VANCOUVER, Canada — As some of the best basketball players in the world battle each other for international supremacy in Rio, another rising NBA star was spotted in a former Olympic venue half way around the world.
Zach LaVine, the high-flying guard for the Timberwolves, stood on one of the 10 full-sized courts inside the gargantuan Richmond Olympic Oval—the former home of speed skating during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
In town for his camp with DRIVE Basketball, the Bothell, Wash. (a three-hour drive south from Vancouver) native nonchalantly buried three-pointer after three-pointer before the start of the camp. Hoards of pre-teens in oversized, white Nike camp T-shirts looked on from the sidelines in awe while chanting, “Dunk! Dunk!” as the two-time defending dunk champion smiled and continued to swish jumpers.
While kids and pretty much everybody see LaVine primarily as a dunker, basketball purists see a multi-faceted combo guard, who has improved dramatically since the Wolves snagged LaVine out of UCLA with the No. 13 pick in the 2014 draft. Last season, LaVine averaged 14 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists and shot an impressive 38.9% from beyond the arc. With Tom Thibodeau taking the reins and a young core of LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Kris Dunn forming in Minnesota, expectations are high in the Twin Cities.
We caught up with the 21-year-old combo guard in Vancouver to discuss his summer, NBA free agency, and his playoff aspirations.
SI.com: Tell me about your second annual camp in Vancouver with DRIVE Basketball. What is the main message you are trying to tell these kids?
Zach LaVine: “The main thing is I like to come out and support the community. I played against the DRIVE Basketball AAU teams all the time when I was in high school. So I’m just expanding my reach across the border man. I teach hard work, that’s the main thing. I’m just showing the kids that I’m down to earth. I’m just like them, only I’m just in the NBA.”
SI: Canadian basketball has exploded recently, with players like your teammate Andrew Wiggins being impact NBA players. Growing up in nearby Seattle, were you always aware of the brewing talent north of the border?
ZL: “Yeah I used to play against Canadians all the time, including DRIVE, and they always had good, very competitive teams, so we knew we had to go at them with our best. Anytime you have a big group of people who love basketball and watch it as much as this country does, you’re definitely going to have some good prospects come out eventually.”
SI: Last week you were in New York City for the Drake concert. Was that really your first concert?
ZL: “Yeah I just back my first concert I ever went to. I’m not a big dude who goes out a lot, so it was a good experience.”
SI: We saw you and Drake embrace each other at the Dunk Contest this year. Do you guys have a relationship? Did he shout you out at the concert?
ZL: “Yeah I talked to him every once in a while. I saw him backstage and he gave me tickets and stuff like that so it was really cool.”
SI: Aside from first concerts, tell me what you have been working on this summer?
ZL: “It’s been good, I’ve just been working out a lot. Main thing is, I have been in the gym. You have to improve on something each year and I go back in the lab and improve on my body and get your size. I’ve just been working on everything and trying to be a new player every year.”
SI: You hear from the Timberwolves training staff and coaches that you are a gym rat. What is on your mind and motivating you every day in workouts?
ZL: “My ultimate goal is whenever I go on the court, I just want to be known as one of the better players. Everyone has short-term and long-term goals. And a short-term one for me is definitely getting to the All-Star game in the next couple of years, and I definitely think that’s the next step in my career. I’ve been following that pathway pretty well so far, so I’m going to continue to put in time in the gym. I’ve always been taught that hard work doesn’t fail.”
SI: I saw from your Instagram feed that Karl-Anthony Towns came to visit you in Seattle. How did the workouts go?
ZL: “Yeah, that’s my guy! He came because I had another camp in Seattle—a smaller one. He just came out to support me, came to my house playing one-on-one, just regular stuff like it was during the season.”
SI: I’ve seen that elaborate court and gym equipment in your parents’ backyard. You still do your workouts there?
ZL: “Yeah, it is like a mini 24-Hour Fitness (laughs), I got a lot of equipment back there so it's good, keeps me humble. Yeah, we went out there and lifted every once in a while. He saw it all. I didn’t take a lot of film; I don't like putting my guy on camera all the time (laughs). But it was a lot of fun. I took him out and gave him the whole Seattle tour.”
SI: Describe the relationship you, Karl and Andrew have and how often are you guys talking throughout the summer?
ZL: “Yeah you know we’re very close. (The) last two years I spent with Andrew, last year with Karl. We’ve become closer as we’ve gotten to know each other. We hope to be together for a long time and we’re trying to rebuild the Timberwolves franchise. The better we get, we know the better the organization gets, so we try to set high goals. We talk all the time about our chemistry and different things we need to work on. We are making sure everybody is in the gym working hard. Every year is pressure. You need to put in on yourself to go out and perform. And we’re going out every game trying to win. Obviously we’re not going to go 82-0, but we have to compete every night and the wins and losses are going to take care of themselves.”
SI: You guys finished strong last year, winning 4 of your last 5 including a huge OT victory against the Warriors. Andrew caught a little flak by saying ‘we can win on any given night.’ Do you agree with his statement?
ZL: “Yeah of course you should have that attitude. I don’t get why you should catch flak for that? When you step on the court you should automatically think that you are better than them or can compete with them. That’s at least my attitude. I feel we have a really good team and anybody in the NBA can beat anybody at any time, that’s just how it is. So I agree with Andrew.”
SI: Do you feel that even with the newly reloaded Golden State team?
ZL: “Man, you step on the court and they got to compete with you man. At the end of the day it’s about competing.”
SI: Commissioner Adam Silver recently said “Super Teams” are bad for the league. Do you agree?
ZL: “It’s difficult when you have to go up against some of those teams that have two or three All-Stars on one team. Or a couple of MVPs on one team. So it’s just something you have to deal with the way the NBA is now and sometimes it’s what the fans want to see, so it’s good.”
SI: With all the money that has been thrown around, does that kind of plant the seed of when you become a restricted free agent in 2018?
ZL: “Hey man, at the end of the day, we work hard and this is how we make our living. We go in the gym and whatever we get its going to be respectable, but you definitely look forward to all that stuff and see your hard work pay off.”
SI: Other news that came out this summer was Dr. J saying you were one of the best dunkers ever. How did that feel?
ZL: “Whenever you have a legend like Dr. J talk about you in that light, regardless of whatever it is, it means you are on the right path and you are doing the right things. I respect him for everything he’s done for the game and I appreciate what he said. I’m just going to continue to grow as a player and person.”
SI: The Timberwolves made some big moves this off-season with the hiring of Coach Tom Thibodeau and drafting the highly touted guard, Kris Dunn, from Providence. What are your thoughts on the moves?
ZL: “Yeah I worked out with coach a couple of times now. He is really strict and he's ready to go, so I like that. He's going to push you and he's very aggressive and he tells you how it is. It’s been a long summer, so were ready to get into the season. Kris Dunn is a very athletic point guard. I met him twice I think, worked out with him once. He’s a going to be a great player, we saw what he can do in Summer League, so it’s going to be fun.”
SI: Has Coach Thibodeau already talked to you about your role this season?
ZL: “Man I don’t know yet, we’re probably going to talk about that in training camp and figure it out. But regardless he's a winner and that’s what we like.”
SI: The T-Wolves have a lot of young talent obviously, but you have been fortunate to have a lot of veteran leadership over the years from guys like Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince. What have they taught you?
ZL: “They just have so much tricks to the trade. KG is like an older brother. Andre Miller is going down as one of the better point guards the league has seen to be able to sustain a career for 20 years. They all teach you different lessons with all the years and experience they have. Andre Miller and KG were in the league damn near before me and Andrew were born, so it’s really cool.”
SI: Have you talked to KG this off-season? Do you think he will be retiring?
ZL: “I don’t know. I haven't talked to him a lot this summer, but knowing him, he loves basketball so much I can’t see him retiring until he's like 50, so I don't know.”
SI: Final question before I let you loose to these kids. Are the Timberwolves going to be playing in late April?
ZL: "(Laughs). That’s definitely what we’re going for. We’re not trying to have a long summer next year.”