By: Colin Krauss
Zach LaVine has successfully justified his contract and it only took 11 games. It's hard to believe that LaVine has been in the NBA for five years already, but his story continues to tell itself. LaVine spent his first three years in Minnesota next to Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns, until he was traded to the Chicago Bulls in the 2017 off-season. He has had to face the injury bug, but he is looking 100% healthy so far in the 2018-2019 season. The high-flier that won the Dunk Contest in 2016 can do a whole lot more now than sky to the rim for posters.
Over the summer, LaVine’s on-court value was calculated by different analysts in very different lights. His restricted free agency was approaching quickly, and many felt that he would be overpaid by the desperate Chicago front office. They needed a star as bad as any team in the league. After trading Jimmy Butler to the Wolves for the then-injured LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the draft pick that became Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls were between a rock and a hard place. Do you overpay the crown-jewel of the Butler trade or possibly let him walk next year with nothing to show for it?
The Bulls did end up matching a Sacramento Kings offer sheet of 4 years and $80 million. The moment this was inked, many analysts across the league deemed this immediately a stark overpay of the 6’5” combo guard. At the time, they had a point. LaVine was very slowly recovering from his torn ACL, and he had done little to prove he was a positive player given his playmaking and defensive deficiencies. 11 games into this season, the script has flipped.
LaVine has been electric on offense, leading this Bulls team with 27.9 points per game on solid efficiency given the lack of talent the Bulls possess. His True Shooting Percentage of 60.2% would be a career-high. His Usage rate is a career-high, coming at 34.1%. His Assist rate is the highest since his rookie year, and his per-game assists is also a career-high, 3.8.
In 2016-2017, LaVine was making strides forward in his development. He became a reliable scoring option at the starting shooting guard position. Most of his damage was from deep, where he converted about 39% of his 6.6 attempts per game, a fantastic mark. He also scored off pull-up jumpers, mainly resorting to scoring with the ball in his hands as an isolation threat. Unfortunately, LaVine tore his ACL just under 50 games into the season. He was traded to the Bulls the next summer.
After rehabbing his ACL, Zach returned to action, but was awful in his minutes. He didn’t have the same quickness or explosion that made him a joy to watch. His efficiency plummeted and his bad defense only got worse. The Bulls were in tank mode anyway, so his rough finish to the season mattered little. The Bulls bet on LaVine, giving him a healthy $20 million per year for 4 years.
Only eleven games into the season, LaVine is looking worth every dime. His athleticism is back to its eye-popping levels. His ridiculous quickness has allowed him to turn defenders to stone on his drives to the basket. He has improved his finishing at the rim, left-hand control, and ability to finish through contact.
That’s a big reason why LaVine is averaging his most free throw attempts per game by a wide margin, from 2.5 throughout his time in Minnesota, to 7.7 now. He’s shooting a career-high 84.6% from the charity stripe, making his attacks of the basket more valuable than ever. Zach’s ball control and scoring touch at the rim has been incredibly improved. His FG% around the rim is at a career-high, 67.6%, and his overall two-point FG% is at a career-high, 53.2%.
The off-the-dribble shooting, athleticism, and finishing at the rim have turned LaVine into a difficult match up for most teams to deal with. Bigs have no chance against his speed and quickness in an isolation match up. But if you give him room, he can pull up from anywhere within 30 feet of the basket. LaVine has one of the prettiest jump shots in the NBA, and the rise he gets on his shot makes him impossible to block.
LaVine still has holes to fill in his game. His play making is less inspiring than the Bulls would like considering he is their guard of the future. He misses many opportunities to move the ball or hit a rolling big. He is also rather turnover prone, and his ball security is poor. For LaVine to hit the next step towards All-Star status, he needs to improve his awareness of where his teammates and defenders are. This would allow him to weaponize his athleticism into more than finishing tough shots. The return of Lauri Markkanen should help LaVine by adding a floor-spacing big in the starting lineup.
His defense also remains well below par. He can’t stop anyone from driving to the rim, and he consistently gets lost on defense off the ball. Down the stretch of his career-high 41 point game against the New York Knicks on Monday, he was giving up too much space to his match up and letting them take open shots. For LaVine to be a positive on the floor, it’s necessary for him to find a way to not get lost on defense. It should help that he is healthy now and can focus on improving rather than recovering.
Moving forward, LaVine looks worth his contract already, and assuming that he improves for the next couple of years, he can easily be the number one offensive option for this Bulls team for years. If he can refine his shot selection, improve his play making, and become at least neutral on the defensive end, LaVine will have multiple All-Star slots reserved for him.