Known for his high-flying antics, Zach LaVine is a professional scorer with a self-professed penchant for improvement.
“You work hard, you expect good things,” he told the Star Tribune’s Kent Youngblood after the Chicago Bulls lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves 111-96 on Nov. 25. LaVine had scored 28 points, with eight rebounds and four assists, but his efforts were not enough to top the team that drafted him 13th overall in 2014.
He was still recovering from a devastating ACL tear when the Bulls acquired him from the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler during a 2017 draft day trade. Normally, he would be putting hours of work on his game.
Instead, he had to put that intensity into recovering.
The rustiness showed in his limited time last year: LaVine averaged 16.7 points on 27.3 minutes and shot just 38.3 percent from the field through 24 games.
It would take another offseason to show how well he could perform once 100 percent.
This past summer, LaVine’s rookie contract expired, making him a restricted free agent. The Bull eventually decided to match the Sacramento Kings’ four-year, $80 million offer.
“I don’t have to validate anything,” LaVine told the KC Johnson of the Chicago Tribune when asked about his new contract “I know how good we can be.”
Some players become apathetic when they get their first big contract. Their desire to become better stagnates (ahem, Andrew Wiggins).
LaVine did not succumb; He rose to the occasion.
LaVine is now averaging 24.8 points per game through 19 appearances (10th in the NBA) with a 32.6% usage (5th), while playing 36.1 minutes (7th) dishing out 4.8 assists and grabbing 5.4 rebounds per game. He’s become a bonafide go-to scorer. His ability to slither and score at the rim is showcased nightly, reminiscent of a young Derrick Rose.
Below, LaVine drives to the basket off a Wendell Carter Jr. pick, finishing strong with contact over NBA superstar Anthony Davis.
LaVine has been feasting in the pick-and-roll this season, taking 40.7 percent of his two-point attempts at the rim: a huge jump from his career 29.7 percent. He’s hitting 61 percent of shots (52nd percentile), up from a putrid 50 percent inside the restricted area last year, which ranked in the 11th percentile among wings. He is also ninth in free throw attempts per game and first overall among shooting guards while shooting 86.2 percent from the line. He’s fouled on 13.6 percent of his shot attempts, which ranks in the 88th percentile among other wings.
LaVine has been attacking the basket with ferocity, and it shows. He has a variety of reverses, floaters and a shifty euro-step in his layup package. Once he gets downhill, he’s a challenge to slow down.
Here, he uses a hesitation to beat Damyean Dotson off the dribble, using his left hand for a smooth lay-in.
“I worked on that a lot this offseason, being able to create around the rim and draw contact and finish with both hands creatively,” LaVine told NBA.com. “… You have to be crafty around the rim and be able to finish.”
It’s not all rainbows and butterflies. LaVine, taking the lead-ball-handling duties, isn’t getting nearly the same amount of open looks he once had. He shot 38.7 percent from deep on 6.6 3-point attempts before his ACL injury with the Timberwolves during the 2016-17 season. He’s hitting only 29.6 percent from downtown this season.
Most of his missed 3s are the result of coming off a screen and taking a dribble, or even a step-back off an isolation. His efficiency from deep off the catch-and-shoot is much higher, but he often misses short.
Here is a successful off-ball action in the half court. Carter Jr. finds LaVine off a pick for an easy 3-point shot:
Thirty-six percent of his makes have been assisted—which ranks in the 96th percentile among all wings. He’s hitting the off-ball shots when he gets them, but just not getting as many open looks. Only 7.4 percent of his 3-point attempts are assisted: a huge fall from 21.4 percent last year and for his career at 43.4 percent.
Chicago doesn’t have a legitimate playmaking point guard on the roster, and that may continue to hinder LaVine’s development.
The two-time dunk champ has been forced to become the team’s primary playmaker. It’s worked, but it hasn’t been pretty. Among wing players, he’s in the 100th percentile for usage percentage, 93rd for assist percentage and 20th for turnover percentage (13.9 percent.) His ability to consistently find open players has been an issue.
Here, LaVine drives to the basket on a fast break. Instead of looking up on the drive and seeing two of his teammates’ wide-open on the wing, he takes an ill-advised layup and misses entirely.
Again, he drives to the basket, putting his head down and missing two wide-open teammates in the corners.
He’s deadly in transition, averaging 2.9 points per possession, 91st percentile among wing players. But athleticism only gets you so far, and sometimes his inadequate basketball IQ gets the best of him.
But the next step to his game is opening up his floor vision and finding the open man.
Channeling his inner Derrick Rose, LaVine drives to the basket and attempts to jump-pass the ball back to the top of the key, forcing an easy fast break for the Miami Heat.
LaVine, coming off a pick, telegraphs his pass, forcing a turnover and causing a humiliating alley-oop.
And it’s only taken a few weeks for teams to catch onto this flaw in his game. They’re serving him a steady diet of double teams, traps and ice tactics. It’s caused his shooting percentages to drop because, for the Bulls to win games, he must take 20 shots every night.
Defensively, Lavine has the potential to be a fine on-ball defender. Like Russell Westbrook, he has the athleticism to stay in front of some of the game’s best guards and wings. However, his basketball IQ off-ball is so poor that his offensive production hardly outweighs his defensive inefficiencies.
It’s not an effort issue, (as it has been for teammate Jabari Parker). Rather, LaVine gets lost in a myriad of screens and ball movement. He doesn’t consistently execute any of Hoiberg’s simple defensive scheme. An inability to pay attention to shooters running circles around him is on display every night.
As soon as LaVine turns his back coming off a screen, it’s over for the defense.
Kris Dunn coming back from his MCL sprain will take a load off LaVine’s ball-handling duties and help with some of the defensive woes. The latter is simply a better off-ball scorer. When Lauri Markkanen returns from his elbow injury, he will take some of the weight off LaVine’s offensive load as well. The high-flying wing will be able to utilize his big man’s ability to stretch the floor in the half-court, creating even more scoring opportunities.
Chicago is still in rebuild mode, but LaVine has shown he can be a part of a winning future with this franchise. If his sentiments concerning work ethic are true, multi-faceted improvement can come from the 23-year-old professional scorer.
Austin Hutchinson is a freelance writer who resides in both Southern California and the Chicagoland area. He is also a breaking news writer for Clutch Points. A lifelong Bulls fan, Austin has written for BBallBreakdown, Fan Rag Sports, and NBA Math, among many others.