asked Thibodeau. “Through your studying, preparation and repetition. That’s what the three need to do with consistency.”

LaVine is the less heralded member of the trio. He wasn’t a high school sensation like Wiggins, whose accomplishments in his native Canada spread quickly in the United States. He didn’t carry his team to the NCAA title game like Towns did at Kentucky. He wasn’t the No. 1 overall pick – he was picked No. 13 overall in 2014 — like both Towns (2015 Draft) and Wiggins (2014).

He went to UCLA, showed enough potential to land on NBA radar, yet he was picked after Dante Exum (No. 5 overall), Marcus Smart (No. 6) and Nik Stauskas (No. 8), players with the same combo-guard skills. At 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds, LaVine has big-guard size and a vertical leap that allows him to play even bigger near the rim.

But the Wolves were initially flummoxed about where to play him. They tried point guard, which didn’t produce great results. The ball-handling and visionary skills that are so paramount to that position needed work. He’s a natural two-guard, and the debate was settled once he began to sharpen his outside shooting.

“I’ve always been comfortable with shooting 3s,” LaVine said. “I’ve been doing it since high school. I just needed to become more consistent with it, and the minutes I’m getting now has helped. As long as I’m open, I’ll shoot them.”

All of this means, of course, is that one day he might try to become the first to win the Slam Dunk Contest and the 3-Point Contest.

“I haven’t decided what I’m doing yet,” LaVine said with a laugh. “It’ll be last minute, just like last year. We’ll see where it goes from here.”

As far as returning for the Dunk Contest — he has an open invitation, obviously — LaVine said: “I’ve got to figure out if I have any dunks left.”

His duel with Aaron Gordon of the Magic in Toronto last season revived the event and made it a must-see event on TV and days and months later on the internet. The two young, athletic swingmen with springs and creativity pushed the boundaries of imagination, and each other that night. LaVine even admitted he ran out of ideas before the contest was over. Even today, 10 months later, people still approach him about that contest. That’s how much of a tattoo it placed on fans.

“Well, it’s something I’m good at,” LaVine said somewhat bashfully, “and something I do enjoy.”

That said, LaVine is doing his part to bring other parts of his game to the conversation table. How many Dunk Contest winners or contenders never developed as basketball players or enjoyed long careers? Participating in the Dunk Contest was a career highlight for players like David Benoit, Terence Stansbury, Harold Miner and even Nate Robinson to a degree. LaVine understands that winning twice can create, image-wise, a mixed blessing.

“Yes, it’s a little bit of both,” LaVine said. “I never want to take anything away from what I did. It was a big deal. Both times, I went out to win. But I don’t think it defines me as a player. It’s just one aspect of the game that I excel pretty well at.”

Playing on Christmas against OKC and Westbrook will give LaVine another big audience to show where he and the Wolves are in their construction project. They’re not in the playoffs today, but they’re within striking range of No. 8 in the Western Conference. And proof of their growth is there after wins in which they held the Chicago Bulls to 94 points and the Atlanta Hawks to 84, evidence that Thibodeau’s message is getting through.

“It’s such an honor to play on Christmas,” LaVine said. “I remember growing up watching different Christmas games. You opened your gifts in the morning, then tuned on the TV and watched basketball. Kobe [Bryant], [Allen] Iverson, Shaq. The main thing I noticed was the shoes. You could wear different color shoes with the uniform. That was big.”

And this is big for the Wolves, to be active on the league’s most visible regular season day, which is reserved for teams with stars or those with up-and-comers. LaVine and the Wolves certainly fit the second description.

“This shows we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.

A typical performance from him is being a complement to Wiggins, making open 3-pointers once the defense doubles down on Towns, and giving a better effort defensively. But dunking is in his soul. If given the chance on Christmas, and there’s a breakaway, the good news is he will not save anything for the Slam Dunk Contest.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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