The one constant in the career of Zach LaVine has been inconsistency. The guard has played a number of different roles for numerous coaches. For a long time, LaVine was labeled as a highlight dunker. In Chicago, he is now developing into an All-Star level playmaker.
Zach LaVine burst onto the scene for NBA fans as one of the best dunkers in the league, winning the Slam Dunk crown as a rookie and then defending his title. LaVine was stigmatized as only a highlight dunker – a label he is still fighting to this day but slowly shedding. LaVine captured the hearts of dunk fans for his almost legendary showdown with Aaron Gordon at the 2016 All-Star weekend – recalling images of Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins battling it out in 1988. After both players picked up three perfect 50s, there was a dunk-off and LaVine narrowly prevailed. LaVine demonstrated both his leaping ability and athleticism with spectacular dunks, such as taking off from the free throw line with a windmill included, between-the-legs and around his back moves and reverse slams. The guard was the first player to defend his slam dunk crown since Nate Robinson. That’s all well and good, but the distinction of being a highlight dunker can also have a negative burden – that dunking is his only real skill. After winning the two dunk titles, LaVine didn’t want to take part in the high-flyer event any more. “I wanted to participate in the Three-Point Shootout before I got hurt. I think I would have had good chances. Maybe I will try it next year,” LaVine said in the 2017 off-season, referring to the torn ACL in his left knee which happened two weeks before the 2017 All-Star weekend. LaVine didn’t make it to the Three-Point Shootout until 2020, when he just missed reaching the final round. LaVine has really followed a zigzag course on the All-Star stage, going from two-time slam dunk champion to a three-point shootout participant. And that zigzag course can be seen throughout the 25-year-old’s NBA career – though it has not only been his fault. External circumstances have also played a major role.LaVine was selected at No. 13 in the 2014 NBA Draft and played his first three years for the Minnesota Timberwolves. The same year saw Andrew Wiggins arrive in Minneapolis as the number one pick and top overall selection Karl-Anthony Towns came the following year. The plan was to build the franchise around the wing-center duo. And it’s well-known how successful the Wolves ended up being – namely not at all. Those early years were not easy for LaVine for a number of reasons. Each year the guard had to get used to a new head coach. Flip Saunders fell ill and died in October 2015 and was succeeded by Sam Mitchell, who was followed by Tom Thibodeau. LaVine floated back and forth between the point guard and shooting guard spots and was forced to fill in as playmaker for Ricky Rubio when he got injured.Even though the Wolves gradually improved each of the three years, LaVine was part of the franchise’s 13-year playoff drought. That ended in 2017-18 – thanks in large part to Jimmy Butler, who arrived in Minnesota from Chicago in a trade that sent LaVine to the Bulls. To this day, LaVine has still not appeared in a playoff game – another label.
But it’s not due to a lack of work ethic.
“Sam Mitchell took away my keycard ability,” LaVine revealed on the Lowe Post podcast about his early times in Minnesota where he was not allowed to practice at night. “After the games, my way of venting was going back to the gym and shooting at night. So I’d go back at like 11, 12 o’clock and shoot 500, 600 shots.” Since he was not allowed into the gym at night and it was too cold in Minneapolis to be outside, LaVine had another idea – install a hoop in his two-story apartment. “He [LaVine’s father Paul] bought a hoop … put this hoop on the top row of the stairs so it’d be at 10-feet so I’d go and shoot inside the house in the stairwell, just touch shots, 100, 200 shots… in the house,” LaVine recalled. LaVine established himself as a 38-percent three-point shooter with the Wolves with a consistently increasing volume of attempts. Not bad for a player who had been labeled as a pure high-flyer. Nevertheless, he was traded to Chicago and his debut with the Bulls had to wait until February 2018 after suffering the torn ACL early in 2017. LaVine just couldn’t find any consistency in his career. And he nearly left Chicago after just 24 games. In the summer of 2018, LaVine signed a Restricted Free Agent offer sheet with the Sacramento Kings, which the Bulls ended up matching. A lot of experts questioned the decision of both teams. The Kings really didn’t need another shooting guard and the Bulls were binding themselves for four years and 80 million dollars to a player who has not been very efficient and relies heavily on his athleticism but also just came back from an ACL tear.
The only consistency remained inconsistency.
He experienced another coaching change during his first full season in Chicago with Fred Hoiberg being replaced by Jim Boylen. The latter’s boot camp mentality hardly fits in the year 2020, especially in the NBA. And Boylen and LaVine reportedly didn’t get along very well. In September 2020, Billy Donovan was signed as the Bulls’ new playcaller – LaVine’s sixth head coach in his seven-year NBA career. The coaching change gave the Bulls an entirely different mentality – one which makes it possible to come back from a 20-point deficit and get a victory, which was the case in a 111-108 road win over Portland. LaVine was the difference-maker, hitting a step-back three with 10.8 seconds left for a four-point lead. While he scored “only” 18 points, LaVine dished out a season-high 9 assists. LaVine has often exhibited this balance between scorer and ball distributer – like in both of the first games against the Dallas Mavericks. “He was unbelievable throughout the whole game. Zach was just being Zach. The first half, dude gets hot like that you just got to give him the ball somewhere somehow,” Bulls guard Coby White said about LaVine’s performance on January 4. He scored 21 points in the first quarter and ended the game with 39 points. “Second half they kind of keyed in on him a lot, double teaming him off pick and rolls, loading up to him. He was making the right reads, kicking it out.” Whether it is finding forward Otto Porter Jr after a staggered pick-and-roll or feeding excellent roller Wendell Carter Jr. or stretch big Lauri Markannen on his pop-outs, LaVine has been excellent as a playmaker this season. The second game against Dallas went much differently for LaVine, who made just 1-of-8 shots. But Donovan praised his guard. “He didn’t force anything, really played the right way,” the coach said. “He got downhill, found his teammates. If Zach can keep evolving like that, that’s only going to help our team and make us better.” LaVine dished out 10 assists in the 117-101 road victory – three times finding teammates in the final 5 minutes to extend the lead. “I just think he cares, like his care for winning has (gone) to another level,” Denzel Valentine said about LaVine. “He’s watching more film. He’s talking to guys more about where they like the ball.” The stats show LaVine’s importance as more than half of all offensive actions took place with LaVine as ballhandler. His 1.03 points per possession would be a career high and ranks in the top quarter in the league. The athleticism that helped LaVine win two slam dunk titles is also helping him in the playmaking as well. The guard understands how to change directions and speeds in his pick-and-roll game. He can attack the sagging big man and the guard is difficult to stop at the rim with his leaping ability and acrobatics including switching hands on layups. LaVine can also find his three-point shooters on kick-out passes. While LaVine has improved as a ballhandler, sometimes it shines through that the role – and the high volume of possessions – is new to him. He will take the ball into the block and put himself in difficult situations. And he still needs to improve his reading of defenses. Regardless, it’s clear how important LaVine is to the Bulls. Chicago’s offense is 4.2 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the bench. LaVine’s 27.4 points scoring average would be the highest in Bulls franchise history since Michael Jordan patrolled Chicago’s proceedings. And despite the high Usage Rate, LaVine has been very efficient with a 64.0 True Shooting percentage. Defense though is another thing – though he’s not at
the Trae Young level. LaVine can use his athleticism in one-on-one situations but he is not proactive enough
on the pick-and-roll and sometimes he loses his concentration away from the ball. Donovan said LaVine going through so many different coaches had an impact on his defense – as well as a lack of meaningful games late in the season. LaVine is confident in his abilities and considers himself as more than just an All-Star-level player. If he continues to play how he has thus far this season, LaVine might just finally straighten out that zigzag course his career path has taken until now.
by FIVE Magazine #176 – Zach LaVine – Text: Manuel Baraniak