Vincent Goodwill

Zach LaVine dishes on free agency, defense, and his plan to lead the Bulls back to glory: 'I want to be great'

Zach LaVine dishes on free agency, defense, and his plan to lead the Bulls back to glory: 'I want to be great'

The chaos of restricted free agency never truly reached Zach LaVine’s feet, as the guard was too busy working in the Seattle area, strengthening his body and hitting the court to continue the evolution of his game.

To the surprise of some, the Bulls matched the Sacramento Kings’ $78 million offer sheet within minutes of the news breaking on a Friday night, and although LaVine was disappointed he couldn’t reach an initial deal with the Bulls, his reaction was simple: “Cool, let’s get to work.”

“I never wanted to leave, that's the main thing. But business is business,” LaVine said. “The offer sheet happened and thank God the Bulls matched it. That's exactly what we wanted to happen. I never wanted it to get to that point.”

LaVine sat down with NBCSportsChicago for an exclusive interview days after his deal was finalized—and one day after he welcomed to Chicago a new teammate, fellow 2014 draftmate Jabari Parker.

Although Parker signed later than LaVine, he has a leg up on the city. The Chicago native knows this place inside and out. Last year, LaVine barely had more than a couch in his condo not far from the United Center.

Now settled with a long-term deal, LaVine’s family was in town helping him look for a house—a resolution he wasn’t sure would happen so quickly.

“It's tough. Especially the first (free agency experience),” he said. “You go in not understanding a lot. But the good thing (was) I had good agents and I sat back and I did a lot of stuff at the house, I was working out, keeping my mind off it.”

Having an up-and-down 24-game stretch in his first season with the Bulls was the reason many felt LaVine would have an protracted experience in restricted free agency. Coming off ACL surgery, he didn’t make his debut until mid-January and averaged 16.7 points in 27.3 minutes, albeit on 38 percent shooting.

He didn’t look fully comfortable in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, and was trying to adjust to a new team while getting back to playing basketball for the first time in over 11 months.

“I think a lot of last year was me getting into the groove,” LaVine said. “I had a lot of really good games. I had some bad games. You should expect that coming from injury. I proved a lot of people wrong, being able to be explosive and score, affecting the game in ways I don't think a lot of people can do.”

He was never going to look like a finished product in 2017-18, which gave the Bulls leverage in contract talks. It didn’t get ugly, but if there are lingering feelings LaVine will have those conversations with management then move onto basketball.

“I'll let you know if there's something wrong,” LaVine said. “Obviously there's ups and downs with everything, emotions with everything. But right now I'm getting down to business, excited and ecstatic to be back here.”

Fully healthy and still set on being in the best condition of his career, LaVine is excited for the season. The Bulls have one of the youngest teams in the league, tabbed with that dangerous label—“upside.”

Since starting their rebuild, the Bulls have added LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn, Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and now, Parker.

“I'm excited because we have so much offensive versatility, I feel like the floor can be really spaced,” LaVine said. “Regardless if somebody has a bad game, we'll be able to pick up the slack at different positions. I think we'll be able to get after it. I'm excited to get to work.”

LaVine, Markkanen and Parker each can make the case to be the lead dog next season, and many feel some uncomfortable friction can develop while that process is taking place.

“If everybody understands the hard work and the sacrifice,” LaVine said. “Everything's not gonna be fair and feelings hurt here and there or emotions thrown in. But at the end of the day if it's done right you can speed that up.”

He’s seen what he calls the "politics" of basketball at different stages of his young career, and after being shuffled through different positions and then the ACL injury, he jokingly calls himself a “really experienced rookie.”

“You battle with certain politics, right or wrong,” LaVine said. “If you're a higher draft pick, or if you're younger or a veteran in front of you, you have to battle through those things. There's politics but right now everything's level. I'm going into my fifth year, I understand the league, what I'm good at, what I need to work on.”

A lot of responsibility will fall on Hoiberg to manage the personalities, but LaVine looks forward to the internal competition—a believer in the adage “iron sharpens iron.”

“That's something good for the team. I think it brings the best of everyone,” LaVine said. “Media will put their own thing either way. It's for us to figure out and the best is gonna come from who rises from that.”

He certainly wants to blend in with his teammates and sees a mutual respect growing within that competition. Still, though, he relishes the chance at being a leader—for this franchise, in this city, with this basketball history.

Sacramento has some advantages, but the Kings don’t have a statue of the greatest player of all-time in their atrium.

“Obviously that's what you work for. I put all this hard work in not to be second fiddle,” LaVine said. “Not saying there's something wrong with that. There's a lot of successful Hall of Famers that were second fiddle. Second options, third options. You come here, you put all this work in, that's what you want.”

A self-described “gym rat,” LaVine wanted to establish himself as a leader for the first time in his career—not too dissimilar from Jimmy Butler, a player he was traded for on draft night a year ago—who believed the best way to lead was through hard work more than anything.

“You can't come in halfway through the season, be the straight-up leader of the team,” LaVine said. “You ain't played half the year. You got to get to know everybody. I feel like now I have my feet in the water.

“It's a tough situation but you can still be a leader off the court: be at practices, at film, showing the people how hard you're working. That's the main thing, I showed how I worked. I'm around the same age as everybody, so we all get along.”

LaVine is a man who hears everything, a 23-year old who admittedly monitors social media and other platforms, seeing what’s been said about him. So he’s seen the criticisms about his defense and admits it’s been a point of emphasis in his offseason workouts.

“I have to step it up a lot,” LaVine said. “I've always been somebody that can keep somebody in front of me. I've had mishaps off the ball, with awareness and things like that. That's always something you can improve on.”

The goal, LaVine said, is to be great on both ends of the floor. He’s watched clips of his best and worst defensive moments this season, calling himself “my harshest critic” and said he’ll do what’s necessary to get better.

At his position, the guys who can score 20 a night are plentiful. James Harden, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum, Donovan Mitchell, Khris Middleton and Klay Thompson can get that in their sleep.

Being able to give it back while also slowing them down some is what separates the tiers of shooting guards in today’s NBA.

“I'm not gonna slack off from that,” LaVine said. “I hear people talk: 'You can't do this.' it helps me pay more attention to it and get better. I could care less. It's something I want to be better at, and I want to be great on both ends.”

If that happens, it makes the talk of playoffs seem a lot more realistic than it feels at the moment.

“We have a young and exciting team. I feel like Chicago needs to get that stamp of approval back to where we were in the 90's,” LaVine said before correcting himself.

“I'm not saying we're going to be there next. We need to trend toward that way. Trending that way.”

He’s smiling, pointing upward. He saw his former mates in Minnesota get a taste of the postseason a few months ago and now, he’s feeling a little parched, not quite satisfied with expected baby steps.

“We should be walking now," he said. "Almost jogging. Not quite running. We're working, though.”

Before the playoffs or even training camp convenes, LaVine is off house-hunting and presumably furniture shopping, looking for another couch.

“What color should it be? All white,” he joked.

If the Bulls are playing beyond April 16 next season, there’s sure to be more than a few fans willing to foot the bill for an all-white couch.

Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: 'There's no fear'

Jabari Parker unafraid of history, expectations that come with Chicago's homegrown stars: 'There's no fear'

The Chicago sunlight followed Jabari Parker as he walked through the East Atrium doors of the United Center, facing Michael Jordan’s statue before meeting with the media, introduced as a member of the Bulls for the first time.

For his sake, the brighter days are ahead instead of to his back as he’ll challenge the perception of being the hometown kid who can’t outrun his own shadow.

Parker re-enters Chicago as the No. 2 pick of the the 2014 draft the Milwaukee Bucks allowed to walk without compensation despite holding the cards through restricted free agency, damaged goods on the floor but not giving the Bulls a discount to don that white, red and black jersey he’s always dreamed of wearing.

“There were other teams but as soon as I heard Chicago, I just jumped on it,” Parker said.

It took a two-year, $40 million deal (2019-20 team option) to get Parker home, along with the selling point that he’ll start at small forward—a position that’s tough to envision him playing with on the defensive end considering three of the game’s top six scorers occupy that space.

It was a dream come true for his father, Sonny Parker, and high school coach, Simeon Academy’s Robert Smith, who both couldn’t hide their joy following the first question-and-answer session with the media.

“This is where he wanted to be,” Sonny Parker said. “His family’s happy, the support is there. All I know is the United Center will sell out every game. He can’t wait.

“Normally guys get drafted here. He signed to come here. He had a couple offers from other teams but he wanted to come here.”

The biggest examples of Chicagoans who arrived with outsized expectations for this franchise had varying results, but Derrick Rose and Eddy Curry both came away with scars of sorts that had many wondering why any hometown product would willingly choose to play for the Bulls.

The risk seems to far outweigh the reward; the emotional toll doesn’t seem worth the fare. And with the roster makeup not being ideal for Parker, no one could blame him for going to a better situation—or at least one more tailored to his skills rather than his heart.

“I think every situation is different. Derrick was excelling,” Bulls executive vice-president John Paxson said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “MVP of the league in his hometown before the injury. Eddy was just a young kid who didn’t have the savvy Derrick had. I think every situation is different. Jabari is such a grounded, solid person that he’s gonna be just fine.

“You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with him to figure out he’s got it together. He knows who he is. Comfortable in his own skin. A quiet guy. Hopefully he’ll thrive here. The goal is it works great for him and works great for us.”

It seemed like he was bred to be a pro—and not just any pro, but the type Chicago demands of its own when a covenant to play 82 nights a year has been reached. If the constant prodding from his father didn’t break his façade, or older brother Darryl doing everything he could to coax emotion from the most gifted of the Parker clan couldn’t do it, two ACL surgeries on his left knee may pale in comparison.

The numbers from Parker’s recent stint with the Bucks don’t bear it out, but Smith sees a player who’s back on track to being what his talent has always dictated he should become.

“Even watching him work out lately, it’s like whoa,” Smith said. “But of course, everything with Chicago period you have to be cautious. With his family and the support system he has, this thing is about winning basketball games and giving back to the community.

“He’s had that (target) on his back since he stepped on the court at Simeon, coming behind Derrick and being one of the top five players as a freshman and No. 1 player as a junior. I don’t think it’s a huge problem, it can help him a little bit. If he has those moments if something doesn’t go right, he has someone to help him.”

Parker is more known for his restarts than his unique skill set in his young career, but even at 23 years old speaks with a sage of someone 20 years his senior, unwilling to tab this portion of his journey as a fresh start.

After all, it would be easy to envision his career beginning from the moment he left Simeon as a phenom followed by his one season at Duke—having two games where he totaled just 24 minutes with just two points to start the Bucks’ first-round series against the Boston Celtics isn’t typical of a star’s story if he sees himself that way.

“I don’t. I don’t want to forget all the hard work I had,” Parker said. “To forget I hurt myself and came back is to discredit my success. That in of itself is something outside the norm. I want to always remember the setbacks and failures I’ve had in my career so far. I want to use that as a sense of motivation.”

Bringing up his awkward pro beginnings in Milwaukee, where Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ascension to an unexpected strata mirrored thoughts he might’ve had of himself before his injuries, didn’t cause him to growl.

“I’ve never got jealous a day in my life. That’s why it wasn’t hard because I wasn’t jealous,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “My journey is my journey. I gotta be proud of that and be patient. I took that and I move forward.”

The mention of his defense didn’t make him defensive, either, as he definitively pointed out the truth as he saw it, that today’s game is far more offensive-minded than the bruise-fests of the previous decades. Telling by his words in subsequent interviews, the best defense is a great offense and when he’s right, there aren’t many who can get a bucket as easily and with as much diversity as himself.

The only time Parker broke serve was at the notion he’d be following in the footsteps of Rose’s perceived failures, the setbacks Rose suffered when his knees began to fail after reaching inspiring heights players like Parker wanted to emulate.

At the podium for all to see, he corrected a question formed around Rose’s “rise and fall”, a sound byte copied and pasted by a couple Chicago-bred NBA players on social media in support of Parker’s words and feelings.

“Derrick had no lows. He didn’t. He still maintained. Derrick’s a legend, no matter what…no rise and falls. Injuries are part of life. Derrick is one of the best icons in Chicago. He accomplished his duty already.”

And later, he wanted to set the record straight again, drawing a line from how the media has presented Rose compared to how the people of Chicago see him, and vice-versa.

“We didn’t turn on Derrick, the media (did),” Parker told NBCSportsChicago.com. “We’re hometown. I speak for everybody, we love our hometown.”

The love of Chicago meant more than the prospect of not being able to live up to a glorious prep past, even though he should be well aware wanderlust can turn to villainy in a heartbeat—or the wrong step.

“There’s no pressure for me,” Parker said to NBCSportsChicago.com. “I’m just happy I get to play with some young guys, and I don’t harp on the negative. Anybody and everybody is gonna have an opinion. I value more my dreams than their opinions.”

And the dreamer steps forward, with a confident gait, eyes wide open and a city hoping it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes of its past.

“There’s no fear,” Parker said. “I haven’t faced any other pressure than bouncing back. I’m back on my feet and moving on.”

“When you struggle more, you succeed more.”

Bulls agree to two-year deal with Jabari Parker

Bulls agree to two-year deal with Jabari Parker

Jabari Parker is coming home.

Parker agreed to a two-year, $40 million deal with the Bulls early Saturday, according to sources, moments after becoming an unrestricted free agent.

The Milwaukee Bucks rescinded their qualifying offer to Parker to expedite the process as they had no intention of matching an offer sheet for Parker, setting free a player they selected second in the 2014 NBA Draft.

The Bulls and Parker had been in contact the last several days, as the Bulls cleared just enough salary cap space by trading Jerian Grant and rescinding David Nwaba’s qualifying offer after matching Zach LaVine’s offer sheet one week ago.

Parker, one of Chicago’s most decorated prep stars, hopes to find better luck and better health back in his hometown. A promising start to his career has been marred with two ACL tears in his left knee in December 2014 and February 2017.

With those injuries in mind, the second year is a team option for the Bulls—ensuring flexibility for the franchise should things go awry with his body or even the fit.

Parker has played a total of 82 games the last two seasons, as the second tear was seemed more devastating than the first considering he was averaging 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds on 49 percent shooting in 2016-17, trying to fit himself alongside budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now, though, Parker will try to fit himself playing next to second-year forward Lauri Markkanen and LaVine—his draftmate in 2014. Part of the Bulls’ pitch to Parker was moving him to small forward, a position he’s played with more frequency the last two seasons.

Shooting 37 percent from 3-point range the last two seasons makes him a fit in Fred Hoiberg’s space-driven offensive scheme, as well as his ability to create his own offense off the dribble.

Defensively there will be questions, considering his ACL tears that usually strip away a player’s lateral movement. Presumably, the Bulls will have to hide Parker at times and move him to power forward when they can—although they seem to be well-stocked at the two frontline positions with Robin Lopez, Markkanen, Bobby Portis and incoming rookie Wendell Carter Jr.

Parker was a four-year starter at Simeon Career Academy before going to Duke for one season.

And now, as a grizzled 23-year-old, Parker returns to his cocoon, hoping to jumpstart a still-promising career while aiming to help his hometown team return to relevance.