Is this the start of something big for the Bulls when NBA super dunker and three-point marksman Zach LaVine finally makes his Bulls debut Saturday in the United Center against the Detroit Pistons?
Will he play his part and give his heart to the team?
"I'm just anxious," LaVine said Friday before Bulls practice in the Advocate Center. "Extremely excited, ready to get back to playing again. You wait all this time, do all this rehab. Going through practices and scrimmages don't give you that full itch. Now I have something I can go after. Everybody knows what I can do on the court. I'm going out there to play hard and to win. The best thing I can do is to try to help this team win again, and keep it going."
The Bulls are 15-27 and about to get a lot better.
So much for that long rebuild.
Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said LaVine will start with Justin Holiday moving to small forward and Denzel Valentine back off the bench. Hoiberg also said Nikola Mirotic is recovered from his illness and will return to the lineup, giving the Bulls perhaps the healthiest roster in the NBA.
Hoiberg said LaVine will be limited to about 20 minutes per game for the first week, five or six-minute stints to start each half and then a determination as the game progresses. Based on LaVine's enthusiasm, work ethic and fearless rehabilitation since the February, 2017 injury, it wouldn't be a surprise to see his playing time increasing quickly.
It also wouldn't be a surprise to see him scoring in double figures.
The Bulls, of course and appropriately so, are preaching patience, leaning toward the conservative, offering all the usual stuff about improving his conditioning, his timing, rhythm and all the yadda, yadda of post injury stuff. But this guy has been a tornado of activity for more than a month, supposedly out running fast breaks, dunking with verve and panache, unsure he actually was injured.
"At first it was out of my mind because I never really thought of myself as being, like, injured," LaVine curiously explained. "It's really weird. I'm a different person (from others with the injury). But you can understand the err on the side of caution for them because of what they invested. I got over (the mental hurdle) pretty fast. You can't play a game like this thinking about it. I did everything with my left (injured knee) first, trying to get over everything. So I got used to it. First practice, first scrimmage, I went in there and tried to dunk. I got hit, fell on the ground so I wouldn't feel any type of way. I don't think about it. I'm 100 percent, I play the same way; you can ask my teammates. I'm good.
"It's gonna be a lot of excitement and emotion coming in," LaVine acknowledged. "I think I'll be able to handle that pretty well. It's playing the game I love. It's like riding a bike. You might wobble a bit, but I can get back going straight and going faster each and every game."
This guy seems absolutely indomitable and determined.
LaVine was known before his injury as a shooter anxious to play in a fast paced game. His defense was the criticism, but he clearly has the athletic ability to change that. There wasn't much defense played by anyone on his young Minnesota team, so there's really no base line.
But you could almost see with the slight smile from Hoiberg him imagining Kris Dunn running with LaVine, a pair of athletic guards, 6-4 and 6-5 both under 24, lanky dunk machine Lauri Markkanen, Holiday.
Hoi-Ball? Oh, man!
"Zach is a natural scorer," agreed Hoiberg. "The other thing with Zach is his athleticism and his ability to get out and play with pace, and that's where we have improved in a big way as the season has gone on. I think what's made us a better basketball team is we are playing faster and we're playing more efficiently and I think that's where Zach really fits in. Kris Dunn has done a tremendous job in throwing the ball ahead as far as getting the ball in quick after a score. Zach will help us with that, especially when you have two wings who can get out and run. I think our guys commitment to get out on the break has been exceptional as we've gone on in the season and certainly Zach fits in that category."
The Bulls potentially have the makings, if not quite the experience and veteran talent, of a team that Hoiberg has long talked about, flying out of the backcourt with shooting and finishing, Markkanen putting an exclamation point on that with his dunk in New York Wednesday. And then a loaded reserve group with Valentine, Mirotic, Bobby Portis, David Nwaba and Jerian Grant.
No coach likes to bench someone who has been playing well, which Valentine has. But Valentine could even be a better fit with a second group, with which he often plays, anyway, during rotation changes. That could enable Grant to be more off the ball for shooting. It seemed clear Hoiberg didn't like having to slip the news to Valentine, but Hoiberg insisted everyone accepted and understood as with LaVine's playing time growing there will be other playing time limitations. Paul Zipser figures to fall out of the rotation for now.
"The bottom line is all of our guys are excited about getting Zach back in the lineup," said Hoiberg. "It will affect certain guys; that's how it works when you get a player back in the fold. It's how it worked with the front line when we got Bobby back and got Niko back; it affected certain guys' minutes and their spots in the rotation and everyone handled it beautifully. The same thing has to happen now with Zach coming back. But everyone is excited about getting a really talented player back in the lineup and hopefully it works out well for us. Denzel still is going to have a big role on this team as is David Nwaba."
So it's finally time, another gloomy January day brightening for Chicago fans.
"You have doubts and little things like, ‘Will I be able to do this again? or, ‘I won't be the same.' Then the next day you're better at it, or better at something else," said LaVine. "I try to stay even keel. I feel like that's what got me through. I'm a very confident person. I've been really good at getting into the paint and creating for others; being able to play both the point and the shooting guard role. I've been shooting the ball really well. I haven't just been trying to come off and just score the ball every time. I've felt really good for awhile now and the time just gave me more confidence, a little more time to keep going and doing what I do."
You're looking in Zach LaVine's eyes and then you suddenly realize that this could be the start of something big.