Zach LaVine was the last man announced for the first time in his career, the first man the Bulls ran a play for Saturday night and the biggest piece of their franchise-altering trade they executed last June.
It wasn’t supposed to look this easy for LaVine coming off ACL surgery, not after 11 months away from the game, not with a 20-minute restriction on playing time as an anxious but hopeful crowd looked on at the United Center.
But it did.
His jumpers looked smooth, he jumped easy and more importantly, he looked like he belonged on the floor from the moment he put his jersey on. The numbers didn’t matter as much but they only solidified his ability to fit on this team, with these players and this offense.
LaVine looked like a man ready to embrace all that comes with being a franchise player—the one role he’s yet to step into during his short, yet winding NBA career. He wants to be “The Guy”.
“I was the guy in high school,” he said to NBCSportsChicago.com after finishing a 10-minute session with the media following the Bulls’ thrilling 107-105 win over the Detroit Pistons. “I always thought of myself on being able to be ‘The Guy’. And being able to go out there, put the team on your back, city on your back, and I want to work to be that guy.”
LaVine came off the bench at UCLA, and although LaVine was a lottery pick in 2014 it wasn’t like he was handed the keys to the Minnesota Timberwolves franchise. Andrew Wiggins debuted the same season he did, and Wiggins was the top pick. Karl-Anthony Towns arrived the next season as another overall No. 1 pick.
The expectations to be great didn’t fall on LaVine’s shoulders and usually young players shy away from such pressure. But having to blend in with other heralded teammates followed by the pain and patience of an 11-month rehab has seemingly only made him thirstier for success.
So being the biggest piece of the Jimmy Butler trade doesn’t seem to bother him in the least; He’s finally being called upon to deliver and do it in a big way.
“I understand all that,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com of the pressure that comes with the trade, following a 14-point showing in 19 minutes and 10 seconds of run. “It’s something I have to get better on moving forward and continue to show. Whenever I step on the floor, I feel like I have something to prove. That’s what I take going forward.”
He showed a glimpse of the substance that will be called upon soon enough, when he can play with lesser restrictions and actually be available to finish games.
Coming off a screen to hit a 3-pointer on the first possession seemingly did more to quell nerves for everyone else, because LaVine never appeared to have them.
Stepping into late shot-clock triples with easy, controlled dribbles makes you think he can be in the class of the DeMar DeRozan’s and Bradley Beal’s, the likely Eastern Conference All-Star shooting guards.
“He’s such a smooth player and has a lot of confidence,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “To get out there back on the floor and with his teammates, I thought he played very effective and efficient. He played within himself.”
Hoiberg was gushing at what he saw and you could almost see the Bulls coach’s inner wheels turning at what he can concoct with a smooth-shooting, shot-creating guard who doesn’t look like he’s recovering from major knee surgery.
“He glides up the floor, he can handle it,” Hoiberg said. “He’s just a guy that plays the game easy. He hit a couple threes off the bounce, where he just kind of froze the defender.”
LaVine makes you want to see more, even though it’s likely his return will be more seismic than a straight arrow upward.
“Not really butterflies, just anxious,” LaVine said. “It’s one of the best feelings to go out there, play in front of 20-thousand people, your teammates supporting you, coaches that support you, medical staff, your family, a lot of people having your back.”
From the days of having Paul LaVine, a former USFL linebacker who doubles as his father, taking him to a Seattle-area YMCA every Saturday from the third grade on, arriving at 10 a.m. and not leaving until after midnight to work on his game, this Saturday probably wasn’t pressure as much as it was a pressure release.
Summers were more intense, as the LaVine’s brought lunches to that YMCA every day and his mother, Cheryl, knew she wasn’t getting those two home in time for dinner so she brought them cooked meals every night while they worked.
Having to stay so disciplined as a high schooler that he wasn’t allowed to have a girlfriend until his senior year is probably why he, at his healthiest, will play with a freedom and flair that hasn’t been seen in this building in quite some time.
“I put the work in,” LaVine said. “There’s no reason to hesitate, when you go with those long hours in those gyms. No reason to hesitate. Nothing to be scared of, I was confident.”
Kris Dunn has been a revelation, and his attitude may be a big reason this Bulls culture has evolved into one of competition and emotion.
And as special as Lauri Markkanen can be—and he looks to have passed the on-ramp to that freeway, hitting a critical late jumper to give the Bulls their final lead—it’s LaVine who was the centerpiece for the trade.
And merely the position LaVine plays makes him the most valuable piece of this deal, the player who has to be borderline transcendent for the Bulls to go beyond where they were at the peak of the Rose-Thibodeau years—good, but not quite great enough.
A lot of things will have to be done right for the Bulls to return to prominence. A big break here or there, such as Reggie Bullock blowing a layup that could’ve sent the game into overtime, is symbolic of what the franchise hopes to have in the lottery this May.
Because at the rate the Bulls are winning, they’ll need Lady Luck to stay in the sweepstakes for the prospective draftees who’ve turned into hashtags.
“I think we can be good, really good. I think we can make a push for this thing,” said LaVine with a wink, as a nod to the tanking conversation that’s been had all season. “It’s our job to do that (win). We can’t control outside thoughts. We’re ballplayers. We go out there and try to win with great competition.”
Saturday was a great first step for LaVine, with the biggest leaps likely yet to come.