NEW YORK -- Everyone saw it coming.
After Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon's attempted layup rimmed out with just under seven minutes remaining in the first half of Thursday night's game between the Blue Devils and UCLA, teammate Jabari Parker and Bruins guard Norman Powell battled for a rebound under the basket. Parker missed a tip-in, UCLA forward Kyle Anderson came down with the ball and Zach LaVine began streaking down the court. Anderson led LaVine with an outlet pass, which the UCLA freshman retrieved just inside the three-point line, then prepared for lift-off. In a flash, LaVine cocked the ball back behind his head, launched off his left foot and slightly ducked as he threw down a powerful one-handed dunk.
Anyone who's seen LaVine play this season has come to expect these highlight plays. LaVine has garnered plenty of national attention with his dunking ability, and deservedly so: There was his alley-oop jam against Cal State San Bernardino, his steal-and-slam against Cal State San Marcos and the fastbreak windmill jam against Missouri. By the time LaVine's jam Thursday night fell through the hoop to give the Bruins a 26-23 lead, most college basketball fans had already played the sequence out in their heads. Dunking is what LaVine does.
Evidence first appeared the summer after second grade. At Bothell (WA) high school's youth basketball camp, LaVine was competing in one-on-one games at lunchtime against players three, four and five years his senior, and men's basketball coach Ron Bollinger knew he was witnessing something special. "Everybody would crowd around and watch him play these older guys," says Bollinger. "He'd just whoop them because he was quick and he had unbelievable balance. It was incredible." LaVine had clearly separated himself from his peers with his athleticism and explosiveness, but it would take a few years before he had enough strength and balance to dunk in a game.
The first one happened naturally. A 5-foot-10 LaVine, weeks removed from the conclusion of his eighth grade year, dribbled up the court on a fastbreak during a summer exhibition game. When he rose to finish with his left hand, LaVine realized he had jumped so high, settling for a layup wasn't necessary. "It caught me by surprise," he says. The quicker and stronger LaVine got, the more spectacular his dunks became. Between the dunk he threw down in his first high school game and his graduation from Bothell, LaVine provided a seemingly endless supply of high-flying finesse.
At some point, Bollinger almost grew numb to LaVine's finishes. When LaVine made headlines with his breakaway jam at Missouri, Bollinger's reaction was muted. "I sat on the bench and watched a whole bunch of those last year," he says. "So it was kind of like, 'Oh, there you go Zach.'" These days, dunking is so easy for LaVine, some of his most artistic flushes are improvised mid-flight. "I feel like I'm athletic enough to go up there and do whatever comes to mind," he says.
Dunking wasn't the only thing LaVine did at Bothell. Despite a low ranking on most national recruiting sites early in his high school career, LaVine eventually developed into one of the West Coast's most coveted backcourt prospects. His athleticism and explosive scoring ability prompted offers from a host of top-tier high major programs, including Baylor, Gonzaga, Louisville, Washington and UCLA. LaVine committed to the Bruins early, the June before his senior season at Bothell, and felt comfortable with his decision to play for former coach Ben Howland, who was fired in March.
LaVine decided to honor his pledge despite a coaching change. But Washington's 2013 Mr. Basketball wasn't chosen for the star-studded 2013 McDonald's All-American game -- a slight that still fuels him. Still, LaVine was able to use his most prominent skill -- dunking -- to pique the interest of UCLA and Pac-12 hoops fans before ever suiting up for the Bruins. He won the Ballislife dunk contest with a series of acrobatic jams, including a behind-the-back, one-handed finish; a between-the-legs, self-lobbed, off-the-backboard 360 stuff; and a reverse between-the-legs flush.
The video is hard to watch only once.
LaVine has made an instant impact at UCLA. In 11 games this season, the freshman has averaged 13.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2 assists per game in 26.1 minutes. He's shooting 65 percent from inside the arc and 44 percent from outside it. His 65.2 effective field goal percentage is tops among qualified Bruins, and his true shooting percentage (65.3) and offensive rating (126.1) rank second behind All-Pac 12 honoree sophomore Jordan Adams, according to Kenpom.com. On 47 transition possessions documented by Synergy Sports, LaVine is scoring at an incredible 1.489 points-per-possession clip. "He's gotten off to a great start," Coach Steve Alford told reporters Thursday. "He plays with great energy."
NBA scouts and front office types have become enamored with LaVine's athleticism and scoring ability. The 6-foot-5, 180-pound guard is ranked third among point guards (behind only Australian phenom Dante Exum and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart) and 10th overall on ESPN NBA Draft insider Chad Ford's latest 2014 Big Board. DraftExpress ranks LaVine 14th among NCAA freshman, and nbadraft.net projects him as the 5th overall pick in its latest 2014 mock draft.
"I think he has the potential to be a lottery pick," says Ford, who thinks LaVine will go in the top 10. "Just talking to NBA scouts and GMs, he has all the tools that you would look for in a young player. When you talk about an intriguing combination of size for position, athleticism and then a skill set that he possesses, it's pretty unique."
But it's clear the UCLA freshman lacks seasoning. On Thursday night, for instance, LaVine shot just 3-for-12 from the field and 1-for-5 from three-point range for seven points. He took a number of ill-advised shots, appeared lost at times on the defensive end and got pushed around by bigger, stronger players on several occasions. The most frequent comparison Ford hears NBA personnel use when describing LaVine is, "Russell Westbrook with a jump shot." LaVine and Westbrook may have a few things in common -- breathtaking athleticism, college off-guards projected as NBA point guards, great size for their position, both attended UCLA and came off the bench -- but this early in LaVine's college career, the Westbrook comparisons seem far-fetched.
Of course, debating LaVine's draft stock misses the point if the freshman doesn't plan to declare for this summer's draft. LaVine, who says he has also heard himself described as "a more athletic [Golden State Warriors guards] Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry," says he will consider leaving for the NBA after one college season. "That's my ultimate goal, is to get to the NBA," he says. "With the one-and-done, I don't know about that yet. I feel like anyone would consider it. It's going to be a decision me and my family make at the end of the year."
LaVine has plenty of time to work on his game before then and seems motivated to improve. He says he gets up between 300-500 shots most nights, individual work he does away from team practices. "He's just going to keep getting better because Zach cares," Alford said. "Zach is one of those guys that, he works on his game and it means something to him." Games like Thursday's likely won't help LaVine's standing in the eyes of NBA evaluators, but if he continues to work on his game -- continues to round off some of the raw edges of his skills -- perhaps LaVine will hear his name called in the first round of the upcoming draft. In the meantime, there will be dunks.
Lots and lots of dunks.