Zach LaVine’s optimism is necessary in a season that has him watching his new team lose nine straight games, where seeing a win on the horizon feels more like a mirage than reality.
That optimism had him aiming for a mid-December return but the reality places his debut in a Bulls uniform a little while away from his ideal target date, as Fred Hoiberg said LaVine is more likely to play in late December and early January.
“Yeah, I think that’s accurate,” Hoiberg said. “The big thing is he needs to string together a good 10 days of practice to where he’s not going every other day.”
“To where he’s going every day, going out there and going hard to really test his body to see where he is. I would say the next 10 days is not going to happen. He’s still going to be on the every other day program at least for another 10 days to two weeks, and then we’ll take it from there as far as getting him consecutive-day workouts, and then get him back shortly after that.”
He’s practiced with the G-League team, along with Nikola Mirotic, and will do so while the Bulls are away in Indianapolis and Charlotte for the rest of the week. At Tuesday’s practice, he was sporting a new accessory—a brace on his surgically-repaired left knee. He hasn’t hidden his displeasure with the contraption as Hoiberg said “he hates it.”
“Just for the first couple weeks, they wanted me to wear it when I’m practicing,” LaVine said. “I don’t like it but doctor’s orders.”
He said he would put in a request to see if he could play in a game without the brace but it’s clear the Bulls are taking all the extra precautions with LaVine, who tore his ACL last February.
LaVine said it’s restrictive, but risking another knee injury would be restrictive to LaVine and the Bulls’ long-term plans. And with the losing streak growing by the day, LaVine is more focused on keeping his teammates upbeat and not get so accustomed to losing.
“This isn’t a losing situation. We might not have the best record right now,” LaVine said. “But we don’t have that outlook on our team. We’re coming in and we’re positive. We go at each other. We’re looking to improve. We don’t have that loser mentality. I know I’m not a loser. They’re not losers.”
With that, it’s not surprising the Bulls are being conservative with the return plan and the brace on LaVine—resisting the natural urge to let him throw himself on the floor to pull attention away from a product that’s worst in the league.
But gradually working on his conditioning is the main concern right now as LaVine said he’s in training camp mode—as camp is usually three-to-four weeks away from the start of the season.
“I’ve been working my butt off, coming back late working and running. But nothing simulates game conditioning,” LaVine said. “I’ve been working out for the last eight, nine months and you come in and play 5-on-5 and you’re tired in 3 minutes. Just got to get that down, get my rhythm down. But I’m progressing really fast. And I feel good.”
In the interim, he’s starting to get a feel for Hoiberg’s read-and-react offense, one that desperately needs a perimeter shot-creator and shot-maker. Going through extra work with the assistant coaches is helping him get acclimated, along with the practices at Hoffman Estates since they run the same sets and systems Hoiberg employs.
In LaVine’s mind, it’s a matter of time before he gets a full feel of all the options offensively. Especially with Lauri Markkanen beginning to feel the weight of defensive attention recently, LaVine knows his presence will make life easier for the rookie.
“Everybody has ups and downs. But he goes out with the same mindset,” LaVine said. “He can miss four or five in a row or be 0-for-8 the night before and he comes in with the same attitude, smile on his face. And that’s something you have to respect from somebody. I remember me from my rookie year and I’d have my ups and downs, I’d be the dude who would be more angry.”
Whenever LaVine makes his debut, Hoiberg will not suddenly act like his predecessor, Tom Thibodeau, and play LaVine 35-40 minutes a night immediately.
“Yeah, we’ll gradually bring him along, and the same thing with Niko when we get him back ready to play on the floor,” Hoiberg said. “We’re not going to throw him out there for 35 minutes the first night he’s ready to go. It will probably be a 12-to-18 minute stint, and I would anticipate the same thing would hold true for Zach honestly.”