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Beginning a second rebuild, 'veteran leader' Zach LaVine sees similarities in Timberwolves and Bulls

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Beginning a second rebuild, 'veteran leader' Zach LaVine sees similarities in Timberwolves and Bulls

Zach LaVine knows what a rebuild looks like.

Entering his fourth NBA season, it's all the 22-year-old has known.

It'll be more of the same from what LaVine experienced in Minnesota for three seasons, after the Bulls acquired him and two others in exchange for All-Star Jimmy Butler blockbuster deal this offseason. But unlike those years in Minnesota, where LaVine played in the shadows of two No. 1 overall picks and was known more for his Slam Dunk Contest victories than anything else, LaVine will be front and center as a core piece of a Bulls franchise in need of a reviving.

The talent LaVine brings to a Bulls roster in desparate need of just that will be crucial. Just as important, however, is the experience and leadership he'll bring. LaVine has appeared in 206 career games, third most on a Bulls roster touting 14 players with two years or less of NBA experience. The two players with more games under their belt - Robin Lopez and Quincy Pondexter - aren't part of the team's future. At Monday's Media Day, general manager Gar Forman spoke of "our veteran leaders" who had been leading summer workouts. Among those named was LaVine.

And while he'll have to do that leading from the sideline in the short term - there's still no timetable for when he'll return to the court following ACL surgery in February, though John Paxson admitted Opening Night isn't likely - the experience he's brought has been invaluable.

"Regardless of what the record is, what the score is, you always go out there and compete," LaVine said. "You go into each game looking to win. We're not looking at wins or losses because it proves something as a team. We go into every game trying to get better. As long as you compete, we're gonna play our hearts out, we're improving every day."

The Timberwolves drafted LaVine with the 13th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, then promptly dealt four-time All-Star Kevin Love to the Cavaliers two months later, initiating yet another rebuild for the franchise with the league's longest playoff drought.

LaVine showed promise in his rookie season, stealing All-Star Weekend festivities in New York City by becoming the youngest Slam Dunk Contest champion since Kobe Bryant, and averaging 14.2 points in 29 games after the break. Andrew Wiggins, the key piece in the Love deal, won Rookie of the Year honors for the 16-win Timberwolves, who then won the NBA Lottery in May. That netted them Karl-Anthony Towns, who a year later joined Wiggins as the first teammates to win back-to-back Rookies of the Year awards in more than 40 years.

Wiggins just finished 16th in the league in scoring, and is preparing to sign a five-year max deal with the Timberwolves. Last year Towns became the 15th player in NBA history to compile 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a season last year and is on the edge of stardom. And LaVine, before the left knee injury, averaged 18.9 points in 47 games and was rounding out his game on both ends. The promising individual performances in a daunting Western Conference resulted in just 60 combined wins the last two seasons, but there was always optimism. A tight-knit locker room helped matters, and it's something LaVine believes the Bulls can replicate as they begin their own rebuild.

"When you're going through that process like we are here, where it's almost a rebuilding process where you're looking just to improve, for Minnesota we had such a tight locker room. It never seemed like we were in a losing situation," he said. "It was such a fun group. And that's the same way I can see how it is here.

"The chemistry should be the same. Our second year, if we don't win 28 games or whatever it was (in Minnesota), we felt like we were a 50-win team. We felt like we competed. No one came out feeling sorry for us. We went out feeling good about ourselves because we're competing, we're getting better."

The Bulls will need to add talent around LaVine in the coming years, and they have both the draft picks and cap space to do so. LaVine will become a restricted free agent next season if he and the Bulls don't agree to a deal by Oct. 16, but either way it's clear he is a major part of the Bulls' future, and he's taking the leadership reigns to get his second rebuild off on the right foot, same as he did in Minnesota.

"I know I'm a big part of this team and I'm excited to be in (contract) negotiations with them. I want to be here for a long period of time. If it's now or later, I know it's going to be done either way," he said. "But right now I'm focused on basketball and getting my knee healthy. But it's always good to be in negotiations because it means you're wanted."

Bulls thankful Kris Dunn's injury wasn't worse; Zach LaVine cleared for extended minutes

Bulls thankful Kris Dunn's injury wasn't worse; Zach LaVine cleared for extended minutes

The fall was nasty and the concussion was substantial for Kris Dunn. But at second blush the Bulls are thankful it wasn’t worse.

Given the way his body jerked after Dunn released himself from the rim, the Bulls are glad he didn’t suffer a neck injury in addition to the concussion and dislocated front teeth.

“It could have been a major, major injury,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Obviously, it is a significant one with the concussion. You can't take these things lightly, but with the way that he fell and hit head first, we're really thankful that he'll be back hopefully before too long. But obviously we'll take things very cautiously, a cautious approach with this because of how significant concussions are. But hopefully we'll get him back soon.”

Dunn has braces on the front teeth to stabilize them, and Hoiberg said he’ll see the doctor every day over the next several days, per the league's concussion protocol. There’s a chance Dunn could join the Bulls on the three-game road trip, but he’ll miss at least Saturday’s game in Atlanta. The Bulls travel to New Orleans on Monday and Philadelphia on Wednesday.

It’s the second freak injury Dunn has suffered this season, in addition to dislocating his finger in the preseason. He struggled with it initially upon returning but recently had shown no signs of issues with it.

Dealing with a concussion and also a mouth injury makes things more complicated as far as his playing style. He plays aggressive and fast, bordering on recklessness occasionally.

Hoiberg doesn’t believe that will change when Dunn returns.

“I don't think it's going to change the way Kris plays,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously it was very unfortunate in the timing because he had a couple of really good plays there to get things really turned in our favor and get the momentum going down the stretch and they get a called timeout and get a layup out of it right away. Then we still had our chances late in that game. Kris was responsible as anybody for getting that game to striking distance. Unfortunately, we just couldn't make the plays we needed to to get the win.”

The more conservative style of Jerian Grant will take over in Dunn’s absence. Grant has been steady as a backup, averaging 7.6 points and 4.6 assists. Unlike Dunn, though, Grant hasn’t had issues with turnovers, at a four-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio this year.

Teams will dare Grant to beat them from the outside, as he’s missed 15 of his 16 3-point attempts this month.

“I've been here before, so I'm prepared. I've started a lot of games so far in my career, so I'm ready for it,” Grant said. “The last time I started, we got a win. I did what I had to do so I'm prepared to do whatever we need to do to get a win.”

Where Grant will receive relief is from Zach LaVine getting clearance for more minutes, as he’ll play in the fourth quarters and will have his minute-restriction increased to 24 minutes.

LaVine will likely play some point guard during stretches, and is shooting 38.5 percent from 3-point range in the small sample size of three games and 19.7 minutes.

“We're not going to overextend him right now because he's still obviously very early in the process as far as getting back on the floor and getting in game shape,” Hoiberg said. “We don't want to get him fatigued out there so we'll keep his rotation stretches short. But wee will hopefully have him available some in the fourth quarter to give us what Kris does down the stretch, who's been as good as anybody on our team as far as helping out close games.”

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