The old UCLA greats never really knew what to make of Zach LaVine, the former Bothell High star who mystified them with his dazzling displays and athletic feats on the basketball court.
They’ll tell you about his windmill dunks against Missouri that made him a social-media sensation and the time he electrified a Madison Square Garden crowd with a vicious, highflying slam against Duke. And they rave about his jump shot, which is textbook flawless.
“You’re not going to find too many in college basketball who can do what Zach does in terms of shooting and making explosive plays,” said Don MacLean, the Pac-12’s all-time scoring leader.
Hall of Famer Bill Walton added: “He’s been blessed with gifts you can’t teach.”
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“All you have to do is watch the highlights and you see the potential that is there,” said Marques Johnson, a five-time NBA All-Star and 1977 NCAA consensus player of the year. “He has a 46-inch vertical and sweet jumper going left off the dribble. The elevation he gets when he shoots that shot. Just swish when he’s on like that. Shooting from distance. It’s one of those ‘What is he doing? Oh, I get it.’
“And then the Missouri game. The breakaways and just coming down, capping it off from his hip and throwing it down. For a freshman to come into a nationally-televised game of that magnitude and to just freak like that. You watch that and say, ‘OK this dude is just different.’ ”
The Bruins greats are effusive with their praise of the skinny, 6-foot-6 basketball prodigy. But there’s a caveat.
“He’s got so much to learn,” Walton said.
“So much raw ability and you just wonder if it’s all going to come together,” Johnson said.
MacLean added: “He’s good enough to win you a lot of games, but he’s also good enough to get you fired.”
UCLA coach Steve Alford never seemed to understand LaVine or figure out how to integrate the wildly athletic freshman guard into a talented and crowded backcourt last season. Hence, LaVine made just one start, that for a game in which the Bruins suspended two starters. He also played primarily at shooting guard even though he projects as a point guard in the NBA.
Despite putting up modest statistics, LaVine chose to leave UCLA and enter the NBA draft — a move that’s been hotly debated.
Questionable or not, he snagged one of the 20 coveted invitations to Thursday’s draft at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., which would seem to validate his decision to turn pro.
He’ll sit alongside Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, who are vying for the No. 1 overall spot. And barring a gross miscalculation, he’ll be selected between the 10th and 28th picks, walk on stage wearing a cap that reflects his new team and shake hands with commissioner Adam Silver.
“I’m just going to be so ecstatic and my emotions will be all over the place,” LaVine said Wednesday in New York at a predraft media event. “I know it’s going to be fun.”
In many ways LaVine, 19, represents everything that’s right and wrong with the draft. Critics argue the NBA needs to raise the age limit to 20 while others suggest there’s an inherent risk and drawbacks with the draft that can’t be mitigated.
LaVine is at the center of the potential vs. production debate. On the one side, there’s his jaw-dropping highlights, which suggest he’s NBA ready. But it’s difficult to ignore LaVine was the fourth-leading scorer on his team at 9.4 points per game, to go along with 2.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
“Maybe I didn’t get to show everything I can do, but, I had a great season at UCLA,” he said. “We had a team that had five potential draft picks. We were really good.”
LaVine wouldn’t be the first unheralded UCLA freshmen to be taken in the first round of the NBA draft. See: Jrue Holiday. During the 2008-09 season, Holiday was the fifth-leading scorer at UCLA, averaging 8.5 points, before entering the draft. Still, he was the 17th pick in the 2009 draft and four years later played in the NBA All-Star Game. LaVine is also drawing favorable comparisons to former UCLA star Russell Westbrook.
“In five years what you can possibly see him becoming makes your mouth water,” Johnson said.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or email@example.com. On Twitter @percyallen.