Though entering his sixth year in the NBA, Zach LaVine is just 24, and he's ready to take the next step in the upcoming season.
Zach LaVine is the guy pounding on the door to greatness. He badly wants into that elite assembly, and he possesses the right stuff, the shooting and scoring skills, the athletic makeup and the desire. But just when he can hear them calling from the other side, the key breaks in the lock. Like during his third NBA season when he was taking off to stardom, averaging about 19 points and almost 40 percent on three-point shooting, among the league leading guards in effective field goal percentage. Then came the torn ACL.
A year later, LaVine was back on the court, albeit in different colors, the Bulls' black, red and white. Though still with true blue intentions. Though the voices inside were dimmer now as Zach was farther away, though no less determined. So he began pounding away again last season, among the league's leading scorers at almost 24 points per game and versatile and unique, among the few players averaging more than four assists and four rebounds, the periphery of legend. The door seemed to be cracking open a bit, though it proved again an illusion because of the Bulls feeble season, LaVine's brilliance linked to the 60 losses.
"I took a step last year, but I feel like that was a stepping stone for what I want to do and what I envision myself doing," LaVine said late Monday night after watching the Bulls Summer League team lose to the Pelicans.
Zach was casual in a white designer t-shirt and black shorts with a gold chain. He watched the game with several teammates, mugged for pictures, chatted amiably with other coaches and players as they walked by outside the Bulls locker room and then with coach Jim Boylen's daughters. LaVine is among the most unpretentious and approachable of stars, welcoming and friendly with an easy laugh and manner. He's the kind of guy you root for, also because you know how badly he wants it for himself and his team. It just always seems out of reach, like trying to push a cloud out of the way.
"Everything comes with winning," LaVine agreed. "I haven't won since you know college and high school. I want to play in meaningful games. Every NBA game is meaningful, but you want to go to the playoffs and play where big plays are made. I consider myself someone who can make those big plays and I want to be able to go out and do that."
And perhaps now the Bulls have someone who just might have the key for someone like LaVine in Thaddeus Young, the veteran free agent/mentor who just happened to be the senior player who was helping develop rookie Zach LaVine in Minnesota.
"Zach, his rookie year, he was just young," Young said after taking in the game sitting with LaVine. "He didn't understand the game. But he had a great motor, a great ability to go out there and play the game and I think he's learned the game a lot. He's able to go out there and lead, he's able to go out there and be into the game. And with his ability to score the basketball and do a lot of different things athletically he's going to put us in a (good) position. We know he's our guy and he's going to be the guy going forward. The thing is to go out there and help him harness those skills and continue to help him get better as a leader, get better as a player and hopefully help him make the All-Star game."
That Chicago All-Star game in February is out the corner of everyone's eyes, glancing at the hope of representing the team and the city the first time the extravaganza comes to Chicago since 1988. Though not just in one of those Saturday midway events. A stuffed bear would be nice, but you know the 6-5 super charged Zach even as a two-time slam dunk contest winner wants to be with the big dogs during the Sunday cathedral of excellence.
The Bulls with the acquisitions of Young and Washington point guard Tomas Satoransky virtually mimed their intentions to enable LaVine and/or Lauri Markkanen to step into those special slippers. LaVine perhaps is more prepared to chase the starring role because of his exceptional athletic ability. Markkanen's going to get 20/10 almost just waking up, but not so much likely to fight through the traps and trap door of fame like LaVine.
LaVine isn't declaring himself any sort of royalty because he knows this is a team effort. But he also understands the message management has sent to he and Markkanen.
"I feel they did a good job with it (in the offseason)," LaVine said. "So now is the time for us to start stepping up. I feel like this year we can really do some things with the guys we have, a guy like Thad who is one of my friends, my guy in Minnesota. We know Satoransky from playing against him, a very efficient, team oriented guy; really two team oriented guys. And then we add two good rookies. Coby, who is very athletic, very fast. I'm looking forward to playing with him, and you can see he is going to help contribute every way he can. I do believe we can make a run for it.
"You saw last season what we can be," said LaVine about that brief 7-5 stretch after the trade for Otto Porter Jr. that culminated in the historic four-overtime win in Atlanta when LaVine scored 47 points. "I know it was just a short time in February. But you saw some things we did and we can do. We're going to go for it, but we have to do it from Day 1."
LaVine's 47 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds game vs. Hawks
So Zach took a few days off to take in some Summer League, attend a team dinner Tuesday, and then get back to the business of continuing to establish his bona fides as the Bulls Wednesday played Charlotte. Zach, he's ready.
"In Minnesota we were rebuilding like we are here, but now I feel we are getting to the stage where we have to push and start to be able to win and solidify ourselves in the league," LaVine said. "I'm getting my body ready. Working on the explosive things, getting my legs and body ready for the whole 82. I haven't played a whole 82 since my second year in the NBA and I'm aiming for that.
"Plus, I'm working on different facets of my game," LaVine said. "I think I did a really good job of getting to the free throw line, but I can improve that."
Though entering his sixth year, LaVine is just 24. He finished 16th overall in the league in free throw attempts and fifth among NBA guards despite much fewer opportunities later in the season. The first month of the season, LaVine was averaging almost eight free throw attempts per game and 28 points.
"I feel I eliminated a lot of long twos," LaVine said. "I feel we are going to play at a lot faster pace this year, too, so getting up threes, building on what I did last year. But I know I have to be a complete player, two-way player. I feel I showed flashes last year (on defense), especially on the ball. But I can be better off the ball. I've been saying for a lot of years I will play better defense. So now is the time. I'm one of the most athletic guys out there. So there's no reason why I shouldn't also be a lock down defender."
And continue to unlock that potential, which could open so many doors for the Bulls and Zach LaVine.