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How Bulls' Zach LaVine surged to stardom in breakout 2019-20 season

How Bulls' Zach LaVine surged to stardom in breakout 2019-20 season

NBC Sports Chicago is breaking down the 15 full-time players on the Bulls' roster. First up is Zach LaVine.

2019-20 Stats

25.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG | 45% FG, 38% 3P, 80.2% FT | 31.2% USG

Contract Breakdown

Age: 25

July 2018: Signed 4-year, $78 million contract (two years, $39 million remaining, ext. eligible Oct. 18)

2020-21: $19,500,000 | 2021-22: $19,500,000 | 2022-23: UFA

Strengths

LaVine is a prolific and multi-faceted scorer, and he does it in every way you’d want from a modern offensive star. His career-high 25.5-point-per-game scoring average (12th in the NBA) in 2019-20 came on a steady diet of 3s (38% on 8.1 attempts per game; 36.4% on a high volume of pull-ups) and layups (8.1 restricted area attempts per game, third among guards), many of which were high-difficulty in the Bulls’ cramped offense. He carried a top-10 load, but his production wasn’t all volume and empty calories. Among 13 qualified players with usage rates north of 30%, LaVine currently slots fifth in effective field goal percentage (52.6%), and the Bulls’ offense was 3.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in non-garbage time minutes — an 80th percentile mark, per Cleaning the Glass.

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With his head down, he’s near impossible to stay in front of, he can jump out of the gym and fire from the logo. When all of that works in concert — as it did in his 49-point, 13 3-pointer outing in Charlotte, among other explosive performances — he’s virtually unguardable, and the show marched on with remarkable consistency this season. LaVine started 60 of the Bulls’ 65 games in 2019-20, and scored 20+ points in 45; he logged more 30-point outings (18) than any other Bull had 20-pointers, and his six 40-point nights ranked fifth in the NBA. And talents come with an edge — consider that the Charlotte outburst came one night after being pulled from a game for "three egregious defensive mistakes."

Add strides as a defender, playmaker and locker-room leader to all of the above, and we’re talking about a burgeoning star in the league. At 25, his prime lies ahead, and he's gotten better in each of his two full seasons since tearing his ACL in 2017.

Areas to Improve

We have to start on the defensive end, a favorite of LaVine detractors and generally a mixed bag. The good: In 2019-20, LaVine displayed both willingness to consistently engage on that end of the floor, and the athleticism to hound passing lanes and hang with certain wings on-ball — all of which resulted in him posting career-high steal (2%) and block (1.3%) rates. Undeniable improvements, albeit in an aggressive, turnover-happy system. But the bad: Occasional lapses off-ball and on help rotations persisted, and the Bulls’ defense was 10 points per 100 possessions worse with LaVine on the floor this season. There’s noise in there — the Bulls’ most-used lineup featured LaVine and had a 97.1 defensive rating, he’s not destructive — but ominous nonetheless.

On the offensive end, there are two holes to poke. The big one lies in his playmaking. Of that same 13-player 30-plus-percent usage sample, LaVine ranks 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.23), ahead of only Joel Embiid, and 11th in assist rate (21.8%). Inextricable from those numbers is how battered down and ineffective most of the offensive options around him were all season, which allowed opponents to hurl double-teams at LaVine on a nightly basis. Still, as the centerpiece of the offense, there’s room to grow in the halfcourt consistently executing pick-and-roll reads and not succumbing to one-track mindedness on drives. Despite memorable flashes, LaVine's overall numbers in the clutch (33% FG, four total assists) lagged this season, in part due to the above factors. 

And a knit-pick: his foul-drawing. Given how frequently LaVine gets to the cup, and how much the ball is in his hands, you might want to see him average more than 5.6 free throw attempts per game — not a paltry figure, but just outside the most notorious offensive boons in the league. Some of that relies on getting whistles, but attracting contact on drives is an acquired skill. It’s the easiest way for him to bump his scoring into the high 20s or low 30s per game.

Ceiling Projection

Right now, LaVine’s production makes his contract inordinately team-friendly; he’s the only non-rookie-contract player in the league averaging more than 25 points per game and making less than $25 million, annually. There’s two years remaining on that deal, and LaVine will want big money at the end of it, possibly even a max. Does his ceiling match what that type of commitment connotes? That’s a decision the Bulls will need to make soon.

Given what he's shown, there's no reason LaVine shouldn’t continue to blossom into a perennial top-5-to-10 scorer, and All-Star, as he moves through his prime. Whether he can drive winning basketball in Chicago probably depends most on the deck-shuffling the Bulls’ new front office regime enacts. At least individually, he appears ready for it.

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Bulls’ Zach LaVine shouts out Damian Lillard during 61-point explosion

Bulls’ Zach LaVine shouts out Damian Lillard during 61-point explosion

Damian Lillard is not of this planet.

As the Portland Trail Blazers scrap for a spot in the Western Conference’s play-in round, Lillard dropped a career-high-tying 61 points on 17-for-32 field goal shooting (9-for-17 from 3 and *rubs eyes* 18-for-18 from the charity stripe), eight assists and five rebounds in a 134-131 victory over the red-hot Dallas Mavericks. Flames spit from his fingertips.

It was Lillard’s third 60-point outing of the season (and second straight game with 50-plus; he’s had six of those this year and 11 in his career). Twenty-two of his 61 points and 11 of his 18 free throws came in the fourth quarter. It was a magnificent, all-encompassing performance — one that has become all too commonplace in a campaign by Lillard that is historic in its prolificity.

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When these shots are falling, you know it’s your night. Or, for that matter, your season.


What’s more, Lillard followed that friendly roll — which tied the game 130-130 — by drawing an offensive foul on Trey Burke on the ensuing defensive possession, then immediately setting the table for a Hassan Whiteside dunk that put the Trail Blazers ahead for good.

The win secures Portland (34-39) full control of its destiny in the Western Conference play-in race. A victory over the Brooklyn Nets Thursday guarantees them a swing at the eighth seed (and should the Memphis Grizzlies fall to the Milwaukee Bucks that night, Portland will move into the No. 8 spot, granting them a one-game handicap in the play-in). Lillard’s outing epitomized clutch.

And another electric scorer with ties to the Pacific Northwest took notice:

Real recognize real. As it's always been.

Bulls fans will remember Lavine’s 49-point, 13 3-pointer eruption against the Charlotte Hornets way back on Nov. 23, 2019 — it was one of the few bright spots of the season, though it feels decades-old now. 

“It was fun to see,” Lillard said of LaVine’s night on Nov. 25, with the Trail Blazers in town for an early-season date with the Bulls. “Any time you see that type of performance, you hope that it comes in a win. And I think how they just came up big hitting 3 after 3, you know, he hit a couple tough ones… He has that type of talent, that type of ability to have a night like that.”

Lillard would know.

LaVine enjoyed his career night just 24 hours after being yanked by Jim Boylen from a loss to the Miami Heat for what Boylen termed “three egregious defensive mistakes.” Lillard’s comes three days after a close loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in which he missed two crucial late-game free throws that could have pulled Portland ahead by a point. An unsavory beef with FS1’s Skip Bayless followed.

“I think that's a separator, you know, being able to have that type of mentality,” Lillard said on Nov. 25 of LaVine bouncing back from being benched. “He could have easily came out and pouted and not showed up for his teammates, but he responded in a kind of way that a player at his level should.”

Lillard embodied that mentality Tuesday. And LaVine, via Twitter, put respect on his name.

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How Sky are approaching WNBA season, from advocacy to unprecedented schedule

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How Sky are approaching WNBA season, from advocacy to unprecedented schedule

The 2020 WNBA season is one like no other. While the league is playing out its truncated, 22-game campaign in a bubbled campus at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla, it’s also dedicating the proceedings to social justice advocacy.

To name a few ways the latter has come to fruition: Players across the W have honored the lives and called for justice for Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and other victims of police brutality and racial violence with jersey messages, on-court demonstrations and comments to the media. The Sky, specifically, launched a fund to benefit Chicago-based community organizations based on team performance called #SkyTakesAction. There was even a leaguewide thrust to publicly endorse Raphael Warnock, a Democratic challenger for Kelly Loeffler’s Senate seat in Georgia, after Loeffler repeatedly came out in opposition of the W’s social justice initiatives and the Black Lives Matter movement. Everything enacted by the league on this front has been pointed and unified.

Meanwhile, there’s basketball to be played, as well. And the Sky is on the rise. Despite dropping two of its last three contests, the team is off to a 5-3 start to the season, with mammoth victories over the Las Vegas Aces, Los Angeles Sparks and Washington Mystics embedded in. It’s a group with championship aspirations one year after bursting onto the scene under first-year coach James Wade and bolstered by a high-octane, free-flowing style of play; and it returned much of the core of that breakout squad, even as many stars across the W traded threads.

Sky forward Gabby Williams recently joined the Bulls Talk Podcast to discuss all of the above — from her commitment to pushing for change to the high hopes, and strange circumstances, surrounding the team this season.

“Our decision to come to the bubble really was, if we're going to go, fighting for social justice is going to be at the forefront of our season,” Williams said. “That's going to go hand-in-hand with the WNBA.”

And on grinding through a season with games near every other day: “It’s going to be hard on our bodies, it’s going to be hard mentally, it’s going to be hard physically, emotionally, everything, it’s going to be exhausting. So we’re just going to try to keep each other up. It’s going to be gritty, it’s going to be a season that we have to grind out, and it’s not going to be easy for anyone. So we’re just focused on our bodies, and staying healthy and staying together.”

Listen to the full conversation here or via the embedded player above.

Bulls Talk Podcast

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