Tom Thibodeau witnessed a jump.
Zach LaVine’s scoring average rose from 14 points the season before Thibodeau took over the Timberwolves to 18.9 points in the lone season he coached the high-flying guard.
“Sometimes we tend to forget the steps that players take to get to the point to where they are today,” Thibodeau, the current Knicks coach, said as his team engaged in a two-game set with the Bulls this week. “He’s an elite shooter. He’s a great athlete and a great guy. He’s a hard worker. So you knew he was going to continue to improve.”
Indeed, now Billy Donovan is seeing the same thing.
But for Donovan and the Bulls, it’s not just the scoring average, though that has climbed from LaVine’s career-high 25.5 points per game last season to 26.6 points this season. And on those elite shooting splits -- 51 percent field goal, 41.9 percent 3-point, 88.1 percent free throw -- that Thibodeau referenced.
No, LaVine is growing and improving in his understanding of winning basketball. His early deferral to Lauri Markkanen and then a fourth-quarter takeover that included the dagger 3-point in Monday’s victory over Thibodeau’s Knicks is the latest example in a season filled with such growth.
“I give him a lot of credit last night because they were very aggressive with him offensively and he stayed the course. When the time came for him to step up and make a big shot, he made one. I think that speaks to him staying engaged in the game,” Donovan said. “Like he was totally fine with the way we were trying to play because the ball was moving around. I think he’s probably even mentioned or used the term hockey assist. And it’s a great term where maybe he throws the ball somebody and that person can make the next best pass that leads to a wide-open shot. And he creates a lot of hockey assists for our team.”
He also creates plenty of regular assists, evidenced by his career-best 5.1 per game average through 19 games. LaVine’s 4.2 turnovers per game also represent a career-high.
But to hear him and Donovan tell it, such lapses are what is driving an already strong commitment to winning to even greater heights.
“I’ve been in watching film and trying to break down my game and figure out what works and what doesn’t over the last couple of years. Obviously, there’s some times where I’ll try and do things on my own. But I’ve gotten to a place now of, you know, you can’t do it by yourself,” LaVine said. “If teams are going to be showing this attention to me, I’m going to hit the pocket and we’re going to get a swing and an open shot.
“Breaking down film with Billy and his coaching staff, they’ve shown me different things that I’ve appreciated. And guys have bought in. I bought in pretty early. Billy’s a very, very respected coach, so it’s hard not to.’’
The feelings of respect are mutual.
“I don’t have any reference point for him at all as a player other than these few months. And he’s been really engaged in trying to figure out what he has to do as a player to get to another level,” Donovan said. “I think even he’d admit to this: He has worked so hard on his game -- developing stepbacks, handling the ball, playing pick-and-roll, driving to the basket. He has worked incredibly hard on all those things. But he knows there’s another piece that he wants to grow into. And I think he has been pretty committed to trying to do that.
“He’s trying to maybe look at things through a different lens or through a different perspective as he continues to grow and get older. He’ll say, ‘OK, how can I really impact winning? What’s my mentality? How do I need to handle these situations?' And it’s a lot.
“I see a guy who is really committed. It’s probably not going to be smooth sailing. There are going to be ups and downs in it. But I really appreciate as a coach his commitment to trying to figure those things out.”
This work ethic is the common ingredient that bonds LaVine to Donovan to Thibodeau.
This week has rekindled memories of how Thibodeau, as a college coach at Division III Salem State and later Harvard, would catch Rick Pitino-led practices at Providence, where Donovan played. Thibodeau and Donovan go way back.
LaVine caught up with his former coach during Monday’s game as well.
“I said what's up to him and talked to him a little bit during the game. Me and Thibs had a pretty good relationship. For me personally, I feel like I'm an extremely hard worker and I feel like I can respect somebody that works extremely hard. With Thibs, he's engulfed with basketball. It's night, morning, midday,” LaVine said. “I'll come back to the gym at nighttime and I'll hear him, 'What are you doing down there dribbling the ball?' Like, ‘Bro, why are you still here?’”
“He's a basketball lifer,” he said of Thibodeau. “He's engulfed in it and you can respect somebody like that."
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