(670 The Score) Bulls star guard Zach LaVine’s play has ascended to a new level this season.
Through Sunday night, LaVine was averaging 28.9 points, which ranked sixth in the NBA, to go with 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists. He has been a model of durability, playing in all of Chicago’s 29 games and logging 35.7 minutes, the 10th-most in the league. And LaVine is producing in remarkably efficient fashion as well.
He’s shooting 51.8% overall, 42.9% on 3-pointers and 86.2% from the free-throw line. Only two players in NBA history have averaged 28-5-5 with 50-40-80 shooting splits for an entire season, according to the @Statmuse Twitter account – Steph Curry and Larry Bird (on three occasions).
LaVine’s superb season has garnered him a great deal of support to be an All-Star for the first time, recognition that he has openly admitted in the past would be meaningful to him. LaVine will learn his fate Tuesday, as the reserves for the All-Star Game are set to be announced publicly on TNT at 6 p.m. CT.
NBA coaches select the reserves, so LaVine’s fate has been left up to them. In the voting for the starters – done by media, fans and players – LaVine’s weighted score was fourth among Eastern Conference guards. He trailed the East starting guards in the Wizards’ Bradley Beal and the Nets’ Kyrie Irving as well as the Nets’ James Harden.
There’s no doubt in the mind of the Bulls that LaVine is worthy of being an All-Star. So we let them explain in their words over the past few weeks how they’ve seen LaVine continue to grow, how he has uplifted them and the ways that he has changed.
How has LaVine elevated his play this season?
“It’s funny. We were actually just talking about this on the bus after shootaround, just being together for four years and seeing his progression to where he is. It’s really admirable what he’s done this year. He’s gotten better every single year but this year specifically. I think specifically he cut down the seven-, eight-turnover games he would have last year. He struggled a bit this year turning it over early, but he really found his way through some old habits, is really locking in defensively and he’s been a great voice in the locker room, on the court, in practice every single day and really been a two-way player, a two-way leader for us. He’s someone that we all have to raise our game to match his intensity every single day and his work ethic.”
“He’s been really engaged in trying to figure out what he has to do as a player to get to another level. I think even he’d admit to this: He has worked so hard on his game – developing step-backs, handle the ball, playing pick-and-roll, driving to the basket. He has worked incredibly hard on all those things. But he knows there’s another piece that he wants to grow into. And I think he has been pretty committed to trying to do that. He’s trying to maybe look at things through a different lens or through a different perspective as he continues to grow and get older. He’ll say, ‘OK, how can I really impact winning? What do I have to do to impact winning? What’s my mentality? How do I need to handle these situations?’ And it’s a lot. ‘Do I just distribute when things are not going well? Or do I try to be aggressive and take all these shots and try to take over? Do I just try to be a help defender or deny my man all over?’ These are what he is trying to figure out, and he has worked hard at it. And I think he has gotten better at it.”
"It's definitely a different mentality than he's had in the past years. He's being more vocal as a leader, because last year he wasn't as vocal. He's making sure his presence is felt.”
“Amazing. It’s exactly what I expected. Numbers-wise, the game is so easy for him on the offensive end. He’s able to score a lot of different ways. The numbers he’s putting up right now are amazing, so it’s just a matter of us winning games and him leading us to wins to take him to that superstar level and him becoming a winner, learning how to win. He has all the tools, and he’s doing an amazing job scoring, like efficiently. Setting other people up, taking the game, you know taking what comes to him.”
A common refrain from the Bulls is that LaVine cares about winning as much as anyone, even if it hasn’t shown up in the team’s record over the years. In what ways have you noticed that?
“Ever since I came here (in September), everything he's wanted to do has been about winning. I think he's -- and I don't know what conversations he's had last year or the years in Minnesota, I don't know those and I never asked him. But I do think that he wants to win. And I think he wants to be told what are the things that he's got to do to take himself to a different level because he hasn't won? I do think in fairness to him, some of it has been circumstantial. With having six different coaches (in his career), it's hard. But I think he wants to take a step, ‘OK, what can I do?’ Because I think there was a time in his career that he thought, ‘OK, I’ll just carry the team on offense and I'll just try to score 30 or 40 every night and that will get us over the hump.’ And I think he realized that that's not the answer. He's got to be a two-way player, he's got to lead. He's got to lead by example by every day in practice putting forth a great effort where he can hold himself to a high standard, which enables him to hold his teammates to a high standard. I think these are all the things that he's wanted to do. For him, doing what he's doing this year in terms of these numbers and his career-best and all those things, I think it's a great compliment to the commitment that he's made to the game, to himself and to his teammates.”
“He just talks about it. That’s all he really cares about, is getting the W at the end of the night – whether that’s him letting other people get to it and score or if he has to score 30 to 40 points a game for us. Whatever it takes for us to win on that given night, that’s what he’s going to do. He’s just been committed, like I said before, to both sides of the basketball. Even when his shot and stuff isn’t falling, which has been a rarity this year, he’s really locked in, especially on ball and off ball really been engaged in knowing personnel, knowing the scouting report. And he’s been watching a ton of film. You can tell he’s tired of that losing, the losing label that he’s had throughout his career. In seven years, he’s never made the playoffs. You can tell how much he wants to win and make the playoffs and be one of the better two-way players in this league.”
How does LaVine uplift the rest of the Bulls?
“Zach LaVine is an All-Star. I mean, he just makes the game easier. He just makes the game easier. We have a guy that can just get 50 any night he wants to. It just kind of makes the game so much easier. You get open shots. You get open lanes because they’re obviously not helping off of him because of the guy that he is. I mean, it’s just a blessing to be playing with him.”
Wendell Carter Jr.
“Zach makes it kind of easy for all of us. He draws so much attention, especially in pick-and-rolls, especially late in games, when he's been on a tear the whole game, they tend to go and blitz him. So with me getting into that pocket, I'm able to just pick apart the four-on-three that's on the back side. So in terms of just me and him, I love playing with him. He makes it easier for me.”
What would you tell other NBA coaches about LaVine regarding his All-Star case?
“I would say he is a guy who has impacted our team incredibly well. I think when you look at players that are All-Stars, you are saying they are playing at a high level individually and they are also raising the level of the team. I think Zach has done that. I’ve said this before I don’t want to be disrespectful to other players or other teams and guys on different teams because I haven’t really seen everybody play, but it’s amazing when your first game comes you don’t necessarily get a chance to watch a lot. But I would be hard-pressed to believe there’s guys out there — and I’m not saying who is deserving and who is not deserving — but Zach LaVine is deserving of being an All-Star. He has played as well as anybody. I can’t imagine there’s been many guys that have played better than him … He has played at an incredibly high level, efficiently, consistently, and he’s been, I’ve loved being around him every single day. Besides all the All-Star stuff, he’s a great guy and I appreciate everything he has done. But from my perspective it’s hard-pressed for me to see there’s been many guys that have performed a whole lot better or better than he has. He certainly performed at the highest of levels this first half of the season in my opinion.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.