Last summer, in one of Wake Forest’s first team workouts, coach Steve Forbes introduced one of his favorite drills. “I’m old school,” Forbes jokes. “We do zigzags every day.” The name is exactly what it sounds like: Players take turns dribbling down the court and back, zigzagging around cones as they do so. It’s meant to improve ballhandling and how players work against a press, among other things. But in the process, as Forbes watched one of his new additions – Indiana State transfer forward Jake LaRavia – go through the drill, he noticed something significant.
“He could really move his feet,” Forbes says. “The separator of guys who can play the four or play the three, it’s not about offense; it’s about who you can guard. ”
And LaRavia’s footwork in practice suggested to Forbes that maybe his new transfer addition could do more than initially thought. When Forbes first turned on LaRavia’s tape from Indiana State, he saw a 6-foot-9, 228-pound forward who primarily played with his back to the basket – but who also had an intriguing mix of handling and passing for his size. A raw ball of clay in need of more molding, if you will.
So over the course of last season, Forbes continued to put LaRavia in new spots on the court, with new responsibilities, and let his talent shine through. Clearly, it worked – which is why the Memphis Grizzlies acquired LaRavia with the No. 19 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft.
So, what changed for LaRavia at Wake Forest? Obviously, the competition he was playing against; even in a “down” year for the ACC, the difference from the Missouri Valley Conference is dramatic. Yet LaRavia, in spite of better competition, improved in essentially every statistical category. His raw statline – 14.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, while shooting 38.4 percent from 3 – showcases his versatility, but he also did so for a team that won 19 more games than the season before he arrived.
A large part of the team’s turnaround was LaRavia and the flexibility he gave Forbes with the rest of his lineup. Some of Wake Forest’s most efficient five-man groupings came with LaRavia at the three in a supersized lineup, where every player was at least 6-5. “That’s a big team, and the reason why we could do that is because Jake could guard guards,” Forbes says. “He could actually defend multiple positions.”
Of course, the other part of playing on the perimeter comes on the offensive end, where LaRavia was decidedly less familiar. In two seasons at Indiana State, he’d taken 59 combined 3s, making 35.6 percent of them. Not bad, but also not high volume. More significantly, given how much Indiana State had played LaRavia in the paint offensively, it wasn’t something he felt incredibly comfortable with. So, Forbes resorted to an old-school motivational tactic.
“I had to yell at him,” Forbes says with a laugh. “I mean, seriously. I’ve never had to be a kid as good as he is to shoot the ball more. ”
LaRavia handled the higher volume well, increasing its percentage while taking more 3s in one season (73) than he had the previous two in the MVC. But even then, Forbes says he would’ve liked LaRavia to take more 3-pointers… like he’ll be asked to do at the next level. “For him, I think it was just getting comfortable playing out there, facing up more than being down low,” Forbes adds. “He can do it in drills. I mean, Jake shoots the s *** out of it. But the game’s played five-on-five, and so I think it’s just a matter of the confidence level to shoot it and make it at the NBA line. ” That may be a time thing, but given how LaRavia handled increased volume last season – and the fact that he had the No. 24 true shooting percentage in all of college basketball, per KenPom – there’s reason to believe in more room for growth.
And if there is? Well, it bodes well for LaRavia’s chances of becoming a role player sooner rather than later. Given his above-average skill set across the board, in terms of handling and passing and shooting and defending, LaRavia is the sort of low-usage, do-everything piece every team is after in the modern NBA. He may not be the world’s best athlete, but he fits in perfectly as a versatile forward who can switch defensively without getting torched. In watching this season’s NBA playoffs, it isn’t hard to imagine LaRavia as one of those useful rotation pieces who can swing between both forward spots.
It’s hard to find the one descriptive term to best describe LaRavia’s game, since it is so well-rounded. But Forbes’ terminology works pretty well.
“He’s just,” LaRavia’s coach says, “a really, really good player.”
(Photo: Brad Penner / USA Today)