There were times Friday night, Zach LaVine admitted, when he caught himself gawking upon Kobe Bryant the way he had in his, well, younger youth, when the 19-year-old was growing up in Washington state and idolized the Lakers scoring star. Fortunately for LaVine, rookie guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, Bryant never fully made him and his team pay for such star gazing.
In fact, the raw newcomer who spent one undeveloped year at UCLA outscored his hero 28-26 in Minnesota’s 120-119 victory at Staples Center.
When it was over, the teenager who scored 18 points in reserve in the second quarter, had joined Bryant in a bit of NBA statistical history:
Zach LaVine is just the 2nd teenager in NBA history to come off the bench and have at least 25 points/5 assists. Kobe was the other in 1997.
— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) November 29, 2014
LaVine’s 28 points were the third-most by any bench player in the league this season. He joined Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury and LaVine’s teammate Andrew Wiggins as the only four Wolves to score 25 or more before turning 20.
This one meant a little extra to LaVine because of where he did it and whom he was facing (Wiggins actually was the Wolves defender assigned to Bryant for much of the game). “I always want to come back and put a show on,” he told reporters after doing just that for about 10 family members and friends. “I know a lot of UCLA fans were here and a lot of UCLA fans are mad that I came out. I’m confident person. I like proving people wrong.”
LaVine still routinely proves some critics and even his coaches right with his unpolished game and mental mistakes. He is averaging 8.0 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 21.3 minutes, while shooting 42.9 percent, including an ill-advised 27.8 percent from 3-point range.
For all his athletic ability, vertical leap and YouTube wonderfulness, the rookie has only three dunks in 234 minutes, compared to team leader Shabazz Muhammad‘s 13 in 207. And LaVine’s per game plus/minus of minus-8.1 is Minnesota’s worst.
But then, Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders knew LaVine would serve a healthy apprenticeship learning his craft at this level when he drafted him 13th overall last June – and handed him over to head coach Flip Saunders to begin the heavy repetitions of development. Saunders saw point-guard potential in LaVine during the Las Vegas Summer League and told anyone who would listen about the slender, 6-foot-5 player’s skills and charisma. When Ricky Rubio badly sprained his left ankle earlier this month, the coach gave LaVine some trial by fire as a starter before flipping him back to the bench behind Mo Williams.
For a night, in 26 minutes – Russell Westbrook wasn’t the only guy scoring at greater than a point-per-minute pace Friday – it came together for LaVine. Right place, right time, right audience.
Said Saunders: “I think he showed a little bit of what he’s going to be able to do in this league.”