Zach LaVine’s progress is halted but not stamped out

Zach LaVine’s 2016-17 season was one of progress. After largely relying on his absurd athleticism for two seasons, you could see the game slowing down for him. Instead of rushing into mid-range pull-ups or bad passes in the pick-and-roll, he was letting plays develop. This season, until it ended on Friday due to a torn ACL, was one of his skill (and legitimacy as a NBA player) matching his talent.

Now, LaVine will have to wait until next season to pick up where he left off. Which considering he’s still only 21-years-old, isn’t the worst thing. In the 47 games he played this year, LaVine made 120 3-pointers — only three less than all last season. He was taking 6.6 per game after taking 3.9 per game last year, but also making them at roughly the same clip.

On defense, and when there’s even a semblance of space on offense, LaVine’s tendency is still to rise first and think later, and he doesn’t have the court vision of an elite playmaker. But don’t get it twisted — LaVine was meaningfully improved in year three.

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Under no circumstances is this an ideal scenario for LaVine and the Timberwolves. But it isn’t dire either. Again, LaVine is 21 and ACL surgery and recovery isn’t the end of a career by any means, at least not the way it used to be. Even if the Wolves bring him back slowly and he misses the start of next season, he is still years away from his prime and the prime of the Wolves’ core. Andrew Wiggins, who will be in his fourth year next season, turns 22 in a few weeks time. Karl-Anthony Towns is 21 and won’t turn 22 until November of next season.

Kris Dunn, even if he’s old by rookie standards, isn’t done developing at age 22 with his 23rd birthday about a month away. Expectations and always looming contract extensions aside, there’s still a lot of time for this team’s core to percolate. Also, this isn’t another setback in a long string of health issues as this is the first, and only, time LaVine has dealt with a serious injury.

What’s perhaps most interesting will be how the Timberwolves adjust in LaVine’s absence. Wiggins will likely do more — mind you, he’s already playing 37.2 minutes per game with a 27.7 percent usage percentage, both team and career highs — while being scrutinized even more. Dunn, and perhaps Tyus Jones, will be given more opportunities. Maybe Rubio ends up sticking around through the rest of the season. Expect to see more of Brandon Rush, too. Shabazz Muhammad also figures to get more opportunities as the result of LaVine’s injury and his case is perhaps the most interesting.

In his fourth year, Muhammad is shooting a career best 45.3 percent from 3 on roughly the same number of attempts he’s taken the previous three seasons. The rest of his game is empty, but considering he’d played a lot with LaVine this season, he’s going to be tasked with more responsibility. He’s also about to hit free agency, so how he performs over the next few months will have a lot do with what his checking account will look like come July.

It’s also possible that coach/president Tom Thibodeau could look to add a veteran via trade ahead of the Feb. 23 deadline or via free agency. The latter market is lacking actual useful players, unless the likes of Alonzo Gee or P.J. Hairston are of interest. Minnesota isn’t exactly loaded with assets outside of their main core either. Their first round pick this season is owed to the Atlanta Hawks, albeit with lottery protection, which means it can’t be included in any deal. With the Wolves still in the hunt for the No. 8 seed and Thibs’ past penchant for veteran players, a move doesn’t seem out of the question.

But whatever comes next, the Wolves can take solace in the fact that this is just a blip in the road. LaVine will be back, perhaps changed, but still with a lot of room to grow.

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