There are so many benefits to Chicago Bulls All-Star guard Zach LaVine making USA Basketball’s men’s senior team that will compete for a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics that it’s hard to know where to begin.
It’s a safe bet that LaVine will play on a winning team for the first time since he joined the NBA — and he said on Friday that he wants to bring that winning mentality back to the Bulls.
On a team with so many alpha males and preternatural scorers, LaVine said he’s fine focusing on defense and has been working on picking up players full-court at Team USA’s minicamp in Las Vegas.
On the heels of his first All-Star selection, LaVine’s inclusion validates his work ethic and belief in himself that he belongs among the game’s elite.
He can try to sell teammates on the Bulls’ future, which LaVine has embraced publicly with his strong backing of coach Billy Donovan and new management in Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley.
Of course, LaVine also could be recruited — er, persuaded — by strong personalities to look at grass-is-greener situations elsewhere, although LaVine also talked positively about future contract talks with the Bulls.
And this is a story about all the benefits, anyway.
“I’m honored being here,” LaVine said via a Zoom media session from Las Vegas. “Obviously, I was really ecstatic to be selected and have the opportunity to come out here and compete for your country, learn from these guys. We’re all at the top of our game right now. To be able to come here and collaborate, to learn, soak it up, compete with these guys. You can’t do anything but get better. So I’m very fortunate for that.
“These are guys that have been around winning. This will probably be the best team that I’ll be around. So try and compete for gold, pick up little tricks and just that mentality of how they approach practice, pregame, things like that, talks in the locker room. All that stuff I’m trying to bring back and add some little extra ammo for my own well-being.’’
LaVine has made clear time and again how tired he is of losing. That the Bulls failed to crack even the play-in tournament last season following management’s bold move to acquire Nikola Vučević at the trade deadline frustrated him, as did his need to enter the league’s health and safety protocols and miss 11 games down the stretch.
It’s why this potentially — assuredly? — positive experience comes at such an opportune time, even if LaVine refused to bite on a question about whether the Olympic berth validates his belief in himself.
“I’ve competed against these guys all the time. You always want what you feel like you’re deserving of. I think I’m always trying to get judged by my peers, and when you get the respect from your peers that’s what means the most,” he said. “So being here, competing with these guys, going out here and doing this is a big honor. Making the All-Star Game, that was great. But I want to be a winner, and I think everything will come with winning. And the better I get, the better I make my team, the more accolades you get individually. So all that stuff will come.
“But I felt good about myself because of the way I played, not because somebody told me. I know how good I am, and I know where I want to be at.’’
Team USA coach Gregg Popovich talked glowingly of LaVine, emphasizing that he’s someone who he and USA Basketball officials wanted on the team. Even if, like Pistons’ forward Jerami Grant, he wouldn’t be a first-tier name to think of like Kevin Durant.
“We are trying to put a team together, and that takes a lot of different elements,” Popovich said. “We are looking to have as many tools as we can depending on what we run into. So everybody fits a role in some way.
“With Zach, he is somebody who really wanted to do this, number one. His physical skills are abundant and obvious. His length, his athleticism, I think, will translate very well. He wants to play defense to the nth degree. He knows that’s what we want from him. We also want energy and obviously his scoring ability is always available.
“But I think through this camp what he’s going to do is become a little bit more solid playing with all these guys — decision-making wise I’m talking about, being able to play with these guys. His energy level is high. His commitment is fantastic, and he is willing to do anything we ask him to do. He has stated that. He’s somebody that I think is very different from most other players that we have on the team.”
Indeed, LaVine almost sounded like a role player when asked what he hopes to bring to the team.
“Everybody here can score the ball. We know that we’ll have more than enough scoring capabilities. I think you still have to be yourself when you’re out there. But I just want to bring energy. I can play multiple positions. I can guard multiple positions,” LaVine said. “I always feel when I get out there that I’m one of the more athletic guys. So bring energy, try to defend as many people as I can. I feel like that can be a niche I have on this team. Obviously, my scoring ability is known. But everybody can score so I want to find something else that will keep us into games. Whenever Pop calls, just bring energy, try to change the flow of the game.”
When the Bulls’ season concluded, LaVine, who is a notorious offseason worker, said he wanted to get in even better shape so that he can become a more impactful two-way player. In conversations with Donovan and management, LaVine said he finally understood the level of energy it takes to be a consistent force at both ends all game.
This Olympic experience will only reinforce that. Again, it’s all coming up gold for LaVine now, who, like at All-Star weekend, is taking his seat at the table among the game’s elite.
And as for that recruiting game?
“I mean, players is gonna be players, man. You gonna mingle and talk. But we're here for one goal, we're trying to win the gold medal,” LaVine said. “I think whatever comes from that, friendships, teammates, I think that's an afterthought.
“But you know how the NBA is. Everybody talks and it's a player's league, so we understand what goes on. Something happens, it happens.”