As the Bulls leading scorer last season and the team's most consistent player in the preseason, Zach LaVine looks to take another leap in his game as the Bulls head into Wednesday's season opener against the Atlanta Hawks.
You don't install a governor on a Porche, you don't put reins on a thoroughbred, you don't tug on Superman's cape—oops, wrong rhetoric—you don't hold back Zach LaVine.
LaVine broke though, in a sense, last season, averaging 25.5 points per game, 11th in the NBA. He wasn't an All-Star, though only one other among the league's high scoring dexterous dozen didn't make the team. Because of the Bulls losing record, similarly with the other omission, Bradley Beal. Few doubt Beal's credentials as a two-time All-Star. Too many doubt LaVine's. This should be the season that changes as LaVine easily has been the Bulls most proficient and productive player in the 3-1 preseason. But he's also got a directive from coach Billy Donovan: Do it!
"He's a very, very good team guy," Donovan was saying Sunday in a media video conference. "I think he really wants to play the right way. I sense from him a guy that understands he need other guys to help and it's not going to all be on him. He plays unselfishly, but I also think there's times where he bypasses some shots. He got 20 points in both halves against Houston and Oklahoma City, and just all in the framework (of the offense). Probably could have been a little bit more aggressive. I think he's trying to figure out how he can help the team and how he can help them win.
"I like the way he's playing and what he's doing," Donovan added. "But for me, I want him to constantly stay aggressive. There's times I think he can be a lot more aggressive; not even so much shooting, but even in his cutting and running the floor. Because when he does those things it draws an attention and it also opens up things for other guys."
Donovan obviously has been attempting to create a more equal opportunity offense, the goal of every NBA coach. The more options, the more difficult to defend. Though talent tends to be disproportionate. Stars make the difference; LaVine can be that star for the Bulls.
When Wendell Carter Jr. missed all five of his threes in a game, Donovan said he should have attempted 10. When Lauri Markkanen started games passively, Donovan came out of halftime with plays directed for Markkanen. The new Bulls coach has pushed rookie Patrick Williams into the starting lineup, directed Coby White to be more direct and encouraged Chandler Hutchison's outside shooting. All with somewhat mixed results.
Except for LaVine's play, which has excelled constantly through the condensed preseason.
LaVine led the team in scoring at 19.8 points per game in just 26 minutes. LaVine also was tied for first in blocks and shot 46 percent on threes. He was second in assists, steals, three-point shooting and offensive rebounds.
And this often was LaVine trying to elevate his teammates with altruistic play.
"Just his ability to create his own shot, his ability to get to the rim," remarked veteran free agent acquisition Garrett Temple, who returned to practice Sunday from Covid-19 recovery.
Denzel Valentine was back in practice also, but Thad Young remained out with a leg infection. Tomas Satoransky continued missing with perhaps some Covid-related issue. Two-way player Adam Mokoka was back at practice with Devon Dotson also with the unspecified likely medical absence. Temple appeared slim from his ordeal in the pictures released by the Bulls, so he's perhaps uncertain along with Valentine for Wednesday's season opening game against the Atlanta Hawks in the United Center. It comes a day after the NBA's start.
So Donovan remained reticent on detail regarding starters for this week and the rotation. It clearly will be evolving and varying all season because of the virus possibilities as the Bulls in the first month of the season have an unusually long and geographically intense series of road games stretching from Washington, D.C. to Oregon and California and then Texas and Oklahoma.
"I don't know where Thad is going to end up being on opening night, I don't know where Sato is going to be opening night," Donovan acknowledged. "We could have some guys potentially just not available. So you could go in with some kind of plan, but you don't know if you're necessarily able to stick to it. Do you potentially stagger Pat (Williams) and have Pat play with that (reserve) group because he could be around some older guys? Do you start Pat to potentially use him against more bigger, physical wings? Otto (Porter Jr.) has a great feel of how to play. So yeah, you're weighing those things. But you're also weighing the groups and players that are trying to play together, and I don't know if we necessarily have enough of a sample size to sit there and say, ‘Hey, I'm really comfortable with these lineups.' Because there's probably more we're going to have to see as we go through the course of the season."
Though what everyone around the team knows is they've got at least one player who has to be there.
"I think the step that Zach can take is defensively, just being a pest," added Temple. "He's athletic enough to guard anybody on the court and lead the league in steals and be that defensive guy that he can be, that two-way guy. He doesn't really have a ceiling. With a guy that works that hard and is that athletic, the sky is the limit."
Can Zach LaVine be that guy for these Bulls seasons that have faced such jeopardy? It's been asked before. Often answered, but not in final Jeopardy.
Everyone knows LaVine can shoot and score. And dunk. Can he do those make-others-better things that are sometimes more difficult to describe than recognize?
LaVine in this preseason's small sample appeared to be heading in that direction with improved defense play. Previously, as even he admitted, he often was more of a ball watcher who seemed to admire the feats of opponents. This last few weeks LaVine seemed too have his defensive feet on the ground, and not in clay. He stayed in front of opponents, breaking up plays and forcing passes into late clock situations for opponents. He got steals and even tied Daniel Gafford in blocks. LaVine's probably never going to be in the all-defense conversation because that's mostly limited to first impressions. And he's somewhat slight at 6-6 and about 200 pounds.
But what LaVine lacks in girth he can make up in gallop.
His pairing with White is the team's strength.
The backcourt mates were one/two in the preseason in scoring, assists and three-point shooting. Both also averaged almost five rebounds per game, among league leaders for guards.
Which is why Donovan remains uncertain about the rotations. Every one of the players but LaVine had at least one game where they failed to produce. LaVine seemed to do so almost effortlessly every game.
LaVine laughed following the last game when asked about the long bubble-less layoff for the Bulls as many of the Bulls starters seemed fatigued. Other than LaVine.
"Y'all know me," LaVine said with a smile. "I stay ready. It's just basketball. I'm always ready to go."
LaVine demonstrated that in these four games, none of which truly had much meaning considering the Rockets were without looking for John (Waldo), and the Thunder was starting over with some warts and Dorts.
Now comes the test, but also whether LaVine can be the answer for the Bulls. Free agency is becoming like mist in the forest, lovely to consider but mostly meaningless and impossible to identify. Basketball chief Arturas Karnisovas along with Donovan has emphasized development and well timed additions for these Bulls.
Zach LaVine aims to be a star; as well as their North Star?
"He always wants to establish himself at what I would call a winning player," said Donovan. "When you talk to him he references, ‘I want to be a winning player.' He says ‘I think I'm a winning player, but I haven't really been on a lot of winning teams.' He really wants that and he's trying to figure out how to go about doing that."
Perhaps this is finally the right time to show all that ability. Zach's been ready, and he's gotten set. The Bulls are ready to go.