Zach LaVine not worried about bumps in the road, but admits 'I sucked' in loss to Lakers

Zach LaVine not worried about bumps in the road, but admits 'I sucked' in loss to Lakers

There will come a time – perhaps sooner than later, given how the Bulls’ rebuild has gone in Year 1 – when Zach LaVine takes over and wins a close game. The 21-year-old already boasts quite the resume that goes far beyond his Slam Dunk Contest trophies, including a 40-point game, and has a knack for scoring that made him the key piece of June’s Jimmy Butler trade.

But more than 11 months away from game action has taken its toll on LaVine. He’s clearly still shaking off rust – whether he wants to admit it or not – and hasn’t regained the form that made him a 19-point per game scorer in just his third NBA season a year ago. There’s no rush for the 18-31 Bulls, but in the short-term they could have used that old LaVine on Friday night, going down to the wire against a Lakers team that had won seven of nine games.

Instead LaVine struggled throughout, stalling a Bulls offense that appeared stagnant at times without the help of key distributor Kris Dunn. LaVine attacked the rim more frequently in the second half but couldn’t finish. And his two missed free throws in the closing minutes could have pulled the Bulls within a possession. The final numbers saw LaVine go 3-for-17 with 10 points, three rebounds and one assist in 25 minutes. But it somehow felt worse than that.

Accordingly, he didn’t mince words after the game, but also didn’t overreact to a bad stretch.

“I felt good. I just missed a lot of easy shots. That’s the way it goes sometimes. I’ve got to be better,” LaVine said. “I sucked tonight. That’s the way the ball goes, but I can handle that.”

LaVine, like the rest of the Bulls, find themselves in a precarious spot without Dunn. With one less shot creator defenses are able to key in scorers like LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Nikola Mirotic. And though Jerian Grant finished with eight assists and no turnovers, the ball movement is markedly different when it’s Dunn initiating offense; the Bulls had two assists in the third quarter and just four in the fourth before the game was out of reach.

LaVine relied on jumpers in the first half, with four of his six attempts coming outside the paint. He went 1-for-6. In the third quarter he hit a pair of unassisted jumpers to open the half, including a 3-pointer, that got the Lakers’ attention. LaVine began attacking more, though he wound up finishing 0-for-5 in the paint, and 0-for-4 at the rim. The Lakers defense, which has improved to 12th in efficiency thanks to their recent hot stretch, stifled LaVine. In his third round of fourth-quarter minutes he stayed cold while Nikola Mirotic and Denzel Valentine shot them back in it. He missed all three shots in the final stanza, and missed both free throws with 1:14 left and the Bulls down 101-97.

He refused to blame the struggles on conditioning, a good sign for Bulls fans and team doctors.

“Yeah, (my legs) are coming and it’ getting to that point where I just need to be consistent with them,” he said. “I know it’s a process with it but it gets frustrating at times and you just want to smooth it out.”

Admittedly it’s been more bad than good for LaVine three weeks into his debut with the Bulls. Much of that is to be expected, but he hasn’t exactly met complete expectations. He came out of the gates firing, hitting his first shot as a Bull and averaging 16 points on 12 of 21 shooting in two games. Since then he’s mixed in two solid games with a trio of poor ones, the worst of which came Friday. The playmaking hasn’t come yet – he has 16 assists in seven games – which becomes more evident when Dunn is out and Markkanen/Mirotic are missing shots – they went a combined 8-for-23 on Friday.

Decision making aside – something Hoiberg alluded to during pregame availability – Hoiberg was happy with LaVine’s shots. And without Dunn in the lineup late, Hoiberg put the ball in LaVine’s hands to initiate offense down the stretch, despite his poor shooting.

He has to take good shots,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he got it going, we played through him a little bit the beginning of the third, but other than that he just couldn’t get anything to fall. And he had wide-open ones, I promise you. As we go on with this, as he gets his legs, he’s gonna knock those down.”

That said, in a rebuilding year that has gone far better than expected (depending on who you ask), the most important factoid to pull from Friday is that LaVine is healthy. He hasn’t had any setbacks, hasn’t been forced to miss any games – the Bulls don’t have a back-to-back  – and his elite bounce, athleticism and strength appear to all be there. He simply didn’t have it going Friday.

And those who see him in practice every day – his teammates – know what LaVine is capable of, and that it’s coming sooner than later. He showed spurts with his early third-quarter scoring and the game comes naturally to him. Though the spotlight will be on him each night, especially when the team struggles as a whole and can’t finish late, patience will pay off for LaVine and the Bulls.

“He’s a great player so I’m not even worried about the shots he’s missing or whatever is going on with him,” Valentine said. “He’s going to figure it out, he’s a great player, he deserves to be in this moment. It’s going to take time for us to click a little bit, though.”

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

Draft night highlighted the unfulfilling feeling of this past Bulls season

The door has officially been closed on the 2017-18 season for the Chicago Bulls, and the word that most comes to mind is “unfulfilling.”

Or maybe even “indistinguishable.”

Draft night was supposed to be a culmination of a painful seven-month stretch that only had occasional yet costly moments of light.

Death lineup? Meet Death March. And Death April, while we’re at it.

The Bulls brass sold everyone on a full rebuild after trading Jimmy Butler one year ago, with an unspoken promise that this draft would bear franchise-changing fruit—hence the general feeling of angst or even indifference with the solid selection of Wendell Carter Jr. and their not-so-secret affection of Chandler Hutchison.

It was why fans believe the Bulls got cold feet about trading to move up, and why they believe the Bulls weren’t being pragmatic in staying away from Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, some believe, has star written all over him given his prep ranking this time last year and the Bulls were in position to speed up this process without having to go into a painful Process.

They were desperate for a star, believing the tankathon had produced so much suffering it had to be something on the back end.

There was the fight (or the punch).

The aftermath.

The miserable 3-20 start.

The 14-7 streak that produced the audacity of hope.

The reality that 14-7 was damaging enough to the lottery chances that a 3-11 finish couldn’t rectify.

And finally, the coin flip that cost them five spots in the lottery one month ago.

So that empty feeling has less to do with Carter and Hutchison, who’ve done nothing to earn the “blah” reaction from the fan base and some media. It has everything to do with the unanswered questions over the last 82 games and lack of clarity over the three hauls from draft night last year.

It’s not that Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn underperformed individually last season, but the lack of cohesiveness due to injuries and circumstances has led to the varying thoughts.

LaVine is approaching restricted free agency and by all accounts is taking his continuing rehab in Washington very seriously.  Markkanen has added plenty of muscle since the offseason began, appearing as if he can play Michael B. Jordan’s in-ring foil in the next installation of “Creed” as Ivan Drago’s long lost son.

And despite the report about Dunn not working as hard on the floor this offseason, that would be more of a concern if this were late August, not June.

The last time they were seen together on the floor, they looked no closer to a pecking order than the day they arrived.

What we know is that they’re productive NBA players, capable of putting an individual tattoo on a game at a moment’s notice, skillful enough to take your breath away.

And for whatever reason, the expectations changed once the three displayed they could be dynamic on their own—a star needed to be anointed and groomed to go with the star they believed was coming their way after the season.

Management is fully behind Markkanen, but Paxson’s strong words about LaVine at the season-ending news conference illustrated how much it feels LaVine has to prove next season.

With his restricted free agency status looming, the Bulls’ initial offer will show how much they value him until and if he gets a better deal on the market.

And the fact the Bulls weren’t afraid to draft Trae Young while having a healthy debate about Collin Sexton on draft night has to show they have at least some skepticism about the future at point guard.

But stars—developing stars, acquired stars, drafted stars—have to do it on their own. No amount of promotion or prodding from management will validate their faith, if that’s the route the Bulls choose to go.

This has to be a meritocracy or it won’t work and, honestly, it’s time for a reality check.

All the worry about the Bulls getting back to title contention sooner rather than later seems like folks getting ahead of themselves.

The front office has taken its share of shots from media and fans, so some questioning is earned but they’re right about one thing. Rebuilds aren’t completed in a day or 12 months.

Expecting some magic potion to arrive in the form of a top draft pick isn’t going to cure what ills this roster, and it doesn’t seem likely all the cap space will result in a free agent choosing the Bulls over the usual suspects.

However, methodical building can look like complacency if not done with a sense of urgency.

And with urgency in mind, this past season was unsatisfying to say the least—heading into the next phase with two more young pieces to develop while the first three are still in the evaluation stage.

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Loyola's March Madness hero Donte Ingram will play with Bulls' Summer League team

Donte Ingram's 2018 keeps getting better and better.

The March Madness hero, who buried a game-winning 3-pointer in the first round of Loyola's win over Miami, will play on the Bulls' Summer League team.

Ingram, a Simeon Academy graduate, had himself an incredible senior season with the Ramblers, who advanced all the way to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed.

In five NCAA Tournament games Ingram averaged 7.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists for the Ramblers. He also had 18 points in the MVC Conference Championship Game to secure the Ramblers' March Madness berth.

He'll join first-round draft picks Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison on the Las Vegas Summer League team, which will begin play early next month.