Confident combo guard LaVine out to prove he can play right away for Wolves

Zach LaVine is a 6-foot-6 combo guard that the Timberwolves selected with the No. 13 pick in the NBA Draft.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Despite guarantees of a multimillion-dollar paycheck at least the next two years, Zach LaVine bears every resemblance of a confident adolescent.

His 19-year-old face struggles to pop out thin lines of pubescent stubble. His voice features a manufactured-sounding depth suggesting it’s intentionally lower than its natural tone. When speaking, he’ll lock eyes with the person across from him but occasionally dart his gaze away to his unfamiliar Minnesota surroundings.

There’s raw, unmolded youthfulness present in the small-headed Timberwolves guard’s hazel eyes. But there’s also aplomb.

"I’m a very confident person," LaVine, who officially signed his rookie deal Tuesday, is quick to self-assess.

He’s also wont to point out he frowns upon doubters: "I’m going to try to turn their heads." That despite his need for time in the weight room, his wiry, 185-pound frame that may not be done expanding isn’t a limitation — after all, Allen Iverson played the game at 165 pounds, LaVine has reminded Twin Cities reporters multiple times.

And that despite a lack of experience or much recognition for his previous basketball accomplishments, an immediately successful NBA career is his for the taking.

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"I feel like I can come in and contribute right off the bat," LaVine said Monday night after Minnesota’s first NBA Summer League minicamp practice. "I’m not going to put my talents under anybody else’s.

"I’m a competitor."

He’s also a scrawny, 6-foot-6 athletic freak who can run and jump "out the gym," as he puts it, but played sparingly during his one season at UCLA. Steve Alford often went with his son Bryce Alford at guard instead of LaVine, who earned Washington state high school player of the year honors a year before.

One collegiate start. Less than 10 points per game. Eight points in three NCAA tournament contests.

But Flip Saunders wasn’t looking at those numbers when he took LaVine with the 13th overall pick in last months’ NBA Draft. He was more enamored with a 46-inch vertical leap, impressive straight-line speed and the ability to shake defenders or invade opposing guards’ personal space and generate turnovers.

Saunders saw it while scouting LaVine during his prep days at Bothell (Wash.) High School. He saw it again Monday, even in the first 10 minutes of a three-hour tune-up for Minnesota’s summer league squad.

Athleticism. Upside.

"He knows how to play," Saunders said. "That’s even more so, his ability, how he finds people. He passes the ball. He makes easy plays, and he’s got a great feel for the game. Sometimes, you can’t really teach that."

But you can teach an athletic guard with handles, spot-up shooting and defensive tenacity to play both guard spots. That’s the plan for LaVine, who will make somewhere between $2.8 million and $4.2 million over the next two seasons with a third team-option year worth between $1.52 million and $2.3 million.

He didn’t play much point guard with the Bruins. But he spent a session-closing scrimmage instigating the offense Monday.

Featuring LaVine and other NBA sureties Glenn Robinson III, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng and Alexey Shved against a group of fringe hopefuls brought in solely for the Las Vegas trip, the fast-paced simulated game saw the No. 1 team fall behind 9-2, then rattle off an 18-2 run to win by double digits. LaVine himself looked just as comfortable throwing alley-oops to Robinson, his fellow 2014 draft pick, and finding Muhammad off the pick-and-roll as he did slashing to the hoop and creating shots for himself.

"There’s not many combo guards in the league, so I feel like I can groom myself into being one," LaVine said. "I played point guard my whole life. I keep telling people that, but I didn’t get to play it in college."

Pickup games on outdoor courts in his childhood neighborhood. Friends of Hoop AAU ball in Seattle. High school hoops which earned him designation as Washington’s top 2013 prep recruit.

LaVine thinks he still can do it all. Now.

"You try to train yourself," he said. "It’s at the NBA level now, so things are a lot quicker, happens a lot faster, different reads, but I feel like I can still see it."

No arguments from another former Bruin who also came to the Northland after one year out west.

"Watching them last year, I didn’t really think he could play the one, and what I saw today was really impressive," said Muhammad, who first met LaVine while working out at UCLA, also Muhammad’s one-and-done destination, last year. "He was looking for me down the floor and our other guys, when I’m cutting and stuff. He has great all-around ball attention and just passing the ball and everything else and knowing where everyone else is on the floor.

"That’s real impressive for a young guy."

Especially if he can do it against peer-level talent rather than a contingent of big-league long shots likely destined for the NBA Developmental League or an overseas contract this season.

Then comes the real deal, when instead of Brady Heslip and Markel Starks, LaVine will step on the same floor as Chris Paul, Tony Parker and another childhood idol, Kobe Bryant.

Those tests will truly illustrate how solid the foundation is upon which LaVine has constructed his moxie.

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