The next phase of the Zach LaVine rehabilitation program is days away.
The one where he where actually ... plays.
LaVine, after his prodding to make his debut on the Madison Square Garden stage fell on deaf ears, will play his first game in a Bulls uniform Saturday night against the Detroit Pistons.
In a bit of irony, LaVine tore his ACL last February against the Pistons in Auburn Hills, and he’ll make his return 344 days from that evening.
“I was pushing to play two months ago, but the decision was made for it to be Saturday,” LaVine said Tuesday at practice. “I'm a ballplayer, man. I think we talked about this. I want to be out there, and I want to be able to play. I want to thank all the training staff and coaches, the medical staff in Minnesota as well, getting me back to this point. it was a lot of hard work, lonely nights and long days. This thing is taking forever. Finally back to it, and I'm happy for that.”
LaVine will be under a strict 20-minute limit that the front office and coaching staff will meet upon to discuss how his time will be disseminated. Bulls executive vice president John Paxson addressed the media before LaVine to make the announcement and lay out the plan.
It hasn’t been determined whether he’ll start or come off the bench initially, but one would think it’s only a matter of time before he makes his way to the first five.
“I'm OK with everything. I gotta be okay with that,” LaVine said. “That's where you start, I know it's not gonna stay there. It's just part of getting back. Even though I'm back it's the last part of me getting back with the little bit of restriction. I'll do the best I can.”
LaVine was flashing a smile when talking to the media, clearly ready to begin the next step in his career. He said he had butterflies at the possibility and will have to calm himself down before Saturday night.
“Just gotta try to go out there and do what you're used to doing,” LaVine said. “Obviously I'm going to be anxious like I said. Adrenaline is gonna be rushing, crowd is gonna be into it. Team is gonna be loving it. It's gonna be a good feeling, You just gotta learn how to calm that and get back to playing the game you love.”
Paxson said LaVine will be under the 20-minute restriction from Saturday until the All-Star break and that LaVine will not play in the second half of the lone back-to-back the Bulls have between now and then.
In a bit of secondary irony, the front end of that set is against the Minnesota Timberwolves, where Jimmy Butler will make his return to Chicago on Feb. 9. LaVine won’t play the next night, a home game against the Washington Wizards.
“The idea will be, as we go week to week, considering no setbacks and he's doing well, we’ll marginally ramp up his minutes as each week goes by and see how he’s doing,” Paxson said. “Our mindset is this is still part of the rehab for Zach. He needs to play. No matter what you do in practice, he needs those game minutes. So we’re going to give him those game minutes now.”
LaVine initially believed he would be back in mid-December, then thought he could play around Christmas. Clearly the Bulls, be it prudence or a function of their unexpected winning that has vaulted them from the dungeon of the Eastern Conference, decided to keep him out a little while longer.
Considering this franchise’s recent history with that particular injury, the Bulls weren’t going to be party to any rushing back for any reason. But make no mistake, unleashing their prized player in the Butler trade on draft night gives them a jolt of excitement.
“First of all, you have to understand what he’s been through. He had a significant injury 11 months ago. And he’s worked really, really hard to get back to play,” Paxson said. “We’ve seen players go through this before. The commitment they make to get back is significant. Most people don’t see what they go through. He has really embraced it and took it on. I know he’s excited to play. I’m sure we’re going to have to rein him in with his enthusiasm. We’re looking forward to having him. He’s obviously a key component of the trade that we made. We’re happy that he’s back.”
LaVine doesn’t expect to be the same player immediately upon his debut, the one who averaged nearly 20 points a game last season as a third option in 47 games in Minnesota.
But he does have a stake in this, as a restricted free-agent-to-be this summer, to show he’s worth a max contract or whatever he’ll command on the open market.
“At the end of the day, this game is business. You’re judged on how you perform,” LaVine said. “If I go out there, like I said, the 20-minute restriction won’t be for the rest of the season, if I go out there and perform the way I should, the way the team knows I should perform, I’ll be OK. I think I put enough hard work to not be scared about anything. I’m very confident in my game and excited to get out there. I know what I can do.”