Throughout his first Team USA experience, it has been intriguing, if a little jarring, to hear Zach LaVine talk about being an energy guy more focused on pressuring the ball than scoring it.
This is, after all, an All-Star guard who finished seventh in the NBA by averaging a career-high 27.4 points for the Chicago Bulls.
They’re not throwaway words from LaVine, though. They speak to his pride in being included in USA Basketball’s quest for a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics and his commitment to participating in the winning basketball that has thus far eluded him in the NBA.
But in case anyone forgets LaVine often can be a walking bucket, taking his place alongside such snipers as Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard, he laughingly reminded all of that skill during his Zoom media availability session from Las Vegas on Friday.
“If they need some more scoring, obviously I think everybody knows I can do that,” LaVine said.
The questions came at LaVine in light of USA Basketball confirming that Bradley Beal won’t travel to Tokyo after landing in health and safety protocols. It’s a deflating feeling LaVine knows all too well. He missed 11 critical games down the stretch run of the Bulls’ season after a positive COVID-19 test.
“I was reaching out to him throughout the day. Obviously, it sucks, man,” LaVine said. “This year has been terrible for all of us. For him to get it at this time, right before we leave, I know his family is here. So hopefully everybody is safe. I think that’s more important than basketball. Just making sure of his safety and that he knows he’s getting supported by us.”
LaVine landed in the starting lineup for Team USA’s third exhibition, a blowout victory over Argentina. With Jayson Tatum sitting with knee soreness, LaVine finished with 15 points and five assists in easily his most assertive offensive performance.
Even with Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton scheduled to join USA Basketball once their NBA Finals commitment is over, LaVine’s role potentially could expand with Beal out. USA Basketball officials also confirmed Kevin Love’s departure, with multiple outlets reporting that JaVale McGee and Keldon Johnson will serve as replacements.
“First game, I really wanted to go out there and pressure the ball. (Coaches) really wanted me to try to impact the ball on defense. Pick up the energy. Pick up the pace. I feel like I did that. Took my shots when they were there,” LaVine said. “Second game, got my spot minutes. I think they switched the lineup a little bit, just seeing different guys. In the exhibition games, that’s what we’re going to do.
“Then third game... obviously I can be a little bit more like me. Being in the starting lineup, I can still go out there and impact the ball on defense but look to be more aggressive as well.
“I’ll be fine with whatever role they give me. I’m just here to try to help us bring back the gold medal and continue to learn from these guys and get better. Whatever role they put me in, I think I can excel in... If Pop (coach Gregg Popovich) throws me in the starting lineup, I’ll be fine with that. If I come off the bench, like I was doing before playing six minutes, seven minutes, eight minutes, I’m fine with that too.”
LaVine long has stopped caring about labels placed on him from outside sources. Between his first All-Star game and Olympics appearance, he is taking what he feels is his rightful place among the game’s elite.
However, the NBA playoffs have eluded him, which is why he fielded a question about whether he believes he can follow a similar path to that of Booker. The Suns All-Star guard also heard whispers of being an empty-calories scorer.
And now Booker is playing in the NBA Finals.
“I’m very happy for him. He’s got a really good team around him and has capitalized on his opportunity,” LaVine said. “We all know how good Book has been the last four years. I think guys around the league have known how good I’ve been. Sometimes, you just can’t help the label outside people put on you. I think people in the league know and coaches.
“I know how hard I work. I know how I try to impact the game as well, so I just have to show it on a national level and just try to help my team win. That’s all I care about. At the end of the day, I can’t really help what other people say. I just have to go out and do my job.”
That job now is to try to bring gold back from Tokyo. Exhibition losses to Nigeria and Australia, the on-hold arrivals of Finals participants, and now the departures of Beal and Love, have made the run-up to departure a bit rocky.
But LaVine remains confident, as he always does.
“I don’t have any concern. We’re in here working. Once we get all the guys back, I think they’ll try to find their way and work as well. We just have to help everybody along,” he said. “I think we’re the best basketball players in the world. I don’t think anyone is going to feel bad for us or try to take it easy. It’s just what it is and we have to get a job done.”