Bulls

Zach LaVine's recovery and performance will either inspire confidence in Bulls rebuild or doom it

Zach LaVine's recovery and performance will either inspire confidence in Bulls rebuild or doom it

The smiles were around as the newcomers of the Bulls put on their best faces as the new era of Bulls basketball was officially presented to the public.

The men who brought them to Chicago, John Paxson and Gar Forman, began the painstaking task of introducing Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen to a skeptical public that believes the Bulls were robbed without a ski mask for Jimmy Butler.

Sitting next to them was coach Fred Hoiberg, who’s entering his third season with a third different roster and a chance to change a narrative that’s largely nondescript to this point.

“Thursday night we made a decision to move a great player (Butler),” Paxson said. “But over these last four or five days, we sat and talked and are really happy about the direction we’re about to head down.”

It’s a direction they’ve chosen where they know everything has to be done right for it to be fruitful. High draft choices are to be expected, and Paxson has said publicly and privately that they must hit on every single one, starting with Markkanen.

But for the sake of narrative and performance certainty and erasing errors of the past, LaVine has to be the one who leads the rebuild on the floor. It could be awhile before Markkanen develops, and in Dunn it’s uncertain if he had a bump in the road as a rookie or if the Bulls see something in him the Timberwolves failed to focus on.

Dunn could merely be a long unrequited love the Bulls have held onto without actually looking at the evidence he presented in an underwhelming rookie season.

But it’s LaVine who has the most pressure and is as close to a household name as anyone, winner of two straight dunk contests in 2014 and 2015 at All-Star Weekend.

A high flyer with a higher ceiling than anyone on the Bulls roster, LaVine must show he’s not damaged goods as he’s returning from a left ACL tear he suffered in February.

Bumping knees with Detroit’s Andre Drummond on an athletic drive to the basket, LaVine shook off the pain to play another six minutes in that third quarter in Detroit, completely unaware of the severity.

“I just thought it was a sprain,” LaVine told CSNChicago.com. “It wasn’t until I went to the locker room at the end of the quarter and more doctors were called in that I started thinking something was wrong.”

The bad news arrived and surgery wasn’t far behind, turning a promising campaign into one of uncertainty, the same kind that mirrors this franchise. Doctors have told LaVine, his family and representatives his knee doesn’t have the typical wear and tear of average athletes, probably buoyed by the fact his recovery is ahead of the nine-to-12-month usual schedule that accompanies these injuries.

Considering the last torn ACL in Chicago still haunts the franchise, considering LaVine plays the same position as the man he’s replacing and the fact he’s relishing being the man in charge in a similar way Butler did, LaVine’s recovery and development is the one most critical to this franchise’s credibility.

“We talked about it. Hey, look, you wanted to be an All-Star guy,” Paul LaVine, Zach’s father who was in attendance at the Advocate Center, said to CSNChicago.com. “You’re in a bigger market, go out here and get it done. I’m not concerned because my son, each situation, he’s surprised me.”

He averaged 18.9 points in 47 games as a third option behind Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, but when he steps on the floor, yes he’ll have more opportunities but also more defensive attention and a spotlight he hasn’t had to deal with as a pro.

“High school, I didn’t know,” Paul LaVine said. “His first 15 games at UCLA, that’s what got him drafted, he exploded. When he got here, I knew if he got an opportunity on the NBA stage, it doesn’t surprise me.”

But the newest Bull knows he must fight the urge to come back in a superhuman manner, especially playing for the franchise Michael Jordan built. Jordan, through highlight videos and the movie “Space Jam,” became one of LaVine’s idols. More directly, Kobe Bryant became the player LaVine has modeled himself after, as LaVine chose the number eight and wore Bryant’s signature Nikes during his photo shoot after his introductory news conference.

“I'm only 22. I'm ready for it. I'm very humble,” LaVine said with a smile of confidence. “When it's time for me to get going, I'm going to come in here and work my butt off like I always do, going in with full confidence. I'm just extremely excited to get this ball rolling and see what we can do.”

LaVine is often pulled back when he passes through certain benchmarks of his rehab and has to continue to play the long game. Coming back too soon or being pressed to come back got others in trouble.

Headed into restricted free agency after next season, LaVine certainly wants to prove his worth so contract negotiations will be smooth in the offseason. But since the Bulls have clearly chosen their path of a rebuild, one wonders how the two ideals will compete against one another this season.

“Regardless, I’m going to be safe. That’s the main thing, always being safe,” LaVine said. “I always have to take care of myself and this franchise, as well. I’m going to be safe, I’m going to do everything I can physically to get back. Then when I’m at that point, I’m going to be ready. I’m the type of person that’s going to work my butt off to get there as fast as possible. I’m going to be ready when I am there.”

For the Bulls’ sake, LaVine has to be the face of this first step as it might be the closest thing the front office has to inspiring any level of confidence to a weary fan base.

Instant reaction: 4 takeaways from Bulls' preseason victory over Hawks

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USA Today

Instant reaction: 4 takeaways from Bulls' preseason victory over Hawks

The Bulls concluded their preseason schedule at 2-3 following Thursday’s 111-93 win over a Hawks team playing their regulars limited minutes at the United Center. Here are four takeaways:

Coby White is a baller

Those aren’t our words. They’re Jim Boylen’s.

“We’re developing Coby White as a basketball player,” Boylen said Wednesday. “We’re not going to put him in this situation where he’s a 1, a 2 or a 3. He’s a baller.”

White certainly was with a dominant second half in which he scored 21 of his 29 points and finished 6-for-8 from 3-point range.

At this point, it doesn’t matter if White ever passes the ball. This is the all-time leading scorer in North Carolina high school history and someone who even North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t expect to turn pro after one season.

White is clearly more a scorer than point guard at this point. And that’s fine. Give the Bulls credit for recognizing that and letting him play to his strengths rather than force-feed him.

Welcome to the preseason, Wendell Carter Jr.

With his status unknown until shortly before tipoff because he tweaked his surgically repaired left thumb, the second-year big man started and endured a slow first stretch in which he looked winded. Then, Carter made his presence known in a big way.

He blocked Brandon Goodwin’s driving layup and sprinted the floor to dunk off a Kris Dunn dish. He drew a taunting technical for dunking all over Bruno Fernando. He blocked Alex Len’s dunk attempt. He made a nice touch pass to Otto Porter Jr. for a basket.

In short, he showed why the organization remains so high on him. And in the process, he almost made people forget the sprained ankle, bruised tailbone and now tweaked thumb he has had this preseason.

Almost.

Carter still needs to prove he can stay on the floor. As coach Jim Boylen often says, reliability and availability are skills. But it’s a good sign for Carter to finish the preseason on a high note with eight points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

Kris Dunn dominated defensively before enduring foul trouble

The guard continues to say all the right things about his reserve role, embracing his identity as a disruptive defensive force.

Whether it was motivation to do right by that or memories of Trae Young scoring 49 points in these teams’ epic, four-overtime thriller from last season, Young had a first-half stretch in which he was all over the court. He had three steals and two assists before sitting with three fouls.

“I’m a professional, as we all are in here,” Dunn said. “We have to approach it in a professional manner. I’m with the Bulls. I’m going to play hard each game and each practice and try to help the team win.”

Dunn’s three quick fouls isn’t an issue either. He’s now in a role where he can afford to be that aggressive defensively.

Jim Boylen used a regular-season rotation

Carter started alongside Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen. Dunn played with a second unit that featured Coby White, Ryan Arcidiacono, Thad Young and Luke Kornet.

That means, at least for now, Denzel Valentine is the odd man out. Chandler Hutchison and Shaq Harrison have yet to play this preseason because of hamstring injuries. So perhaps the rotation will change.

But Boylen said pregame that he planned to use the final preseason game as a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Along those lines, the Bulls kept their newfound approach of launching 3-pointers intact. They took 46 overall, including Zach LaVine’s deep heave that beat the halftime buzzer as part of his 23 points in 25 minutes. LaVine continued to score almost effortlessly.

Jordan gets emotional at opening of 'The Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinic'

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USA TODAY

Jordan gets emotional at opening of 'The Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinic'

Michael Jordan is by no means new to philanthropic work, as the NBA Hall of Famer and owner of the Charlotte Hornets has long donated to many different causes, including rather recently, a $1 million donation to the relief efforts for Hurricane Dorian. In a new charitable effort, Jordan has gone and made a huge difference in the Charlotte community, helping to open up a  brand new Novant Health Medical Clinic.

“It’s not the financials but ... from the heart — a passion from what this city, this state has given back to me ... I can never repay what you have given to me. But this is a start.”

Jordan donated $7.2 million in order to help open up the two new Novant Health Clinics in Charlotte. He acknowledged that while he will always have his connections to "Illinois and other places", he knows "where it all begins", referring to North Carolina, as MJ grew up Wilmington. 

The Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Clinic features aluminum strips on the outside of the building that form an image of Jordan slam-dunking, but despite the Jordan branding on the building, he made it clear that the great day was not about him. 

“You see my name, but yet you see a lot of people behind me and the commitment, especially from my mom, about caring for other people and being a part of a community that matters.”

We saw the oft-reserved MJ start to tear up while discussing how important the cause was to him, “I can only give in gratitude for what I can never repay.”

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