TORONTO -- "He's a freak." It was Saturday morning -- about 10 hours before the most exhilarating dunk contest in NBA history finally concluded -- when DeMarcus Cousins exhaled, shook his head and declared his prediction for the night's main event.
"Zach," he said. "He's a freak."
Two years in a row, the main takeaway from NBA All-Star Weekend is that the one person everyone really wants to see isn't even an All-Star. LaVine isn't a household name. He's not even 21 years old and could possibly be the worst defender at his position. But in what's quickly morphed into one of the most anticipated annual rituals in all of professional sports, the Minnesota Timberwolves guard spends 20 minutes tantalizing millions while at the same time supplying more than any could even imagine to ask for.
Who -- or what -- is LaVine? Is he "only" the Steph Curry of dunking, next in line on an evolutionary flow chart that connects Connie Hawkins to Julius Erving to Michael Jordan to Vince Carter? Or does he align with Harold Miner and Gerald Green? How much is there to unpack? What else is there to discover?
On Saturday night, LaVine's epic head-to-head showdown against Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon -- who also had some of the greatest dunks in history -- somehow obscured those questions while simultaneously nudging them beneath a spotlight. But before I go on to explain, here's a brief interlude for any who've yet to witness one of the most magical things that's ever happened.
What follows is basically the basketball equivalent of "Apocalypse Now" being co-directed by Spike Jonze and Kanye West, and neither has slept in five days:
And the hammer:
All this, including Gordon's stunning brilliance, is so, so amazing.
But let's go back to analyzing LaVine, the player. Nothing better captures unpredictable raw athleticism -- and the unparalleled physical superiority that percolates on basketball courts across the planet -- than a dunk.
The move is only worth two points, but it's also the most efficient way to score a basket, which also makes it useful. The primary objective of every defense is "don't get dunked on." LaVine has played 3,217 minutes in his career, and he's only dunked it 69 times. At All-Star Weekend he's a different person, the show NBA players would pay to see. But at his day job, as a struggling, inconsistent, high-volume ball hog, LaVine is someone who'll eventually wash out of the league unless other parts of his game improve.
He turns 21 in about a month, so it's probably too early to wonder if he's already peaked … but what if he has? That's what makes a prospect this fast, creative and vibrant so polarizing, too. LaVine has shown he's more than a dunk artist. On Friday night, he was named MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge, a game that also featured Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jabari Parker, D'Angelo Russell, Marcus Smart, Andrew Wiggins, Emmanuel Mudiay and Jahlil Okafor.
"I want to do it all. I've got the Rising Stars, the Slam Dunk, I feel like I'll be all right for the Skills Challenge," LaVine said after winning his second dunk contest in a row. "I'm pretty damn fast, and I can shoot it pretty well. Just get more consistent with it, and see where it goes from there in the All-Star Game."
Even though these exhibitions technically exist to highlight the NBA's best and brightest, they're still exhibitions. But whatever. LaVine scored 30 points on 20 shots and turned the ball over only once. That's either kind of intriguing, or one forgettable blip on a resume that will never grow as long as LaVine's natural ability suggests it should.
More notable than that performance is the marginal improvement he's made in his second NBA season. LaVine is shooting 38.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes right now -- Carmelo Anthony is currently at 38.1 -- and his PER has spiked from disturbingly low to about league average. Better yet, LaVine's turnover rate has normalized while his usage percentage climbed all the way up to 26.1 percent (second highest on Minnesota; trailing only Wiggins). These are all hopeful signs from a player who prohibits live audience members to ever look away.
On one hand, take a deep breath and remember that LaVine will probably win three straight dunk contests before his 22nd birthday. That's pretty cool! On the other, he's a defensive train wreck. The Timberwolves allow 5.6 more points per 100 possessions with LaVine on the floor, gambling for steals, totally losing track of his man off the ball and repeatedly getting burned off the dribble.
That's far and away the weakest part of his game, and it remains unclear what position he should play if it doesn't stabilize. Is his fate that of an inconsistent rifleman off the bench, or will he permanently bump Andrew Wiggins into the frontcourt? Point guard seems like a silly choice, and Minnesota's offense is incredible when Ricky Rubio and LaVine share the floor.
But that doesn't mean we're any closer to definitive answers today than we were one year ago when LaVine thrashed the dunk contest competition in New York City. Even after turning himself into the main attraction during a weekend that features LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Anthony Davis, and so on, etc., the questions remain.
Yes, it's very possible LaVine goes down as the best dunker in basketball history. It's a scenario we should all be ready to consider. But how much does that label matter if you're forever incapable of helping a team win games? And why is he such a magnet for criticism? Let's re-visit this topic next February in Charlotte, shall we? After LaVine hoists yet another trophy over his head.