Thad Young and Zach LaVine go all the way back to 2014. That year, a 19-year-old LaVine was drafted 13th by the Timberwolves, and a couple of months later, Young was traded to Minnesota ahead of his eighth season in the league. Young became a mentor to LaVine almost immediately, and five years later, they became teammates again in Chicago.
The two have enjoyed playing together for the past two seasons, with LaVine recently calling Young the “best teammate I’ve ever had.” That connection has allowed for Young to be both LaVine’s biggest fan and an honest critic. Before the start of this season, Young says he approached LaVine and relayed his hopes for the team, as well as his expectations for LaVine. Young explained that if the Bulls were to have any hope of being relevant, and if LaVine wanted to be named an All-Star for the first time, the 25-year-old would need to make another leap and become a two-way player.
Fast-forward a few months, and LaVine is doing his best to fulfill that mandate.
Take the final three minutes of the Bulls’ 105-102 win over the Pistons on Wednesday. With just over 2:30 left in the game, LaVine took over. He stepped back and made a James Harden–esque 3 from the left wing. Next, his eye caught a sliver of space that turned into a canyon as he drove in and double-pumped for a highlight dunk. And then, after Detroit trapped LaVine, he kicked off a flurry of passing that resulted in a Coby White 3 to all but seal the game. LaVine finished with 37 points, five rebounds, five assists, and three steals.
Young had seen enough from LaVine to campaign for that All-Star spot they talked about. Wednesday’s performance only confirmed it. “Zach has been amazing all season,” he said afterward. “He is definitely an All-Star.”
“Zach is really working. … He wants to be a winning player,” Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said after Monday’s 120-112 win over the Pacers, a game that went to overtime thanks in part to a stepback 3 from LaVine toward the end of regulation. “He knows that maybe throughout his career, he hasn’t had that opportunity. He wants to learn and get better. He’s been a real willing mover and cutter, he knows he needs to get better defensively, he knows if he wants to be a leader he’s got to be really accountable to bringing it all the time.”
LaVine is scoring this season with the same ease that he had in dunk contests early on in his career—and at a rate that only Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Larry Bird have done before. He is still a high flier, but now that’s just a footnote to the rest of his game; a piece from an era when he was doing far less on the court for teams that struggled. This year has been different.
The Bulls are now scratching at the type of relevance Young wished for before the season. Their 12-15 record is not exactly stellar, but they’re only half a game out of the 8-seed in the East; and given how the past two seasons have gone (22 wins in both), the fact that Chicago is already halfway to that win total is a small victory. And LaVine? Well, he’s averaging a career-high 28.5 points a game, and he’s not only been the engine for the Bulls’ success, but he’s also on the brink of becoming what Young said he would be if he put in the work: an All-Star.
It was the summer of 2018 and Zach LaVine had just been told he had to stow away the most celebrated part of his game. His longtime trainer, Drew Hanlen, told LaVine he was no longer allowed to dunk during offseason workouts. This was for multiple reasons. First, Hanlen wanted to shift LaVine’s skill set away from being just a two-time slam dunk champion, and into a player that had more to his game than otherworldly athleticism. And second, each time one of LaVine’s highlight dunks spilled out onto social media, it would do numbers and perpetuate the idea that LaVine was just a dunker.
The irony is that years before Hanlen told LaVine to stop dunking, that skill—specifically, a 360-degree, between-the-legs dunk during his UCLA pro day—played a part in pushing LaVine into the draft lottery. But by 2018, LaVine had been in the league for four seasons and needed to show improvement in other areas. So Hanlen and LaVine began working on adding a new skill every offseason—be it playmaking, pace, ball screens, floaters, or shooting. Now, in LaVine’s seventh season, it’s all coming together.
“I think it’s just been incremental,” Hanlen said of the improvements. “I think [he] was really good last year, but didn’t get much credit because the Bulls weren’t very good. Now he’s getting more credit because, one, he has been more efficient this year, but then the Bulls have been more competitive this year too.”
This particular offseason was longer than most for the Bulls since they didn’t go to the Orlando bubble, and Hanlen spent that extra time using workouts he’d done with Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum to help LaVine focus on three areas of his game: playmaking pace, his in-between game (floaters, runners), and making more off-balance 3s. That last skill—which has been in the works since LaVine declared for the draft in 2014—is paying off this season.
Lavine is shooting more 3s than ever (8.2 per game) and making them at a career-high 44 percent clip. His free throw shooting is hovering just below 85 percent, which is the only thing preventing him from posting a 50/40/90 season so far. LaVine’s effective field goal percentage is above 60 percent, and only four other players who are attempting 15 shots or more per game have a higher eFG% than he does—and the only guard in that group is Steph Curry.
“It’s really impressive because a lot of times it looks like he doesn’t think anybody is in front of him,” Donovan said of LaVine’s shotmaking. “He just gets it off so easy.”
LaVine’s workload has also grown this season, with his minutes up above 35 per game for just the second time in his career and his usage rate at 30.7 percent. And while Donovan has made a point to say the Bulls can’t rely on him to keep scoring at this rate, between injuries and absences, it’s exactly what the Bulls have needed to stay afloat.
As far as LaVine is concerned, this is the type of season he’s been working toward—the result of the kind of drive and work ethic that Donovan now praises every time LaVine has a big game. “I expect to do that. I put in the time and effort,” LaVine said after scoring a season-high 46 points against the Pelicans last week. “You guys know I’m not scared to miss those shots or take them.”
This season, LaVine already has 13 games of 30 points or more. He had 19 all of last season. His 46-point performance last week was preceded by 35- and 39-point performances. In his past two games, he’s combined for 67 points.
“You see it so much, countless numbers of times,” White said after LaVine’s outing against the Pelicans. “From this year and last year, I’ve seen him come out blazing hot to where it’s like, ‘Is he really blazing hot, or is that just him?’”
After the Bulls edged out the Pistons on Wednesday night, Donovan said that LaVine had wanted to guard Jerami Grant down the stretch and had asked for the assignment. Donovan acquiesced, and while the Bulls won, Grant scored 43 points in the game, including 19 in the fourth quarter.
It’s clear LaVine still has room for improvement, especially on the defensive end. Hanlen thinks LaVine can retool the same athleticism he shows on offense into his defensive effort. “I think he’s finding out how hard it is to be a two-way player because he’s doing so much offensively,” Donovan said. “I told him the great players in the league, they play both ends of the floor. You can’t just be a one-way player and I think he’s made the commitment to try to do that now.”
Both Hanlen and Donovan see a few other areas where LaVine can continue to grow. Hanlen pointed out that LaVine’s scoring opens up a lot of opportunities for him as a playmaker. (This season, he’s averaging a career-high 5.2 assists.) Donovan has highlighted LaVine’s unselfishness and said that the next step is knowing when to channel aggression toward scoring and when to use it to get his teammates involved.
“He sometimes gets into trying to read the game instead of reacting to the game,” Donovan said. “He’s almost trying to determine what’s going to happen instead of being aggressive and then reacting and responding to it, so we just need him to be aggressive.”
Still, when it comes down to shots late in games, LaVine wants to take them. This season, he’s shown he can make them, too. And that kind of fearless confidence bodes well for his ever-growing role and ascent up the NBA player ranks.
Even for those who have had a front-row seat to LaVine’s development, there isn’t one specific moment when he showed them what he could become. Hanlen says he knew almost immediately after first working with LaVine that he had All-Star potential. Young has seen LaVine’s potential and growth since he mentored the rookie in Minnesota, but it wasn’t until this year that it all coalesced. White has seen it for two seasons now. Donovan for only one.
The way LaVine is playing and talking about his performances, it feels like this is exactly what he’s expected of himself all along. And now, this might finally be the season when everyone else sees it too.