It’s probably time to stop saying that Zach LaVine is off to a hot start. Just four games in to the Bulls’ regular season it’s becoming obvious: A healthy Zach LaVine is a really good Zach LaVine.
There were mixed emotions in Chicago when the Bulls quickly matched the Sacramento Kings’ four-year, $78 million offer sheet back in July. Though LaVine’s potential was high, ACL surgery and 24 games of mediocrity and inefficiency gave pause at making him the 47th highest paid player in the league, above the likes of John Wall and Klay Thompson.
And here we are, the Bulls unofficially a week into their season and LaVine is looking like a player who’s underpaid. The raw numbers have been stunning: 32.3 points per game, third in the NBA behind Blake Griffin and Steph Curry, both of whom have 50-point games already; 57 percent shooting, the third best mark among the NBA’s top 30 leading scorers, behind only Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic; 3.3 assists, his best mark since his rookie season when he played 94 percent of his minutes at point guard; 9.1 free throws attempted per game, ahead of foul magnets like Jimmy Butler and James Harden.
That final statistic might be the most important.
The NBA defines a drive as such: “When a player attacks the basket off the dribble in the half court offense. Does not include situations where the player starts close to the basket, catches on the move, or immediately gets cut off on the perimeter.” In the early part of the season 56 players have tallied 8.0 drives per game or more, per NBA.com.
LaVine has driven the ball 11.8 times per game, tied with Kawhi Leonard for 24th in the league. But the real stat here is what he’s doing on those drives. LaVine is shooting 66.7 percent on drives, fourth best in the league; he’s also drawing personal fouls on 21.3 percent of those drives, the highest mark of those 56 players by a significant margin – No. 2 is Jimmy Butler, at 16.7 percent. LaVine is drawing 2.5 fouls per game on drives, the most of any player, despite having the 24th most drives per game. Oh, and he’s converting 97.9 percent of his scoring chances when he drives, also the best mark of the 56 players.
It’s not hyperbole to say that no other player in the NBA has driven the ball to the basket better than LaVine.
And it won them a game on Wednesday. LaVine had the final look for the second straight home game, and after losing his grip on the ball in the final seconds of a loss to Detroit, LaVine attacked on Wednesday. Lo and behold, he drove by Malik Monk and drew a shooting foul with 0.5 seconds left, and made a pair of free throws to secure the win.
“I know I can get to the hoop. I put pressure on defenses,” LaVine said. “I know if that shot selection comes into it, I know I can get a jump shot but I know I can put pressure on them and get to the hoop. I’ve got to keep doing that.
“I just go into the game trying to be aggressive. I knew it was a tough game, there was a lot of slapping going on. You have to be OK with that. You have to be competitive enough to keep going in there.”
It’s a sight for sore eyes after LaVine struggled with that aggressiveness in his first stint back after ACL surgery. LaVine averaged 8.7 drives per game last season, drawing fouls on just 9.6 percent of them and converting those drives into points at just a 60.3 percent clip.
He’s a different player this year, but (assuming his outside shooting levels off) his attacking of the rim has been the biggest jump. Shot selection troubled LaVine in his first season back, but he’s been reading defenses much better through four games. He appears to have a complete grasp of the offense and is picking and choosing his spots almost flawlessly.
I just knew I could get to the hoop, so it’s just reading the defense,” LaVine said of his performance on Wednesday. “If I know I can get to the hoop or if I know my jumper’s on, I’m going to just read the defense.”