"It's whatever they need me to do" - Zach LaVine is ready to step into whatever role is needed as USA Basketball sees changes ahead of departure to Tokyo.
As Zach LaVine goes, so goes the USA's Men's Basketball Olympic team?
It's not quite there yet, but the Bulls' guard's role has taken on added importance with the departure of Bradley Beal from the team for Covid reasons and the uncertainty surrounding Jayson Tatum, who sat out the last game with knee soreness.
LaVine in that 108-80 win over Argentina in his first start had 15 points, five rebounds and a steal, and is one of five players on the USA team averaging in double figures including Beal and Tatum. LaVine leads the team in steals per minute. Now with Beal not traveling to Japan and no further word on Tatum with the team's Friday game with Argentina cancelled for virus precautions, LaVine's role may become more prominent. Especially since reports were JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson are expected to replace Beal and Kevin Love, the latter withdrawing from the team Friday with ongoing physical issues.
"It's whatever they need me to do," LaVine said on a Friday afternoon Zoom media call from Las Vegas. "Obviously, if they need some more scoring, obviously, I think everybody knows I can do that. I'll be fine with whatever role they give me. I'm just here to try to help us bring back the gold medal and continue to learn from these guys and get better. Whatever role they put me in, I think I can excel in.
"We're mixing lineups up," LaVine said about potentially starting regularly. "If Pop (coach Gregg Popovich) throws me in the starting lineup, I'll be fine with that. If I come off the bench, like I was doing before playing six minutes, seven minutes, eight minutes, I'm fine with that, too. We'll see what happens going forward. Throughout the last couple days (in practices), I played some starter minutes and some bench minutes. It's not up to me."
It's been a difficult start for the USA team, losing its first two games to Nigeria and Australia and now losing Beal, who was being considered part of its Big Three with Durant and Lillard.
Lillard was the big newsmaker Friday, if no fault of his as he said he awoke to read media stories that he was asking to be traded. Of course, social media speculation on destinations immediately went into overdrive. Lillard spoke after LaVine on the conference call and denied he's made any trade request. It's been an evolving issue with the Trailblazers' early elimination from the playoffs again, the dismissal of coach Terry Stotts and Lillard's early advocacy for Jason Kidd, whom Portland didn't consider as coach. Kidd signed with Dallas. Chauncey Billups was hired as Portland coach and with general manager Neil Olshey was meeting with Lillard Friday. Lillard said in answer to a question he still expected to play in Portland this season. Though these sorts of issues often develop into a change of teams.
LaVine seems settled, certainly, with the USA team and on the rise.
He appeared to be a late addition, but his play especially with the highlight dunk of the week against Argentina and the best overall shooting among the guards may increase his role. Popovich initially talked about LaVine as a defensive type role player for the team in the mold of Jimmy Butler with the 2016 team. But especially without Beal, LaVine's scoring might now become more important.
That seemed to be paramount after the first two losses and LaVine's start in Game 3. "I know I'm locked in and ready to go and compete overseas," said LaVine, who appears to be cherishing his increasing position in basketball after his first All-Star appearance this season. "Just going out here and learning from all these other great players. Working on my conditioning and as the glue guy. Everyone knows I can score. I think my role is to bring energy, pressure the ball and just do whatever it takes. They need me to score one night. They need me to facilitate. Whatever it is. Just show how I can impact basketball and winning.
"First game," LaVine explained, "I really wanted to go out there and pressure the ball. They really wanted me to try to impact the ball on defense. Pick up the energy, pick up the pace. I feel like I did that. Took my shots when they were there. Second game, got my spot minutes. I think they switched the lineup a little bit, just seeing different guys. In the exhibition games, that's what we're going to do. Then third game obviously with (Tatum) out that changes. Obviously, I can be a little bit more like me. Being in the starting lineup, I can still go out there and impact the ball on defense but look to be more aggressive as well. That was just on how I thought the game would go."
LaVine is shooting 50 percent overall and 33 percent on threes in the three games. Lillard and Durant are just below 50 percent overall and on threes while Tatum is at about 40 percent overall and 22 percent on threes with the knee soreness. The situation could demand more offense from LaVine with the additions to the team seemingly an attempt to address the lack of size with the original roster choices. The USA team was soundly out rebounded in the two losses.
Durant is the team's go-to scorer with previous gold medal experience and is the leading scorer thus far at 17 per game. Lillard is averaging 16.3.
Though the 0-2 start including the unprecedented loss to Nigeria was an alarm bell for some for this USA team.
"I don't have any concern," insisted LaVine. "We're in here working. Once we get all the guys back, I think they'll try to find their way and work as well. We just have to help everybody along. I think we're the best basketball players in the world. We're able to compete and do things under certain circumstances. We have to get the job done regardless. I don't think anyone is going to feel bad for us or try to take it easy. It's just what it is and we have to get a job done.
"I think we all have got to improve, continue to get continuity with each other," said LaVine. "We have to learn to be a team. Some of these teams have been playing together for three or four years. Even though they've had some guys in the league, they've still had the same system, playing with the same guys. We've had four practices and two, three games. We all have to catch up and get chemistry with each other. What I'm most impressed about with my learning experience (is) just being around a bunch of great players. You get to pick up different things, get to talk to different guys on different levels. We have future Hall of Famers, all-NBA players, All-Stars on this team. So it's just go out there and talk to everybody and showcase all our talents on the same floor."
The USA team still is scheduled to play a final exhibition game Sunday against Spain before leaving for Tokyo and its first game against France Sunday morning (Chicago time) July 25. And LaVine is ready for a bit more of the physical play than the NBA sees anymore.
"The NBA game is a lot faster," LaVine said. "I think you get up and down the court a little bit better. I like the physical play (in FIBA). I think that's something different. We're really able to put hands on everybody and be physical. You're able to do that in the NBA at some points, but not throughout the whole game."
Zach LaVine is ready to hit the international stage in many ways.