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Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine hopes to continue unlocking potential in 2019-20 season

Sam Smith,

Thursday 11 July 2019 15:59, UK

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine rams home a dunk
Image: Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine rams home a dunk

Though entering his sixth year in the NBA, Zach LaVine is just 24, and he's ready to take the next step in the 2019-20 season.

LaVine is the guy pounding on the door to greatness. He badly wants into that elite assembly, and he possesses the right stuff, the shooting and scoring skills, the athletic make-up and the desire. But just when he can hear them calling from the other side, the key breaks in the lock.

Like during his third NBA season when he was averaging about 19 points a game and almost 40 per cent on three-point shooting, among the league-leading guards in effective field goal percentage. Then came the torn ACL.

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A year later, LaVine was back on the court, albeit in different colours, the Bulls' black, red and white. Though still with true blue intentions. Though the voices inside were dimmer now as Zach was farther away, though no less determined.

So he began pounding away again last season, among the league's leading scorers at almost 24 points per game, versatile and unique, among the few players averaging more than four assists and four rebounds.

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The door seemed to be cracking open a bit, though it proved illusory once again because of the Bulls feeble season, LaVine's brilliance linked to the team's 60 losses.

"I took a step last year, but I feel like that was a stepping stone for what I want to do and what I envision myself doing," LaVine said while watching the Bulls Summer League team lose to the Pelicans.

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LaVine (right) takes in a Summer League game with Bulls team-mates Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter Jr
Image: LaVine (right) takes in a Summer League game with Bulls team-mates Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter Jr

LaVine watched the game with several team-mates, mugged for pictures, chatted amiably with other coaches and players as they walked by outside the Bulls locker room and then with coach Jim Boylen's daughters.

He is among the least pretentious and approachable of stars, welcoming and friendly with an easy laugh and manner. He's the kind of guy you root for, also because you know how badly he wants it for himself and his team. Until now, it has always seemed just out of his reach.

"Everything comes with winning," LaVine agreed. "I haven't won since college and high school. I want to play in meaningful games. Every NBA game is meaningful, but you want to go to the playoffs and play where big plays are made. I consider myself someone who can make those big plays and I want to be able to go out and do that."

Zach LaVine hammers home a dunk against the 76ers 0:20
Zach LaVine's lay-up with 1.6 seconds remaining earned the Chicago Bulls a 108-107 win over the Philadelphia 76ers

Perhaps now the Bulls have someone who just might have the key for LaVine in Thaddeus Young, the veteran free agent who just happened to be the senior player who was helping develop him in his rookie season in Minnesota.

"Zach, his rookie year, he was just young," Young said after taking in the game with LaVine. "He didn't understand the game. But he had a great motor, a great ability to go out there and play the game and I think he's learned the game a lot. He's able to go out there and lead, he's able to go out there and be into the game. And with his ability to score the basketball and do a lot of different things athletically he's going to put us in a [good] position.

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"We know he's our guy and he's going to be the guy going forward. The thing is to go out there and help him harness those skills and continue to help him get better as a leader, get better as a player and hopefully help him make the All-Star game."

For the first time since 1988, the All-Star Weekend takes place in Chicago in February 2020 and Bulls players harbour hope of representing the team and their city - though not just in one of those Saturday night contests.

Lauri Markkanen fires from three-point range
Image: Lauri Markkanen fires from three-point range

The Bulls, with the acquisitions of Young and Washington point guard Tomas Satoransky, signalled their intentions to enable LaVine and Lauri Markkanen to step up and earn their maiden trips to the All-Star Game.

LaVine understands the message team management has sent to both he and Markkanen. "I feel they did a good job with it [in the offseason]," he said. "So now is the time for us to start stepping up. I feel like this year we can really do some things with the guys we have, a guy like Thad who is one of my friends, my guy in Minnesota. We know Satoransky from playing against him, a very efficient, team-oriented guy; really two team-oriented guys.

Lauri Markkanen shots over Paul George 0:21
Lauri Markkanen scores the decisive basket in the Chicago Bulls' dramatic win over the Oklahoma City Thunder

"Then we add two good rookies. Coby (White), who is very athletic, very fast. I'm looking forward to playing with him, and you can see he is going to help contribute every way he can. I do believe we can make a run for it.

"You saw last season what we can be," said LaVine about that brief 7-5 stretch after the Bulls traded for Otto Porter Jr, a run that culminated in the historic four-overtime win in Atlanta when LaVine scored 47 points.

Trae Young scores with a lay-up against Chicago 1:43
Highlights of Zach LaVine and Trae Young's respective nights as the Chicago Bulls outlast the Atlanta Hawks after four overtime periods

"I know it was just a short time in February, but you saw some things we did and we can do. We're going to go for it, but we have to do it from day one.

"In Minnesota we were rebuilding like we are here, but now I feel we are getting to the stage where we have to push and start to be able to win and solidify ourselves in the league. I'm getting my body ready. Working on the explosive things, getting my legs and body ready for the whole 82. I haven't played a whole 82 since my second year in the NBA and I'm aiming for that. Plus, I'm working on different facets of my game. I think I did a really good job of getting to the free throw line, but I can improve that."

Zach LaVine powers home a dunk against Atlanta 0:10
Zach LaVine throws down a thunderous dunk as the Chicago Bulls beat the Atlanta Hawks 168-161 after four overtime periods

Though entering his sixth year, LaVine is just 24. He finished 16th overall in the league in free throw attempts and fifth among NBA guards despite much fewer opportunities later in the season. The first month of the season, LaVine was averaging almost eight free throw attempts per game and 28 points.

"I feel I eliminated a lot of long twos," LaVine said of his 2018-19 campaign. "I feel we are going to play at a lot faster pace this year, too, so getting up threes, building on what I did last year. But I know I have to be a complete player, a two-way player. I feel I showed flashes last year [on defense], especially on the ball. But I can be better off the ball.

"I've been saying for a lot of years I will play better defense. So now is the time. I'm one of the most athletic guys out there. So there's no reason why I shouldn't also be a lock-down defender."

And continue to unlock that potential, which could open so many doors for the Bulls.

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