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Zach LaVine, Now “Officially” One of the Best Freshmen in the Country

UCLA's Zach LaVine is getting national attention as one of the best freshman in America.

Zach can get his shot off against anyone
Zach can get his shot off against anyone
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

For a while, I've been saying the best potential pro player on this team is Zach LaVine.  First scouts started talking him up and he has shown flashes justifying that hype.  But now over at ESPN where they are following the top five best freshmen college players, a sixth name has been added, Zach LaVine.

So ... 6-foot-3 UCLA tweener with insane athleticism who shows flashes of brilliance and might leave for the NBA without ever really maxing out on any of it? LaVine could go in the top five solely on the strength of GMs being terrified of passing on the next Russell Westbrook.

As far as that inevitable comparison ... he's not as powerful (or psychotic) as Westbrook, but he's also a better shooter than Russ ever was in college, and he's probably just as athletic. We know this because for various stretches of every UCLA game, LaVine will come off the bench and look like the best player on the floor. It doesn't last very long, but it's long enough to force you to do a double take.

LaVine just had his best defensive game but the comparisons to Westbrook are way off for two reasons.  Westbrook was off the charts as a defender and LaVine has had one decent game on defense.  On the other hand, Westbrook never scored more than 11 in a game his Freshman year  while LaVine scored 15 the other night against a good defensive ASU team in under 10 minutes in the first half.

Of course, Westbrook only started one game for Ben Howland his freshman year and only played over 20 minutes twice so even those comparisons aren't fair.

But what's more important is Zach in the context of the current team.  While there can be no doubt this is Kyle Anderson's team and Kyle is the MVP; if the team is to maximize its potential LaVine will be the key.  While Kyle is a freak of nature that is impossible for opposing teams even to figure out; with his hops, jab step pull up jumper, range, and speed LaVine is the player who may be the most unstoppable on offense.

I also wonder how much better LaVine makes everyone else look.  I like to call it the Malcolm Lee Rule.  Years ago when a bad UCLA team was forced to play zone I was arguing who the better up top defender in the zone was between two players.  The answer was simple, whoever was paired with Lee.  Lee was so good that he made the defense on both sides of the zone up top better by just being on the floor.

In this case, I wonder how much Bryce Alford and Tony Parker benefit from being paired with Zach LaVine in the substitution pattern.  You not only have to extend the defense out on Zach who is deadly from three but you also have to protect the basket in case of one of those demoralizing to the opposition spectacular dunks that Zach can do.  This makes life easier for Bryce to float around the outside and Tony to grab the offensive boards.  Tony's good streak started in  part when he came off the bench with Zach.

There have been endless debates here on the substitution pattern which seems like Alford is way too rigid.  While I agree with Nestor that Powell does not play enough, Bruinette questioning Bryce's getting so many minutes, etc.  Maybe the biggest thing that Steve Alford can do to get this team to maximize its potential is start and play its potentially best player 30 minutes a game:

He's the best shooter of any of these freshmen, he's quick, and his (bouncy) athleticism will help him finish at the rim AND get his shot off against anyone in the NBA. All of which is to say, maybe we have Zach LaVine too low here.

When you think of the Freshmen out there this year, that is high praise indeed.  Yet, he is playing the least and the only one not starting.   Maybe this road trip is time for that to change.

Go Bruins.