MINNEAPOLIS — Zach LaVine thought he had walked it off.
After crashing to the court in a collision with Andre Drummond, LaVine clutched his left knee and felt some discomfort. But then he got up and walked gingerly down the court, believing that he would be back to normal in no time.
“You guys have seen me land like that hundreds of times,” LaVine said on Wednesday in his first public comments since he tore the ACL in his left knee against Detroit on Feb. 3. “When I went back and looked at my reaction, I felt like I sprained my knee or jammed my knee a little bit. Just got up and walked away. I felt fine.”
A few minutes later LaVine continued to hobble and realized that something could be really wrong. An MRI exam revealed the torn ligament, setting up the first serious rehabilitation of his career. The 22-year-old is not worried that the major injury came during a breakout third season in the league, or that it may eventually complicate talks about a possible big-money extension.
Instead, LaVine said he is attacking the long, mundane rehab process the same way he attacks the gym for workouts that helped turn him into one of the rising young stars in the league.
“Going out here like I’m going to get 500 shots. Instead, I’m doing 500 leg lifts,” LaVine said. “It’s the same difference. Everything’s been positive with me. I’m just focused.”
One of the most athletic players in the league, the two-time slam dunk champion said he is certain that the science available today will allow him to come back better than ever.
“I don’t have any negative thoughts in my mind,” he said. “If there are negative people around me I just try to distance myself from that. The main thing is to stay positive and trust the process. I know I’m going to go at it 100 percent.”
Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio said he and teammate Brandon Rush – both of them have come back from ACL injuries earlier in their careers – can’t believe how fluid LaVine is moving less than two months removed from the injury.
“It seems like he didn’t have surgery,” Rubio said. “He’s walking around here, and me and (Rush) spent like six weeks with crutches. He’s shooting already. He’s a freak athlete, and you can tell the way he’s recovering, if the season was one or two months more, he probably would play.”
That, of course, is a little too optimistic. But LaVine’s biggest strength has been his work ethic, so there is little doubt in the organization that he will fully commit to the rehab process.
The hardest part will be avoiding the mental let-downs that can come from such a long, grueling period of time away from the game. Timberwolves joked that he has a simple plan for helping LaVine to feel like he’s a part of the team while he’s out.
“Yell at him daily,” Thibodeau deadpanned.
“The first time I got back, he almost poked me a little bit and said, `I ain’t yelled at you in (a month). Let me get some frustration out,”‘ LaVine said. “It’s still funny.”
He planned to accompany the team on its upcoming road trip to Los Angeles to continue his rehab and said being around his friends has helped him get through the grief that came in the first few days after his injury.
The Wolves played well in the initial weeks without LaVine, but they have lost four in a row to fade from playoff contention and sorely miss his 3-point shooting and athleticism in transition.
“It’s not what he does, it’s the way he does it,” Rubio said. “He hustles, he knows how to play. Of course he makes mistakes like everybody else, but he makes mistakes because he’s trying to do it. He’s just that kind of attitude that we’re missing.”
There still is no definitive timetable for his return, though it can often take about nine months before a player is cleared to resume full basketball activities. That may seem quite a ways away right now, but LaVine knows that before long Thibodeau will be barking in his ear again.
“I have full faith in the doctor that helped me out and everybody on the training staff helping me day-in and day-out,” LaVine said. “I know where I want to get to and I know where I want to be still in my career.”