Zach LaVine: A case for Most Improved Player

There hasn't been much discussion around the Bulls this season about NBA awards. Their top rookie was pretty good, but then got hurt and is missing almost half the season. They traded their two Sixth Man candidates, none of their head coaches will complete a full season and 20 wins still remains a goal.

But amidst the injuries, the trades, the replacements and the losses has been a bright spot as the Bulls prepare to play the Los Angeles Clippers Friday. Heck, you might say even a star.

Or at least a player whose future is growing brighter and who should this season be among the top candidates for the NBA's Most Improved Player award, Zach LaVine.

"Every game you can stamp my work card for you know what you're going to get from Zach LaVine each and every night," LaVine told reporters Thursday before the Bulls left for Los Angeles. "You might get a little extra. But bare minimum, you're going to see what I get every night."

Which has been the best season of his career, top 20 in the NBA in scoring, a big time tough shot maker whose absence with knee problems was badly missed in the recent losses to the Pistons and Lakers. LaVine is listed as probable for Friday.

LaVine is averaging almost 30 points the last eight games with a pair of 40-plus games and career bests in scoring, shooting, rebounding, assists and free throws made and attempted with arguably the most athletic recovery recorded from anterior cruciate knee surgery.

"I want to keep playing, especially going back for the last West Coast trip," said LaVine, who played one year at UCLA before being drafted. "I'm not somebody that's going to sit out. If I'm hurt, there's no reason to try to risk anything. But if I'm not, I'm going to play. I've already missed enough games (injured), I feel like, for my career. I like being on the floor.

"I feel like I've played well all year," LaVine said. "You can get on rolls and hot streaks and things like that, but I expect myself to do that. I want to continue to do that."

Most Improved tends to be the least scientific award because of the uncertain and varying criteria. Some suggest Paul George, already a multiple All-Star and Most Improved winner, because he is having perhaps his best season. Many mention De'Aaron Fox, though everyone improves after their rookie season. You need to have somewhere to improve from.

Toronto's Pascal Siakam is generally considered the front runner because voters prefer to break ties by favoring players on winning teams.

But here's a look at how LaVine's improvement—and he should get credit for coming so far, especially athletically, after ACL surgery—compares with the other top contenders.

  • Zach LaVine
  • 2017-18. 16.7 points and 3.9 rebounds.
  • 2018-19. 23.8 points and 4.6 rebounds.
  • Pascal Siakam
  • 2017-18. 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds.
  • 2018-19. 16.4 points and 7 rebounds.
  • D'Angelo Russell
  • 2017-18 15.5 points and 5.2 assists
  • 2018-19 20.2 points and 6.8 assists
  • Julius Randle
  • 2017-18 16.1 points and 8 rebounds
  • 2018-19 20.8 points and 8.7 rebounds
  • Buddy Hield
  • 2017-18 13.5 points and 3.8 rebounds
  • 2018-19 20.9 points and 5.2 rebounds
  • Josh Richardson
  • 2017-18 12.9 points and 2.9 assists
  • 2018-19 17.2 points and 4 assists
  • Montrezl Harrell
  • 2017-18 11 points and 4 assists
  • 2018-19 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds

Plus, LaVine came into this season, his first full season after surgery, with a career average of 14 points per game, which is almost 10 points below his season average. LaVine's turnovers are high at 3.4 per game with additional playmaking responsibilities. But LaVine has improved in many elements of the game from playing through contact to finishing. He's the player the Bulls most look for to make a big play, which was apparent without him the last two games. He's missed and misses less than he once did. Among the top Most Improved contenders, LaVine is averaging the most points.

But the 24-year-old 6-5 guard also understands any of these awards are more likely the more the Bulls win. It remains his priority.

"You can already see how much better we are from the All-Star break," LaVine said. "I think we can flip around real fast. The hardest thing in the NBA, I feel like in any sport, is learning how to win. It's been the hardest thing for me in my career, learning how to win and be consistent with a team that's winning. You have to build that and you have to learn how to go through those ups and downs and those tough situations. I feel like you have to learn with the group how to win and how to do it."