Bulls

Re-focused Zach LaVine primed to bounce back: ‘I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for’

Re-focused Zach LaVine primed to bounce back: ‘I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for’

Healthy in October for the first time in three seasons, Zach LaVine entered training camp as the $78 million man looking to justify one of the summer’s largest deals that many criticized.

And just a few days into camp, the spotlight homed in on him further when the Bulls lost Lauri Markkanen to an elbow injury.

LaVine responded to both challenges, putting together a preseason performance that not even the most optimistic expectations could have included.

In just 22.3 minutes he averaged 17.8 points on 52 percent shooting, made 44 percent of his triples and got to the free throw line a team best 4.8 times per game. In short, he looked much more like the potential franchise-building piece the Bulls believed they were acquiring 19 months ago.

“I’m my hardest critic, so there’s nothing on the outside that I haven’t told myself of where I want to be at. You want to tell the doubters on the outside I told you so, but it’s mostly coming from a place where I want to prove to myself what all this hard work is for.’’

The fifth-year shooting guard was fluid, attacked in a variety of ways and looked like part of the offense, something that at times was non-existent during last year’s injury-riddled comeback season. Taking shots in rhythm, attacking the rim instead of settling for contested jumpers, running the floor. LaVine looked a lot like the player who shot 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from deep before the ACL injury in 2017.

“I think I found a good rhythm and then just keep that going into the regular season. I think last year still, I was trying to catch my rhythm with the games I played,” LaVine said Monday at the Advocate Center. “I’d play two good games and two bad games. I felt like that up and down was a little bit with the consistency of not playing. Now that I’m back fully I think that’s where I should be.”

The offensive uptick is a sight for sore eyes, especially with Markkanen on the mend. But where LaVine can quiet his harshest critics – including himself – is on the defensive end.

It’s just a five-game sample size, but LaVine’s individual defensive rating of 97.3 was better than the team’s overall 100.2 rating. A year ago, LaVine’s defensive rating was 113.9, the worst on the team, and worse than the team’s overall 110.4 mark. They’re baby steps, but steps nonetheless for a player who knows what the book says about him on that end of the floor.

“I think I had a lot better focus on the defensive end,” he said. “I had some mistakes too, but I wanted to go out there and just really hone in on being more focused down there. I felt like I did OK with that. Still some areas I want to get better at, definitely off-the-ball I think I did a lot better than I had before.’’

The preseason is one hurdle cleared, but they get much taller and difficult to get over when Thursday and the Philadelphia 76ers come around. No matter who starts in the frontcourt – Fred Hoiberg isn’t ready to announce Bobby Portis and Wendell Carter Jr. yet – or if the Bulls get good Jabari Parker instead of preseason Jabari Parker, all eyes will be on LaVine.

It’s the contract. It’s being the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butle trade. It’s how well he played before the injury and how dominant he looked in the preseason. He’s off to a good start and knows now is this time to build on it.

“There are a lot of things you want to reach and get better at every year, and I put a lot of work into this offseason,” he said. “I have a lot of things to prove and want to get better at, and yeah, I feel like it’s just motivation for yourself when you want to accomplish things.’’

Wendell Carter Jr. making a name for himself as top defender in 2018 class

Wendell Carter Jr. making a name for himself as top defender in 2018 class

Wendell Carter Jr. has been one of the few bright spots in a tough stretch for the Bulls. 

Speculation around the time of the 2018 NBA Draft was that Mohammed Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr. or even DeAndre Ayton could end up being better defenders than Carter due to their athleticism. And while time will tell if this is true, so far in 2018-19, Carter has shown that he is ahead of his peers in terms of breaking down what is happening in front of him and assessing what his responsibility is. One of the main thing holding back the Bulls on defense is ball-watching.

To be effective against an opponent that swings the ball around on offense—generating good shots from the strong and weakside—your defense needs to have all five players on the floor with their head on a swivel, keeping an eye on the ball and their man. Carter has done a lot of leading by example in this specific area. 

Carter's defensive numbers have been head-and-shoulders above his fellow rookie big men and with Hoiberg trusting him with 25+ minutes a night, the gap between he and his peers is likely to grow.

Heading into Wednesday's game, opponent's attacked him frequently within 6 feet of the basket. When Carter defends shot within 6 feet of the basket he makes opponent's shoot 9.3 percent worse, the best mark on the Bulls if you consider sample size. 

As of now, Carter is still on pace to be the only teenager in NBA history to average at least 2 blocks per game. And if he keeps this up, his case for Rookie of the Year will only get stronger.

And with all of the injuries and struggles of this young team, Carter's impressive defensive IQ continues to bring hope.

The Bulls upcoming back-to-back will see them take on Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard respectively. 

These matchups will likely show just how far away the Bulls are from being a competitive team. But with Chicago’s perimeter defense lacking sufficient wing defenders, these two games will also showcase Carter’s ability to be the last line of defense, on a team that could use a first one.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jimmy Butler makes debut for Philly

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Jimmy Butler makes debut for Philly

Patrick Finley and Anthony Herron join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00 - Mark Schanowski drops by to talk about Zach LaVine’s minutes load, Lauri Markkanen’s rehab and Jimmy Butler’s debut for Philly. Plus, they discuss if Draymond Green might have just pushed Kevin Durant out the door in Golden State when this season is over?

13:00 - The guys dissect Mitch Trubisky’s NFC Offensive Player of the Week award and Cody Parkey travelling to Soldier Field to practice kicking.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below:

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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