Zach LaVine: finding his legs, taking his shot

So who is Zach LaVine? Star, superstar or supernova?

"He can get a shot up any time he wants; he's one of those special players that can do that," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg was saying after LaVine led the Bulls in scoring with 21 points in Saturday's loss against the Clippers. The Bulls close this so far 0-2 road trip Monday in Sacramento.

It was the first game as a Bull of more than 30 minutes played for LaVine, the biggest name in the Jimmy Butler trade who returned last month after missing almost a year after anterior cruciate knee surgery. LaVine was to be part of a Big Three for the Minnesota Timberwolves with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. That was until the injury and then the trade. LaVine's misfortune was potentially the Bulls good fortune, the two-time NBA slam dunk champion who was averaging nearly 20 points per game becoming available.

Did the Bulls acquire the kind of star around whom a team can build an NBA winner?

That's also what a big part of the rest of this season is about.

There was last week's trade of Nikola Mirotic to the New Orleans Pelicans, possible transactions still this week before the Thursday trade deadline, the development of Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, also from the Butler trade, and the determination of who also on the current roster should be part of the team's future.

Though perhaps the biggest question is the role, the fate and the ability of LaVine, the 6-5 uber-athlete who has been, well, somewhat athletic in his return and reasonably effective.

Zach LaVine dunks the ball against the LA Clippers

It some respects LaVine is a marvel the way he's returned from the serious knee injury and major surgery without doubt in his words or actions. He drives the ball, reacts in the passing lanes, rebounds, plays without any apparent fear or concern about his injury. That is a significant hurdle to have leaped.

But while good, LaVine hasn't quite made anyone gasp with awe quite yet.

Though how unfair is that after just 10 games and still with limitations on how long in games he can play, now about 32 minutes? With Dunn out after a concussion, LaVine also has been asked to play point guard, though it's not a prime position for him.

"I need to learn more where to pick my spots, when to be aggressive, when to facilitate," LaVine said after the Clippers game. "When to try to lead and get better at that. It's been 11 months; I have to feel the game out. I feel good at some points in the game and sometimes I'll be missing shots I feel I should make. Just feeling the game out. I've been feeling good the last couple of games and been aggressive and I'm going to continue that trend."

LaVine is averaging 14.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists in just 23 minutes per game for the 10 games, which is impressive. He has scored at least 20 points in three of the last five games while averaging about 26 minutes per game in that series. LaVine, however, is shooting 38 percent overall and 37.5 percent on threes. The production is good, though his impact on the games has been limited.

It's obviously been affected with Dunn and Markkanen being out while LaVine's playing time increased.

Zach LaVine shoots the ball against the LA Clippers

Markkanen was expected to play in Sacramento, but he had travel difficulties out of Chicago Sunday and will not join the team. The Bulls also remain hopeful Dunn can play Friday in the Butler return game, the Bulls lone national TV game of the season on ESPN.

LaVine has shown flashes of the athleticism, but just that. Lightning without the thunder. There was a nice drive from the left wing and two-hand dunk against the Clippers, though LaVine has shot jumpers mostly. He's also held the ball a bit much searching out some of those shots, which Hoiberg has noted.

"I think the biggest thing is Zach has had some really good looks he's passing up and then he's forcing and settling," Hoiberg said. "Sometimes he takes a good shot and forces it into a bad one. We'll keep watching film and keep trying to get better with him. We all need to understand something: He has not played a lot of basketball over the last year or so; he'll get it back. I have no concern about that and he is making strides defensively and we need to keep working on that."

As an excellent athlete, LaVine obviously has the ability to defend at a high level. His reputation coming to the Bulls has been as an offensive player somewhat indifferent about defense. He's had moments of excellence that has shown he can defend, like several walled off sequences against Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo that forced passes. But LaVine drifts defensively at times.

It's understandable given he's acknowledged being out of breath and tired in his return; it generally takes longer than these 10 games playing in short segments to be back in NBA shape. So it's not surprising he would save himself for offense, which is most everyone's favorite time.

But LaVine, for example with the opportunity to take over, also hasn't been able to do much, or enough, in these epidemic slow starts with Dunn out and then Markkanen missing the last two games. He hasn't yet made that major contribution befitting the elite player. Though most would say dunking the ball, driving and scoring easily, averaging 30 points on a 48-minute extrapolation, is more than most would have expected.

Zach LaVine looks to pass the ball to Robin Lopez.

Perhaps the best thing is it hasn't been enough for LaVine.

"I missed a lot of easy shots," LaVine said about the Clippers game. "That's just something I have to deal with getting back into the groove of things, keeping my legs under me. Regardless of how I'm playing and my shots are going, I'm going to go hard; that's my makeup. I'm going to go out and do whatever I can do to win.

"I'm know I'm able to get to the cup and athletically get my shot off on a regular basis," LaVine said. "I've got to pick times when to take shots and be aggressive. Getting to the line is going to be big (just three per game so far). That's something I've been working on. You have to go hard and that's a part of the game I will keep improving on."

But it's not only coming off surgery and 11 months away from the game. LaVine was just the 13th selection in the 2014 NBA draft following just one season at UCLA coming off the bench and averaging 9.4 points per game. He was only a regular starter for Minnesota last season, which means he never has started a full season in the NBA. So there's growth to be considered.

"I've got to get my legs into it," LaVine said. "My balance coming off injury, your legs are there some nights and some nights they aren't. So getting that feel. The mechanics look good. I've always been able to shoot the ball. I don't lack confidence in that area."

LaVine doesn't lack much confidence, it seems, in anything. Which is important. He's good, very good. Are the Bulls going to find great?

For now, perfect attendance is great enough.

"I'm just happy," LaVine said, "to be out there playing."