Euphoria and Relief: Zach LaVine Is Now One Step Closer

Fred Hoiberg was pretty happy Monday. The Bulls coach looked across the basketball court in the UCLA Student Activities Center on another day of sun out here and saw Zach LaVine, the spectacular NBA dunk champion and near 20-point scorer who was the centerpiece of the Bulls Jimmy Butler trade last June. The prodigal who hasn’t played or practiced with the Bulls yet after ACL surgery. But there was LaVine, cleared Monday by his surgeon to begin contact drills and perhaps soon return to the lineup in a real love story.

“He’s down there playing one-on-one right now,” Hoiberg nodded across the court during a raucous practice session just winding down. “Just blocked a shot; it’s our first block of the year.”

Uh, but Fred, when will LaVine play?

“I’m planning on starting him tomorrow,” Hoiberg quipped.

We think he was joking.

It was one of the more joyful days you’ll find around a 3-11 team in the midst of a tough Western Conference road trip. The kid almost is ready.

“If you all tell me to go full blow right now, I’ll go up and try and dunk on somebody,” LaVine told reporters before returning to some very competitive half court games with teammates. “I won’t even think about it. I’m not going to change my game. You can’t change the way you think about it because that’s how I feel you can get hurt. I’m going to go play the same way.

“Good to get out here,” LaVine added with seemingly as much euphoria as relief. “That’s what I was ecstatic about; look forward, keep progressing, and we’re going to be there soon. My legs feel stronger, my upper body feels stronger. I’ve gained about 10 pounds. Mentally, I feel good as well. The main thing is just my conditioning and timing after being out that long. Just appreciate the game I was missing. I was able to go out and do a shell drill a couple weeks ago. Non-contact shell drill, and I had a smile on my face. That’s how I knew I’ve been away from the game too long. Because in years past you’re dreading the shell drill and want to get that out of the way. I put the work in and I was able to do everything to get to this point. It feels great.”

Maybe not even as good as the Bulls feel for, really, what is the beginning of this basketball journey of recovery.

LaVine isn’t ready to play yet, obviously. And no one is putting him under deadline pressure with a date or even timetable.

But now instead of the unknown, LaVine is back working with and against his teammates in practice, building toward a return that everyone seemed to indicate was now weeks away and not months.

“It should be (mid or late December),” LaVine said when posed that possibility. “That’s what I’m going for. As long as I’m progressing and I’m doing what I need to on the court, this thing could go fast and I could be out there playing with the guys. My jumping and my athleticism are good. All my strength numbers are there. You’ve been out of basketball – contact wise – for nine months, and that’s not going to come back in two or three practices. I have to get my timing down. I’ve been doing everything from dunking to running. Only thing I hadn’t been cleared for was contact. I’ve been pushing it as much as I can.

“It’s feel,” LaVine offered. “It can be tomorrow. I might be like. ‘I feel great, let me get in the game.’ Or it could be in two or three weeks; I don’t know yet.’’

G-league first? Minutes restrictions?

No one was saying because they’re not fully sure. The Bulls are allowing LaVine to progress at his speed, both physically and mentally. And everyone who undergoes serious surgery, as Hoiberg knows well after having heart surgery, has concerns, questions and insecurities. Heart surgery prematurely ended Hoiberg’s NBA playing career.

Zach LaVine performs squats during a physical therapy session, recovering from an ACL injury

“When you do get that clearance to go out and do it again, it’s fun,” Hoiberg agreed. “When it’s taken away from you to be able to get back out there, it’s what it’s all about. He’s got one of the best surgeons in the world (Neal ElAttrache) he’s seen multiple times. Dr. (Brian) Cole, our team doctor, is one of the top guys in the league. His jump numbers are better than they were before the injuries. He’s done everything he is supposed to do. For me, the first time I got hit in my chest that was a big moment. It was like, ‘Wait a minute. I’m OK?’ So it’s really a process to where the first time he gets hit or jumps awkwardly, that type of thing and he’s OK with, it’s a big part of the recovery. But he’s told me the day we got him in the trade he was ready (to play). I know he’s been waiting for this moment and I anticipate he will continue to make good progress.”

LaVine tore his anterior cruciate ligament last February not long after a 40-point scoring game with seven three pointers as he appeared on the way to becoming one of the top young players in the game.

That injury with an uncertain return enabled the Bulls to acquire LaVine in the Butler deal along with Kris Dunn and a swap of draft picks that netted the Bulls rookie star Lauri Markkanen. So the Bulls and their fans can finally begin to start dreaming about their own three-headed monster of potential young talent.

Though Markkanen has impressed and Dunn appears to be coming fast for the starting point guard position as the Bulls prepare to play the Lakers Tuesday, LaVine is the veteran, the potential star with the brightest upside given his early success in the NBA even as a multiple dunk champion.

LaVine is poised and comfortable with media, open and clearly even in just beginning serious and competitive drills with teammates taking on the mien of a natural leader.

“He’s going to help our speed,” sad Hoiberg, who scheduled practice for late afternoon so LaVine could see his doctor and participate. “He’s going to help our pace. He’s been a 20-point scorer in this league, so he’s proven he can do that. He’ll help us in a lot of ways.”

You could almost picture little Freddy back in Lincoln, Nebraska not being able to wait until Christmas morning. Fred looked a bit like that Monday watching LaVine. Sure like to unwrap that soon.

“He’s a versatile offensive player as is Lauri,” Hoiberg pointed out. “Lauri scores from every place on the court. He (Markkanen) can score around the basket. He’s obviously got three-point range and he’s showing a mid range game right now; not a lot of players do that. Zach has the same qualities, able to take advantage of switching. I thought Kris Dunn had some good switch attacks (Sunday) night. We still need to do a better job of getting Lauri the ball when he has a point guard on him. We’ve got some guys now on the perimeter we think can go around a big. When we get Zach back, you have three good switch attack players, so that will instantly help our offense. Just to watch him move and watch him run gets you excited because you can do a lot of things with that type of athleticism and that type of range on his shot.”

Fred, you still smiling?