Zach LaVine was selected as an All-Star for the first time in his career on Tuesday night. Averaging career-highs across the board and leading the Bulls to a respectable 14-16 record thus far, the honor is well deserved.
The darkness that has obscured the Bulls hasn't fully lifted yet. But there's finally a Star in this night sky that's brightening the team's horizon.
It's Zach LaVine, who Tuesday was named an NBA All-Star for the first time, the first Bulls All-Star since Jimmy Butler in 2017.
LaVine joins James Harden, Nikola Vucevic, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Ben Simmons, and Julius Randle in the East. Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Zion Williamson were selected as reserves in the West.
Starters were named last week in the pickup game format with captains LeBron James and Kevin Durant. They are Luka Doncic, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. The game is March 7 in Atlanta.
"You just want to be recognized," LaVine said earlier this week when asked about the All-Star team. "I've told you (media) guys before: I feel I've played at an All-Star level the last couple of years. I don't think there are people who have had better seasons than me over the last couple years in the Eastern Conference. But it comes down to winning. I know who I am when I step out there."
There's been little doubt this season it's of a star worthy of the NBA constellation as even rival broadcasters have been raving about LaVine's play. When LaVine's play Monday in Houston broke open a close game, Rockets longtime voice Bill Worrell marveled that LaVine is "an All-Star, a superstar."
Zach LaVine reacts after a one-handed slam vs. Detroit.
LaVine has shown that every month and building this season, averaging 31.1 points per game in February along with 5.6 rebounds and five assists. His three-point shooting is almost 47 percent with a plus-7 overall rating this month. He exceeded plus-30 against the Rockets. Overall for the season, LaVine is sixth in the NBA in scoring at 28.6 points per game with more than five rebounds and steals and 43 percent on threes. In the Bulls last nine games as they've won six of nine to move into eighth place in the Eastern Conference, LaVine is averaging 33.6 points per game and shooting a remarkable 53 percent on threes. This at a time he's the only top scorer in the Eastern Conference to play in every game. The only other All-Stars to play in every game are James and Jokic.
"I'm just going out there playing," says LaVine. "I feel like I've worked on my game each year. Worked on things I've done well and worked on things I haven't done as much. I think hard work contributes to everything. I have that capability to be that guy. I've just got to keep showing it on a nightly basis. It's not always about having energy for the offensive end. It's what the possession needs at that time and what the team needs. I'll sacrifice whatever I have to do to help us win."
It's been the continued development for LaVine, the 25-year-old 6-6 shooting guard from Renton, Wash. who was the No. 13 selection in the 2014 draft by Minnesota after a year at UCLA. LaVine was on track to stardom, twice the All-Star Slam Dunk contest champion and MVP of the 2016 Rising Stars game when he suffered a torn ACL in February 2017 with Minnesota. He was averaging more than 20 points most of that season with a 40-point game.
He then was part of the Jimmy Butler trade in June 2017 and returned briefly during the 2017-18 season. He's improved each season since then with seemingly little loss in athletic ability and a reliable shot and graceful moves on the court.
Which has impressed even his veteran teammates like Thad Young, who was with Minnesota in LaVine's rookie season.
"He understands the game and he's doing things that he's supposed to be doing," said Young. "He's doing everything that he needs to do. It's definitely a different mentality than he's had in the past years. He's being more vocal as a leader. He's making sure his presence is felt. Coaches talking to him and conversing with him a lot. He's putting guys in position to where he wants them, to where he sees how the game can go and put him in the position to be able to score the basketball or make the reads and the plays to those guys so we can win games."
It's led to an improving Bulls team in a worthwhile partnership with new coach Billy Donovan, LaVine's sixth NBA coach at just 25 years old.
"He's been really committed to try to continue to improve his own game and try to help the team any way he can. He's been great from that perspective." -Billy Donovan
"Ever since I came here everything he's wanted to do has been about winning," said Donovan. "I don't know what conversations he's had last year or the years in Minnesota. With having six different coaches, it's hard. But I think he wants to take a step, ‘OK what can I do?' There was a time in his career that he thought, ‘OK, I'll just carry the team on offense and I'll just try to score 30 or 40 every night and that will get us over the hump.' I think he realized that's not the answer. He's got to be a two-way player, he's got to lead. He's played really well. I give him a lot of credit. He's put a lot of work in. He's been really committed to try to continue to improve his own game and try to help the team any way he can. He's been great from that perspective."
LaVine's play also has enabled teammates to relax and produce.
"Zach LaVine is an All-Star," said rookie Patrick Williams. "He makes the game easier. We have a guy that can just get 50 any night he wants to. You get open shots. You get open lanes because they're obviously not helping off of him because of the guy that he is. It's just a blessing to be playing on the same court as someone like that."
Added Wendell Carter Jr. coming off 18 points and 13 rebounds against Atlanta.
"Zach makes it kind of easy for all of us," said Carter. "He draws so much attention, especially in pick and rolls, especially late in games. When he's been on a tear the whole game they tend to go and blitz him. So with me getting into that pocket, I'm able to just pick apart the back side. I love playing with him. He makes it easier for me."
Ryan Arcidiacono, who has been with LaVine for several seasons, has seen the changes. He said just the other day the players were marveling on the bus ride about how far LaVine has advanced.
"We were actually just talking about this on the bus after shootaround, just being together for four years and seeing his progression to where he is," said Arcidiacono. "He's gotten better every single year, but this year specifically he cut down the seven, eight turnover games he would have last year. He is really locking in defensively and he's been a great voice in the locker room, on the court, in practice every single day and really been a two-way player, a two-way leader for us. He's someone that we all have to raise our game to to match his intensity every single day and his work ethic. "All he really cares about is getting the W at the end of the night, whether that's him letting other people get to it and score or if he has to score 30 to 40 points a game for us," said Arcidiacono. "Whatever it takes for us to win on that given night, that's what he's going to do."
Zach LaVine shoots over fellow All-Star Bradley Beal.
Monday in Houston was an example as LaVine played setup man the first half with seven points as the Bulls took a big lead. When Coby White got hurt and the Rockets closed within five points, LaVive scored eight straight points and 14 in the quarter to turn the game into a rout for the Bulls.
"He's just been committed to both sides of the basketball," said Arcidiacono. "Even when his shot isn't falling, which has been a rarity this year, he's really locked in, especially on ball and off ball, engaged in knowing personnel, knowing the scouting report. He's been watching a ton of film. You can tell he's tired of that losing, the losing label that he's had throughout his career. In seven years, he's never made the playoffs. You can tell how much he wants to win and make the playoffs and be one of the better two-way players in this league.
"He's earned that right to be an All-Star this year," said Arcidiacono. "I don't think he has any limits. I'm his biggest fan and I think that he's gonna be a big time player in this league for a long time."