Bulls

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Zach LaVine's offensive struggles begin with his deficiencies at the rim

Through the NBA’s first three weeks there wasn’t a better player at attacking the rim than Zach LaVine. The 23-year-old looked spry, healthy and aggressive, and was drawing fouls at a rate that would have made even James Harden blush.

Well, LaVine has hit his first speed bump of the 2018-19 season. With Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis all on the mend (had you heard those three players were injured?) LaVine has taken on a ridiculous burden of leading the Bulls offense; he’s currently second in the NBA in usage, behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook and ahead of names like Giannis, LeBron, Curry, Embiid and Durant.

For three weeks that was fine. LaVine was hitting everything in sight, passing like we hadn’t seen since his rookie season when he played primarily point guard, and attacking the basket, ranking near the top of the league in trips to the free throw line.

LaVine was shooting a wild 69.6 percent on 8.0 attempts per game inside 5 feet through Oct. 29, third among guards to only Donovan Mitchell (73% on 6.2 attempts) and Devin Booker (70.8% on 6.0 attempts). To put those numbers in perspective, LaVine ranked just ahead of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook in the category.

It’s where LaVine was at his best, even as he continued to pore in 3-pointers at an absurd rate and, for the most part, take care of the basketball. He lived at the rim, and if he wasn’t finishing there he was drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line; through Oct. 29 he was ninth in free throw attempts per game (8.0), a slight tick above LeBron James (7.7).

But something happened after that pitiful loss to the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 29, and it’s sent LaVine into an ugly shooting slump that he hasn’t been able to get out of in the eight games since. Yes, teams are doubling LaVine and pressuring every time he plays in pick and roll.

But consider: LaVine has taken nearly the same number of contested shots per 36 minutes (11.0 vs. 10.9) and hasn’t taken all that fewer drives to the basket per 36 minutes (14.4 vs. 12.2) during his slump. It may seem like it on the surface, but LaVine’s game hasn’t changed that much as teams have keyed in on him.

Of course his 3-point percentage being as low as it is – 25.6 percent on 5.9 attempts during his slump – has had a huge effect, but the answer might be in what’s happening to LaVine on those drives to the basket lately.

He was a magnet the first seven games of the season, drawing a foul on 15.4 percent of his drives to the basket. He shot 55 percent on those drives and got to the free throw line 3.7 times per game on drives alone. 9.6 of his 28.1 points per game were coming on his attacks to the basket.

But his slump has affected the best part of his game. It certainly could be fatigue, or simply bad luck, but LaVine’s shooting numbers on drives have dipped to 44.6 percent, he’s drawing fouls on only 4.7 percent of them and is getting to the free throw line fewer than one time (0.8) off those drives. The volume of drives still have him averaging 7.0 points on them, but it’s a stark contrast. And when you combine his pedestrian – for his standards – numbers at the rim with that ugly 3-point shooting, it’s a recipe for disaster.

He’s even passing less on drives during his slump (22 percent of the time compared to 28 percent during his hot stretch), perhaps once again feeling the need to take over on offense for his shorthanded group.

Or maybe he’s just not getting calls. LaVine was issued a technical foul in the second quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics after he felt he was fouled by Semi Ojeleye. LaVine didn’t get the call, clapped his hands at the official and was given the T.

It’s been a frustrating two weeks all-around for LaVine, but his inability to finish at the rim like he had the first three weeks of the season has led the charge. It’s who LaVine is as a player and where he’s most effective for this Bulls team, which is why his attempts have remained the same.

Perhaps he isn’t getting the same leap on those drives given the uptick in minutes, or maybe defenses are figuring out how to better defend him without fouling. Whatever the reason, LaVine will need to figure out how to better attack defenses, especially if his 3-point shot remains off. It’s either that or more losses will continue to pile up for this undermanned group.

Mark Schanowski's NBA Draft Big Board 6.0

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USA TODAY

Mark Schanowski's NBA Draft Big Board 6.0

With all the national debate concerning whether Zion Williamson should continue playing for Duke following the Grade 1 knee sprain he suffered on Thursday, one thing is clear: Zion will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft no matter what he ultimately decides to do.

Granted, it was frightening to see Williamson’s left shoe explode and his right knee bend inwardly at an awkward angle, but the good news is he wasn’t seriously injured and should be able to play again very soon. It’s hard to believe the injury will have any impact on how Zion’s pro future is being evaluated by NBA scouts and executives, other than a continuing concern over his ability to withstand the rigors of an 82 game schedule at his listed weight of 285 pounds.

Williamson’s teammate R.J. Barrett had to turn up his offensive game after Zion went out against North Carolina, and wound up scoring 33 points, while Cam Reddish added 27. Both players figure to go in the top 5 come June.

One player who has caught my attention in recent weeks is Gonzaga big man Rui Hachimura. Even though he’s more of a traditional power forward at 6-foot-8, Hachimura showed the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive past defenders in recent games for the Zags, and for the season, he’s averaging just over 20 points a game, shooting 60 percent from the field and 42 percent from the three-point line.

With so many of the preseason lottery prospects struggling to find consistency, Hachimura is climbing up draft boards with steady production for the nation’s second ranked team. The Zags’ other starting forward, Brandon Clarke, is also drawing attention from NBA talent evaluators, averaging nearly 17 points and eight rebounds a game on an astounding 69 percent success rate from the field.

With the top 4 picks looking pretty solid right now, expect to see all kinds of movement from the 5 to 14 range in mock drafts heading into the draft combine in May. I’ve got Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland moving up to No. 6 this week, even though he hasn’t played since Nov. 23 because of a meniscus injury.

Maybe sitting out is the best strategy for some of the highly rated prospects who’ve looked decidedly average this season, like Indiana’s Romeo Langford, Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson and North Carolina’s Nassir Little.

This could be a year where performances at the draft combine and individual team workouts lead to a player making a dramatic rise or fall when the picks are announced on June 20.

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Should Zion Williamson shut it down and sit for the rest of the season?

Should Zion Williamson shut it down and sit for the rest of the season?

Decisions...

The great thing about this business is the ability of analyst, pundits, bloggers and pretty much everyone and anyone to have a voice. “I think Zion should (fill in the blank)."

How about we leave that decision up to Zion?

Think about the pressure he faced from friends, family, agents, “coaches”, etc.. before he even went to Duke. I’m sure there were those who asked him, why? Think about your college experience and the valuable lessons you learned and I’m not talking about the classroom. There are still some “kids,” regardless of skill level, that want that college experience. Even it’s only for one year, they’re still developing their game, but more importantly their mind. We always talk about physical ability, but constantly brush over mental ability or maturity.

All these one and done guys are not forced to go to college. There other avenues to get to the NBA but college is currently the the best route. Baseball and hockey have their minor league systems that have been proven to work. Until the NBA fully embraces the G-League, which they’re well on their way, college basketball is the best “ minor league” for the NBA. 

Let me be clear in saying that, as long as the NBA implements the “one and done rule” colleges should be giving these players some kind of payment, more than what they are currently providing these players for their services. I’m also not saying it’s the sole responsibility of the university to provide these payments. I think the NCAA should be involved in this equation, a nonprofit that made over a billion dollars last year by the way.

How much money is not only Duke, but the NCAA makeing off Zion alone? It’s definitely a slippery slope, but there has to be a better way. Just don’t ask the NCAA for the answer.

Finally, the NBA needs to do away with the one and done. Players coming out of high school should have a choice of the direction they want their athletic careers to go. I think if a high school player puts his name in the draft, but isn’t selected he should be able to go to college, on a scholarship, without penalty. I know that’s a risk for university to offer these level of players a scholarship and possibly miss out on another prospect, but I have a feeling that most of these high school kids will be accepting that offer.

I also think that player plus those already in college should be able to put their name in the draft every year, go to the combine, and make an educated choice. This is the process that is being implemented at the moment for the college players. It’s not perfect and needs some refining, but it’s better than the current system. Let’s not forget get that allowing these choices could/should damper some of this, “should he or shouldn’t he,” discussion.   

Now back to our regular scheduled programming. The last 24 games of the Bulls schedule. By the way, I’m still selecting Zion with the first-overall pick in the NBA Draft even if he has to have surgery and miss all of next season.

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