Karl-Anthony Towns

Zach LaVine not daunted by chasing ‘Black Jesus’

Zach LaVine not daunted by chasing ‘Black Jesus’

The statue doesn’t sit out front of the United Center anymore, but the statute remains the same for any player good enough to be on the marquee for the Chicago Bulls.

Zach LaVine, while awed by the specter of Michael Jordan, isn’t spooked by chasing a ghost. Weeks away from a debut as a Bull—returning from ACL surgery—LaVine is aware of the standard set by the man who called himself “Black Jesus”.

“Black Jesus played here for so long. I’m not putting myself in that category,” LaVine said, unaware Jordan gave himself that nickname as a young player in Chicago. “He lived up to it. They (fans) want to get back to that pinnacle.”

He hears the hopes and wishes of fans when he walks off the United Center floor two hours before every home game after getting shots up as part of his rehab. LaVine knows what’s expected from him—what’s more, he expects that from himself.

He’s a two-time slam dunk champion, certainly, but the Seattle area native wants to be known as a complete player, someone a franchise can build around.

And if it’s Black Jesus’ franchise, so be it.

“You try not to let it mess with you,” LaVine said. “I feel like I’m strong minded, I’m confident in myself. Everybody is gonna have their own opinions. All that matters is how you feel about yourself.”

Not that he’s not holding himself to the standard set by the standard bearer himself, but he’s aware the responsibility that comes with playing at Jordan’s position for a franchise still largely synonymous with Jordan—even though this spring will mark 20 years since Jordan actually wore Bulls red.

“No one’s trying to compare you to him, that’s out there,” LaVine said. “You’re just trying to be the best you, coming into this situation. You have the opportunity to be the face of the franchise. To be that guy. You want to embrace that. You want everybody to know you’re prepared and capable of doing that.”

Simply being identified as a player a franchise will commit to building around as opposed to the third wheel, as he was believed to be in Minnesota behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, is warming for him.

Derrick Rose believed he was up for the challenge until his body betrayed him. Jimmy Butler wanted it, but the Bulls thought otherwise leading to the chain of events that brought LaVine to Chicago.

In the first season of a full-fledged rebuild, LaVine knows the prevailing belief is that the next franchise carrier is more likely in the coming draft than on the Bulls roster.

“People gonna put a name on everything. I’m gonna hoop, do what I do,” LaVine said. “I know I’m talented, I think the Bulls organization knows I’m talented. Whatever we do with the pick or free agency, that’s their side of basketball operations. I’m gonna do what I do. I put in the work.”

He’ll return to full contact practice next week and if one had to guess, finally be introduced as an active player in the middle of December once he works the kinks out and gains confidence in taking real contact.

But then again, confidence has never been a problem for LaVine. Whether it was instilled in him by a vocal father who had him chart every shot he took as a high schooler or simply innate, LaVine isn’t shying away from the challenge.

“He had a plan, for sure,” LaVine said of his father, Paul, who once played linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. “I have binders of shots. I was doing workouts the day before games. I was doing professional workouts before (college). I embraced being a hard worker.”

Whether it’s the rehab or a road that’s had plenty of twists and turns for him to be 22, he’s experienced enough not to be naïve but young enough to have admirable wide-eyed optimism.

“You put in that much hard work, it can’t fail. It can’t.”

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

Zach LaVine not sweating contract extension, anxious to get back in uniform

The Zach LaVine timeline for a Bulls debut remains the same, although he’s ahead of schedule in every metric of his return from ACL surgery this past February.

It doesn’t mean he isn’t angling for more work and pushing his limits to learn the offense he’ll be featured in, along with taking contact “here and there,” in his words. He’s supposed to wait nine months from the day of his February 14 surgery before taking contact, which would put him at a November 14 practice before the Bulls go to Oklahoma City.

“I should be doing contact really soon. It all depends on them,” LaVine said in his first public words since media day several weeks ago. “I’m pushing them as hard as I can, but at the end of the day we still gotta be careful. I feel great. I’m doing everything I was doing before. I’m pretty sure I can do contact, but we’ve got to stick to that schedule. But every day I’m just getting back, trying to as close to 100 percent as I can before I come back.”

LaVine was at Air Canada Centre getting a workout in before the Bulls opener against the Raptors and has gotten in heavy workouts on the off days with the assistant coaches in the meantime.

Sticking to the schedule will be on both LaVine and the Bulls, although both sides could be tempted to cut corners a bit. It would be human nature for the Bulls to show the NBA world their centerpiece from the Jimmy Butler trade on draft night, as well as LaVine to want to be the frontline player he feels he deserves to be.

“Yeah, it’s definitely hard. I don’t like missing games,” LaVine said. “Before the injury I didn’t really miss any games. I think I missed one or two in my career, so it really sucks just sitting there, not being able to help. I try to help as much as I can from the sideline. You know, give a little advice here and there, but yeah it hurts.”

He’s also in line for a big-time extension, having passed the deadline for extensions for players in his 2014 draft class. He’ll have to wait until the summer, especially since it didn’t make sense for him to extend unless it was a max deal.

“Obviously, I want to be here for a long time,” LaVine said. “And I feel the deal is going to get done, either then or next summer. I don’t have any fear in that. I think I know I’ll be in black and red for a little bit longer. I’m very happy and looking forward to that day as well. The main concern is just getting back on the court, get my legs ready and try to help the team as much as possible until then.”

LaVine was averaging a career-high 18.9 points as a third option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but will be featured in Fred Hoiberg’s offense as a first and maybe even second option, too—especially seeing how anemic the Bulls offense has looked in the first two games.

“With the team that we have and the system that (Fred Hoiberg) put in, we’re going to get up a lot of threes,” LaVine said. “When we’re on we’re going to blow some teams out with those threes. When we’re off, as the last couple games have shown, it’s going to be a struggle to score sometimes, but I think that’s where I can come in and help, and I can’t wait to get out there and start playing.”

Never lacking for confidence, LaVine hasn’t been deterred by the losing or even the unfortunate Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident from last week.

“We’re building something here. People understand we’re going through a little bit of that process,” LaVine said. “But we’re going to play and win. When I’m on the court, I’m trying to win. Wins and losses do happen. We can always take positives from both of those. That’s how you grow.”

As for Mirotic, LaVine hasn’t spoken to him but has sent texts—as it seems many of the Bulls have reached out to their teammate over the last several days.

“It was unfortunate. That’s what happens when two players are battling I guess,” LaVine said. “I don’t think either of them were in the wrong. It was just something that happened, an altercation. Men are men sometimes. We never should have that happen. But I think we’ve moved past it. Bobby’s in a good spot. We’ve all tried to contact Niko. I think we’ll all be able to move forward.”

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

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USA TODAY

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."