It looks like the Bulls have a man to open their 2018-19 season in Philadelphia Thursday.
"I think I've had a lot better focus (this preseason) on the defensive end," Zach LaVine was saying on the eve of the opener with the 76ers. "I had some mistakes. too. But I wanted to go out there and really hone in on being more focused down there. Some areas I need to get better at, definitely off the ball, but I think I did a lot better than I had before."
The larger question for the Bulls and how successful they will be this season is whether LaVine can be The Man.
"I've tried this training camp to become more of a leader, that go-to guy out there," said LaVine. "I've already had that makeup, but with Lauri (Markkanen) out you have to take a little more responsibility. We have so many scorers, so even if I don't have it going Bobby (Portis) can pick me up, Kris (Dunn). We have a lot of weapons even with Lauri out, but I have the same mentality every game going in, being aggressive."
Every team that hopes to be successful or get on that path needs a great player. We don't know yet about Markkanen, who is probably out at least another month with an elbow injury. The draft pick used to select Markkanen came from the Jimmy Butler trade with Minnesota. But the potential star name in that deal was LaVine, the two-time NBA dunk champion who seemed on the way to All-Star status before an ACL tear almost two years ago.
"I saw in Minnesota what he could do," said Dunn. "I saw the way he works out, how he puts the work in on everything. On the defensive end, I just told him, 'You're as fast as me. You're more athletic than me. There's no way you shouldn't be a good defender in this league. You could be one of those guys who could be dynamic in the passing lanes because you're so athletic and fast. If you get in a passing lane, that's a dunk for yourself and because you've got so much bounce that's when you get the crowd on their feet, maybe do a windmill, a 360, something.' I think he's (also) been doing a good job on the defensive end."
LaVine's back and appears healthy, and the Bulls wagered this summer that he's a star in the making by matching his $80 million contract offer from the Sacramento Kings. LaVine has held up his end for now, clearly the team's best player in the preseason after a halting return from surgery last season.
LaVine this fall averaged 17.8 points in 22 minutes to lead the Bulls in scoring. He was also first in three point shooting at 44 percent, free throw attempts and third in overall field goal percentage at 52 percent. He's defended his position better and was scoring at just about a point per minute until slowing early and resting the second half of the final preseason game.
The 6-5 shooting guard still is just 23 and in only his fourth NBA season. He was averaging 18.9 points and shooting 39 percent on threes as a third option in Minnesota before his injury. He'd had a 40-point game before the injury and multiple games making at least six three pointers. He was wading into the deep waters of stardom before wiping out so suddenly. He insists he's capable of riding as high or higher now
The Bulls won't fully know the extent of their offense until Markkanen returns, especially because for a team presumably trying to be more dependent on three-three-point shooting, the Bulls in the preseason again were at the bottom in three-point percentage. Without LaVine's shooting, the Bulls shot 27 percent on threes in the five games.
LaVine without doing so in an insulting way has made clear he wants to and believes he can be the team's star, the go-to scorer to close games who makes big shots when needed.
"I feel great," LaVine said following the closing preseason game. "I feel really athletic, really quick, back to where when I step on the court, I feel I'm the fastest guy on the court, the most explosive. I felt I can get anywhere I need to. I put a lot of hard work into that in the offseason. I've got to stay on top of it, stay in condition, but I feel really good.
"I think (this is a playoff team)," LaVine added. "That's why I say that we have that 'Why not?' mentality. We have to have that to go out and win; if you don't have that mentality, I don't know why you are going out there and playing. We can be a team that surprises a lot of people."
If the Bulls are going to do that, here is what their players are going to need to do:
Kris Dunn: He's got defensive potential with long arms and quickness, but tends to glide through possessions at times or when things are going poorly. He needs to pick up more aggressively at midcourt and fight over screens. He's shown a good mid range shot and probably should stick with that. He tends to still pick up lazy fouls, so he needs to be more aware with a weak backup point guard corps. He also remains turnover prone and needs to throw his passes that start the offense with more authority. He's improved getting to the basket and should do so more.
Zach LaVine: He's got to be the team's main scorer with Markkanen out. He's capable. He's so confident he takes questionable shots because he believes he can make everything. That's actually okay. Great players have that confidence. He's not passing much, but neither did Jordan or Kobe. Also, okay. But he also needs to get his scoring average into the 20s with efficiency. He needs to continue his improving defense.
Justin Holiday: He's been a better fit than Jabari Parker at small forward with the starting group of Dunn and LaVine. The chemistry with Parker starting was awful, which is not totally his fault. Holiday has a good three-point stroke, but often becomes impatient when he's not seeing the ball often and takes bad shots. He needs to keep moving and hope Dunn finds him. Everyone, actually, needs to move as there's still too much watching after passes.
Bobby Portis: He's starting with Markkanen out and is showing an impressive ability to score, especially in the post. His three-point shooting was poor in preseason, but he has been better. He's the most energetic and emotional of what is again mostly an overly composed group which needs him for that. He's not passing much, which is okay since the team needs his scoring. He doesn't take many wild shots anymore, but his physical presence is needed with center Wendell Carter Jr. on the smallish side.
Wendell Carter Jr.: The rookie gets the starting center spot, and if Robin Lopez doesn't get the call against huge Joel Embiid Thursday, it's not likely he's starting against any of the mostly smaller, less offensive oriented centers. But Lopez could find himself in games since Carter has encountered frequent foul trouble, often seemingly not his doing. Rookies often have an invisible "foul on me" sign on their backs for the officials. It usually takes a month or so to change. He's been somewhat hesitant offensively, which is understandable at 19. But he's got a nice shot and needs to step out and take it more to bring defenders out to him.
Jabari Parker: The free agent forward clearly hasn't been happy about what he seems to consider a demotion to not starting. It isn't. He just doesn't fit as well with Dunn and LaVine because Parker is good with the ball in his hands and likes to play that way. He can become a quality point forward type player and give a suffering Bulls bench without Markkanen and Denzel Valentine a lift with his playmaking and scoring if he buys in. He's been a mostly stoic presence and I'm nit sure if I've ever seen him smile. Game face is a good thing, but some emotion might help. I believe he plays hard, and he has had two ACL surgeries. He could be a major X-factor as long as he doesn't continue asking why.
Cameron Payne: He's running close to the experiment being over with the Bulls adding Tyler Ulis on a G-league two-way and Ryan Arcidiacono to the roster. Payne hasn't shot well. He's run the team reasonably well, but hasn't had much impact. Both Arcidiacono and Ulis despite being smaller defend more aggressively.
Antonio Blakeney: He was third in scoring in the preseason, but he didn't shoot well and had a few games where he picked up most of the points late. He's potentially very valuable with his instant offense ability and finishing on the break. He's well behind on defense, but he's passing better and is on the team for his scoring and shooting. It needs to be more efficient.
Robin Lopez: Though the big man has been saying all the right things about coming in for support, his game seems to have drifted. Though not an offensive player, he's always been a competent shooter around 50 percent with a reliable mid range jump shot. He shot barely 20 percent in the preseason and didn't attempt a free throw despite playing more than 80 minutes. With Carter's inexperience and Cristiano Felicio uncertain, the Bulls need to get him more active again.
Chandler Hutchison: With the injuries, the rookie late first round pick should get more playing time. He's long and has competed well defensively. But his shot is a bit slow. He's got a high arc on his shot and doesn't finish well, so his percentage has been in the 20s. The Bulls weren't counting on him much early, but may have to with Valentine not back yet.
Cristiano Felicio: He's been lost in the shuffle with injuries and confidence questions, it seems. He was more aggressive late in the preseason and even had three blocks in a quarter. He's not going to be much on the offensive end, but if he can rotate on screens and defend the rim he could find some playing time.
The rest: Arcidiacono and perhaps even Ulis could make a run for those backup point guard minutes. I'm interested in seeing fellow two-way G-league guard Rawle Alkins, who is athletic and physical, though with his shooting questioned. Omer Asik, where ever you are.
Denzel Valentine: It's his ankle again, which always is a concern. He's started to practice, but there have been few updates. He's a good playmaker with a practical three-point shot and a curious floater. So he should play well with Parker able to set him up and both able to make plays. He's not a defender, but that second unit could use his all around play.
Lauri Markkanen: Hurry back.