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In Focus: Zach LaVine

The Bulls paid him like a star this summer. Can he live up to a new set of expectations on a team full of young players with plenty to prove?

Zach LaVine Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2018-19 NBA season is closer than you may think. To prepare, we’re taking a hard look at some of the more interesting players and situations across the league.

The Chicago Bulls had all the time in the world to wait and see what Zach LaVine would become, then, suddenly, none at all. LaVine, who was packaged with Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick in 2017 (Lauri Markkanen) in the deal that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota, spent his first seven months with the Bulls rehabbing an ACL tear. Originally, he said he’d be ready by training camp. When that wasn’t possible, he targeted opening night. He finally made his return in mid-January, playing just 24 unconvincing games in a Bulls jersey before the front office confronted his restricted free agency.

On July 7, Sacramento signed LaVine to a four-year, $78 million offer sheet. The deal made little sense for either team. The Kings, who already had Buddy Hield and Iman Shumpert, didn’t need another shooting guard; the Bulls didn’t need to make an unproven player their first major post-rebuild investment. But Chicago matched with the hopes that LaVine would not only return to the trajectory he was on before the ACL tear, but get even better.

The 24-game tryout last season was a microcosm of LaVine’s four-year career. He was flashy and bold, taking the most shots despite missing months. He was also inconsistent and left the defense to his teammates. LaVine’s best performance was against Minnesota, his former team, in February; he dropped a season-high 35 points (1-for-6 from deep), scored 15 of Chicago’s last 17 points, and drew a foul from Butler for the go-ahead point to secure a 114-113 win. It was the face-of-the-franchise stuff amid a season that otherwise confirmed LaVine couldn’t be that. Now he’s making $19.5 million a year.

“Obviously,” LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago in late July, “that’s what you work for. I put all this hard work in not to be second fiddle.” The Bulls also signed 2014 draftmate Jabari Parker this offseason. With Kris Dunn at point guard, more than half of the Bulls’ expected starting lineup will be recent lottery picks itching to prove that they can hang.

LaVine was rusty last season after 11 months off the court. The hops that won him back-to-back dunk contests his first two years in the league were still there. But he struggled to change gears when trying to get past defenders and often had to downshift. What might’ve been a dunk pre-injury was a layup, and that layup went in far less frequently than it did before. LaVine’s overall field goal percentage was a career-low 38.3 percent, which is bad for anyone, but especially bad for someone whose identity is as a scorer.

LaVine tried to compensate for his struggles at the rim from behind the arc. In Minnesota, LaVine was a freak athlete with upside, waiting for his chance to dominate the ball on a team built around Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. It was endearing when he set a personal goal in his third season to make the 3-point contest, not win another dunk title. LaVine shot just below 40 percent from 3 for the second straight year, but turned up the volume, taking 6.6 3s a game. In the five games prior to his ACL tear, he was 17-for-22 from deep. Next season, everyone hoped, he’d turn his attention to the Defensive Player of the Year competition.

After rehab, now in a Bulls uniform, LaVine’s shooting didn’t improve. In fact, his performances were erratic, and by the end of the season he had regressed to the accuracy he had behind the arc his rookie season (34.1 percent). The highlights of his game back then are the ones Fred Hoiberg can expect to see now, entering the 2017-18 season: score-first, defense-last. Even a fully healthy LaVine won’t be a clear fit in Hoiberg’s offense, a system that I’m not entirely convinced the front office will ever give a chance to succeed. On top of his shooting woes, LaVine is unlikely to move the ball unless it leads to an assist. (Who Hoiberg needs, ironically, is Hield, the shooter Sacramento would’ve likely replaced had it landed LaVine.) But LaVine can still be a monster in transition, which may appeal to his coach’s greatest mission this season, after the team improved to 10th in the NBA in pace last season. If David Fizdale has a crush on wingspan, Hoiberg has a crush on pace.

With Markkanen, incoming rookie Wendell Carter Jr., and Parker next to LaVine, the offense has a chance to be more versatile than Chicago has seen in some time. Defensively, it could be worse than last season’s bottom-three finish. With Parker now in the fold, LaVine has fierce competition to be the Bulls’ worst player on defense.

LaVine is aware of the public perception of his defense. “I hear people talk,” he said in July. “‘You can’t do this.’ It helps me pay more attention to it and get better. I could care less. It’s something I want to be better at, and I want to be great on both ends.”

The malapropism—I could care less—may be more accurate than the meaning he intended. On top of all the criticism, he’s now being paid like a star, for a franchise with fans desperate to be relevant again. LaVine was supposed to have all of last season to make the case for a fat contract. He tried, too, claiming he’d return absurdly early, claiming he’d prove doubters wrong, claiming to be better than he was before. That’s the spot franchises put younger players in by paying for potential rather than production. In the absence of showing promise on the court, LaVine is stuck making promises he may not be able to keep.