MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Zach LaVine was enjoying a breakout third season, proving to all those who watched that he is so much more than just a dunker.
Faster than one of LaVine's drives to the rim, it all came to an end.
LaVine tore the ACL in his left knee in a game against Detroit on Friday, an injury that will require season-ending surgery.
The news was a devastating blow to a young Wolves team that had recently begun to find a groove. The 21-year-old LaVine was having a career season, averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 37.2 minutes per game.
Karl-Anthony Towns said he was moved to tears when he heard the news.
''That's not just my teammate, that's my brother. That's one of my best friends,'' Towns said on Saturday before the Wolves hosted the Memphis Grizzlies. ''For him to have to go through that, it hurts me a lot. I'm just wishing him a speedy recovery.''
LaVine is part of Minnesota's young trio of 21-year-olds, including Andrew Wiggins and Towns, that have given the team's long-suffering fans hope that the franchise is returning to relevance. His explosive athleticism and back-to-back slam dunk championships have made him a crowd favorite, but his all-around game was blossoming in Year 3.
LaVine is shooting 38.7 percent from 3-point range and has worked harder to become a better defender under new coach Tom Thibodeau. He averaged 37.2 minutes per game, tied for third-most in the league. And after winning the last two dunk titles, LaVine recently decided not to go for a third straight win this year, a decision Thibodeau said proved the flashy youngster had the bigger picture in mind.
''He's made himself into one of the best two guards in the league,'' Thibodeau said. ''His overall game has really blossomed. He's shooting the three great. The free throws, the drives. All of it. So he'll get through it. He's a mentally tough kid. And, as I mentioned, he's already talking about what's next.''
After the Wolves started the season a disappointing 6-18, they had shown signs of putting things together. Improved defense and more consistent ball movement helped them go 13-11 before losses this week to Cleveland and Detroit. They had climbed to just 2 1/2 games back of the eighth seed in the West before those two losses, and LaVine was just starting to pull himself out of a shooting funk that had set in since he missed two games with a hip injury.
Thibodeau said veteran Brandon Rush will start in LaVine's place. The Wolves went 2-0, with wins over Houston and Oklahoma City, in January when LaVine was out with that hip injury.
''He was having a career year,'' Rush said. ''I feel for him. He's just got to put the work in to get back.''
Few doubt LaVine there. He is one of the team's hardest workers, logging long hours at the team's practice facility to work on his jumper and add muscle to a lean frame.
''He's been in great spirits all day,'' Towns said. ''I see him coming back with even more bounce than he had before he got hurt. He'll be able to jump even higher, which is ridiculous to think about.''
LeBron James sent LaVine a tweet, saying ''Don't know you personally but love your talent homie. Have a healthy and speedy recovery.''
Wiggins, Towns and LaVine had been remarkably durable early in their careers. LaVine had only missed five of a possible 246 games to this point, so this will be the first time the trio will be separated on the court for a significant length of time in their pro careers. LaVine's effervescent personality provided much of the comic relief in the locker room, balancing Wiggins' quiet nature and Towns' more vocal one.
''He wants us to do even better without him than with him,'' Towns said. ''It shows you how great of a teammate he is.''
The Wolves already have an open roster spot after waiving John Lucas III earlier this season and are expected to fill it shortly with a 10-day contract to give them some more depth.
''You don't replace a player like Zach individually,'' Thibodeau said. ''You have to do it collectively.''