Timberwolves' Zach LaVine out for season with torn left ACL

Zach LaVine gets medical attention on the Timberwolves bench after suffering what we now know was a torn left ACL. (Getty Images)
Zach LaVine gets medical attention on the Timberwolves bench after suffering what we now know was a torn left ACL. (Getty Images)

One of the NBA’s highest-flying young talents has been grounded. The Minnesota Timberwolves announced Saturday evening that shooting guard Zach LaVine has suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, an injury that will require surgical repair and knock him out for the rest of the 2016-17 campaign.

The injury appears to have occurred midway through the third quarter of the Wolves’ Friday loss to the Detroit Pistons when LaVine came down hard and awkwardly on his left leg after driving to the basket for a tough layup:

LaVine was clearly in pain on the ground, grabbing his left knee, but was able to get to his feet and make his way to the Wolves’ bench as the team took a timeout. Somewhat remarkably, he returned to the court, took the free throw he earned after being fouled by Detroit center Andre Drummond, and played the next 5 1/2 minutes before coming out with 1:47 remaining in the third.

He’d try to give it a go again to start the fourth quarter, but checked out of the game just 47 seconds into the final frame and wouldn’t return, finishing with 20 points on 9-for-13 shooting, four rebounds and four assists:

After the game, coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters that LaVine had suffered a left knee contusion and would be re-evaluated when the team returning to Minnesota. A Saturday morning MRI revealed the tear. Neither a date for LaVine’s surgery nor an expected timetable for his return has yet been set.

News of LaVine’s injury elicited sympathy and well wishes from many of his teammates and NBA peers:

The injury brings a disappointing end to what had been a breakout season for the 21-year-old LaVine. Previously best known to fans as the aerial artist who won the 2015 and 2016 Slam Dunk Contests at All-Star Weekend, LaVine had come into his own in his third season as a starting shooting guard for the young Wolves, averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 37.2 minutes per game over 47 appearances, shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 38.7 percent from 3-point range.

Losing LaVine deals a significant blow to the Wolves, who entered this season with sky-high expectations thanks to the presence of consecutive Rookie of the Year Award winners Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns alongside the high-scoring LaVine, and to the offseason hire of defensive guru Tom Thibodeau as the head coach to lead the talented young core. After a slow start to the season marked by inexperience, blown second-half leads and defensive ineffectiveness, Minnesota has started to come on of late, winning eight of their last 13 games to improve to 19-31 on the season, putting them in a three-way tie for 11th place in the West and 3 1/2 games out of the conference’s final playoff spot.

As you might expect when talking about a player who ranks third in the NBA in minutes per game, there aren’t many non-LaVine Wolves lineups that have played significant minutes. The most frequently used version includes Minnesota’s other four starters — Towns, Wiggins, big man Gorgui Dieng and point guard Ricky Rubio — joined by offense-first reserve Shabazz Muhammad, and has outscored opponents by 14 points in a 92-minute sample spread over 28 games.

Thibodeau might opt to give a longer look to veteran backup Brandon Rush to step into LaVine’s spot. The 31-year-old former Kansas standout, who spent the first eight seasons of his career with the Indiana Pacers, Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz, has played sparingly in his first season in Minnesota, logging just 222 minutes over 16 appearances. He’s shown flashes in those outings, though, turning in several strong performances when dusted off last month: 10 points on 4-for-4 shooting in 19 1/2 minutes against Washington; 12 points on 4-for-8 shooting with three rebounds, three assists, three blocks and three steals in 36 minutes against the Rockets; and 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting, four rebounds, two blocks, two steals and an assist in 40 minutes against Oklahoma City.

The starters with Rush in LaVine’s place have only played 47 minutes together in eight games, but they’ve outscored opponents by 28 minutes in that span, averaging a scorching 123.1 points per 100 possessions while limiting the opposition to just 93.8 points-per-100. Given the presence of primary scorers Wiggins and Towns, and the Wolves’ season-long struggles to defend, Thibodeau might prefer to see how a steady, known-quantity veteran who doesn’t need the ball much to contribute and who’s capable of defending multiple positions looks in the starting mix.

“Brandon has been terrific,” Thibodeau told MinnPost’s Britt Robson during a recent interview. “He and [veteran big man] Jordan Hill have been a huge plus for us. They are always ready to go. Brandon has been in so many games that he understands spacing, he understands defense.”

Whichever path Thibodeau takes in filling out his rotation, and however successful his juggling is, LaVine’s loss casts a pall over the rest of the Wolves’ campaign. He’s one of the league’s most exciting young players, and had proven through the first half of the season that he’s capable of being much more than just a dunker; the fear of being labeled that way and stuck in that box contributed to his decision not to defend his title later this month. Instead, LaVine planned to skip All-Star Weekend in New Orleans entirely.

“I need some rest,” he told reporters this week.

Now, sadly, that plan’s scrapped. Instead of rest, ice baths and a return to the grind of pursuing Minnesota’s first playoff berth since 2004, LaVine will go under the knife and start the long, grueling process of rehabilitating his repaired ligament.