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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."