Zach LaVine ready to step up his game defensively with Team USA

You talkin' to Zach LaVine about defense?

You talkin' to Zach LaVine about defense?

You talkin' to Zach LaVine about defense?

Well, he's hardly the only one there with USA Basketball, but Zach LaVine and his coach Gregg Popovich are talkin' defense.

"Zach is someone we wanted on our team," USA Basketball coach Popovich told reporters via Zoom Friday on the eve of the team's first exhibition game Saturday against Nigeria. "We are trying to put a team together, and that takes a lot of different elements and we are looking to have as many tools as we can. So everybody fits a role in some way. With Zach, he is somebody who really wanted to do this, number one. His physical skills are abundant and obvious. His length, his athleticism, I think, will translate very well. He wants to play defense to the nth degree. He knows that's what we want from him. We also want energy and obviously his scoring ability is always available. But I think through this camp what he's going to do is become a little bit more solid playing with all these guys. Decision making wise I'm talking about. His energy level is high, his commitment is fantastic and he is willing to do anything we ask him to do. He's somebody that I think is very different from most other players that we have on the team."

Zach LaVine puts up a layup in USA Basketball's Training Camp in Las Vegas

It's also something of a coming out party for the Bulls high scoring guard, who this year made his first NBA All-Star team and now will play with most of the NBA's elite in Japan pursuing an Olympic gold medal.

It further elevates LaVine's status in the game.

Now the Bulls job is to get that second star, which perhaps they did with the trade deadline acquisition of All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. The duo played sparingly together last season because of LaVine's Covid diagnosis. They'll get a complete chance next season when the NBA returns to its regular schedule of 82 games and an October start.

The LaVine the Bulls see should be that much better with the experience of playing in such meaningful games with similarly meaningful contemporaries, like Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Jason Tatum.

"I'm honored being here," LaVine told media on the video conference in his first public comments since being selected. "Obviously, I was really ecstatic to be selected and have the opportunity to come out here and compete for your country, learn from these guys. We're all at the top of our game right now and to be able to come here and collaborate, to learn, soak it up, compete with these guys. You can't do anything but get better.

"It meant a lot (to be included)," LaVine admitted. "I was extremely enthusiastic. I would never turn this down. It shows that, obviously, I've been on the right path to be selected. I've been trying to do the right things and just let my hard work and my game speak for itself. I just want to bring back winning, a winning mentality. These are guys that have been around winning. This will probably be the best team I'll be around. So try and compete for gold, pick up little tricks, and just that mentality of how they approach practice, pregame, things like that, talks in the locker room. All that stuff I'm trying to bring back and add some little extra ammo for my (and the Bulls') own well being."

Zach LaVine's full Team USA media availability from Friday evening

LaVine has proven himself to be one of the league's most athletic players with a pair of slam dunk championships. He's versatile with the rare combination of competing in the Slam Dunk and Three-Point contests. The 6-5, 26-year-old became one of the top scorers in the NBA, averaging 27.4 per game last season. That was seventh in the NBA with his first 50-point game. Because LaVine can do so much offensively, critics have questioned his defense for the failure of his teams to make the playoffs instead of playing for six coaches and recovering from an ACL injury. It's often a misplaced critique, but LaVine believes the USA Basketball experience also will enhance his ability to be more of a so called two-way player.

"Everybody here can score the ball," LaVine noted. "We know that we'll have more than enough scoring capabilities. I want to bring energy. I can play multiple positions, I can guard multiple positions. I always feel when I get out there that I'm one of the more athletic guys. So bring energy, try to defend as many people as I can. I feel like that can be a niche I have on this team. Obviously, my scoring ability is known. But everybody can score, so I want to find something else that will keep us in games. Whenever Pop calls, just bring energy, try to change the flow of the game.

"Throughout the practices," LaVine said, "I've been picking up fullcourt, trying to turn guys, being really active, being in passing lanes. I think that's going to help me this next year with my conditioning to where I can go out there and try to be one of the top defenders."

It's encouraging news for the Bulls in LaVine's continuing evolution toward being that NBA superstar talent. "I'm always trying to get judged by my peers, and when you get the respect from your peers that's what means the most," said LaVine. "So being here, competing with these guys, going out here and doing this is a big honor. Making the All-Star Game was great. But I want to be a winner and I think everything will come with winning. The better I get, the better I make my team, the more accolades you get individually. So all that stuff will come. But I felt good about myself because of the way I played. Not because somebody told me what I've got or I achieved. I know where I want to be at.''

For now it's that gold medal platform in Tokyo late next month.

These games will now be without spectators because of Covid issues in Japan. The USA team also will play all its exhibition games in Las Vegas beginning Saturday before leaving for Tokyo after their July 18 game against Spain. It will be an intense period for the USA players since most of their competitor nation teams have been familiar with one another and playing together for years. Like LaVine's teammate, Tomas Satoransky, who made the winning shot over Canada last weekend to get the Czech Republic in the tournament and in the U.S. bracket.

"I was really excited for him," LaVine said. "Sato hit me up after the game, was extremely happy. He tried to FaceTime me at like 2 a.m. They were having a ball in their locker room and stuff like that. So didn't understand anything he was saying, but it seemed like he was really happy. I'm very happy for him, the type of guy he is and when he puts that uniform on he's their go-to guy, their leader. I'm looking forward to playing them and having some bragging rights. Hopefully we really kick their butt."

LaVine said he's also enjoyed competing against teammate Patrick Williams, who is part of the tackling dummy Select Team to prepare the USA team. Several Select Team members will play in the exhibition games because some USA players still are in the Finals. Though Williams was not included.

Bulls forward Patrick Williams and Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton as part of Team USA's Select Team

"Pat's incredible," LaVine said. "Extremely, extremely happy and joyful and just wants to learn and get better. He gets on the court and he just displays so many different things he can do. He can defend, he can shoot, he can pass; he has all the intangibles. He's had some really good games here playing against the Olympic squad. Just talking to him, how serious he is about developing and getting better. That's all you can ask for with a guy of his age and his potential."

So now it's about building a team on the fly out of great individual talent.

"Just gotta get to know these guys pretty fast," said LaVine. "Obviously, we're all acquainted just by playing with each other. But you gotta become a team fast and what he's (Popovich) been saying is these international teams have grown up together, they've been running the same plays, they've already been in camp for the last two weeks and they've played together since growing up. We're coming together as a fresh new group, extremely talented, extremely athletic. Everybody knows that, but you gotta get the team factor in there as well. So we're trying to fast forward that with a lot of film, communication on the court and obviously just us trying to bond with each other off the court. I don't think it's gonna happen because it's gonna be forced. I think it has to happen organically. I think we'll be OK. Whatever it costs to win everybody's gotta find their role."

LaVine is ready to do his part whether it's junking up the game with shooting or being that junkyard dog on defense.

"You're very honored to even get selected," said LaVine, wearing a black sweatshirt with a USA Basketball logo on the sleeve and American flag on his chest. "There are so many great guys in the league. To be able to be part of that is great. You just try to do whatever you can to help the team win. This isn't about individual accolades. We're going there to represent the country and yourself and your family and the team you play for to win a gold medal."

Just a guy, like a taxi driver, who wants to give others a lift.