Zach LaVine knows what you're thinking. You're thinking, Sure, he's cool, with his two Slam Dunk Contest titles and his fat new Adidas contract, but he's not the real deal, not a go-to guy, not worthy of headlining the return package for a superstar.
He knows this because it's all anybody in Chicago talked about or wrote about all summer, or even spent their money on, in the case of a certain charity-funded billboard that went up along central Lake Street in July. It demanded the firing of Bulls executive duo Gar Forman and John Paxson, a direct protest to their acquisition of LaVine. The project raised nearly $7,000 in just three days; the sign's punchline, #FireGarPax, sometimes trends on Twitter in the Windy City.
Zach LaVine heard the chatter and drove past that billboard. He knows what you think of him. And he plans to change your mind.
"The fans and community might not be there yet, but give it time," he says of the trade that brought him to Chicago and of the Bulls' direction at large. On draft night, Chicago shipped away its franchise player, Jimmy Butler, plus a first-rounder, for LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 pick that it used on Lauri Markkanen. It signaled a total teardown of what had been a fine but stagnant team—Butler's Bulls made the playoffs in five out of six seasons, but they never won more than 50 games.
The decision to rebuild was no issue. These days, 10 or 20 percent of the league dives headfirst into the NBA's basement each year, and the Bulls were right to hop on in. The issue was the trade itself. Sports Illustrated called it a fleecing; ESPN handed the Bulls' "paltry" return package an F. The consensus was that the Bulls had sold their one great asset for just cents on the dollar. Or most people thought that, anyway. Not LaVine.
"I'm going to make sure I hold up my end of the deal to where I don't think it's a lopsided trade," he says. "Jimmy Butler is a top-10 player right now. I'm not saying I am, but I have expectations for myself, and I intend to meet those."
On Saturday night, LaVine made his Bulls debut, some six months after the trade and 11 months after tearing his ACL. The injury occurred last February in Detroit, as LaVine landed along the baseline finishing an and-1. "There was no 'poor me,'" he remembers thinking at the time. "Just, 'go rehab, get as strong as you can, and when you're ready, you're ready.'"
He's ready. LaVine scored 14 points in 19 minutes on Saturday and dropped 18 in 20 minutes on Monday. Through two games, both Bulls victories, LaVine's usage rate is a LeBron-ish 31.1 percent (it was 21.8 last year). Wednesday night, Chicago will face Golden State at the United Center. It is a compelling matchup, but the game itself may underscore just how much work remains for the Bulls. This will be, as they say, a process.
Everything that is to come in Chicago starts with LaVine, an enthusiastic 22-year-old. He arrives with a high profile: His sneaker deal with Adidas, signed in November, is worth up to $35 million, and he is a dunk contest icon. But such flashy exploits make him a polarizing athlete—is he a developing alpha dog, or is he some sort of circus player who only shows up for All-Star Weekend? LaVine is aware that many believe the latter.
"You get that persona put on you—dunking's the most fascinating thing for fans," he says. "They might see you as that, but that doesn't affect me or what I do in my profession. I don't think of myself as a dunker. I can dunk well, I'm athletic, but I can't win a game on straight dunks. I can't average 20 points per game on straight dunks. It's impossible."
Perhaps nobody knows what LaVine can do better than his father, Paul, who has trained him since he was a toddler in Seattle. In high school, Zach separated himself as a basketball prospect, jamming harder in games than his peers could in 2K. Still, LaVine was more than a highlight machine. As a senior in 2013, he averaged 28.5 points per game and was named Washington state's Mr. Basketball.
"Most people know Zach for his dunking," Paul says. "But the people that know him—they know him for getting buckets."
Fair enough. Now in his fourth NBA season, LaVine is a complete offensive player. Naturally, he is unstoppable in transition, but he can also cruise to the rim in half-court sets. Last season, he finished 61.2 percent of his shots within the restricted area, besting John Wall and Kyrie Irving. Beyond the arc, he shoots with great bravado. Last year, LaVine hit 41.8 percent of catch-and-shoot threes, sandwiching him between CJ McCollum and Bradley Beal. In mid-range space, LaVine is a zippy improviser.
"He's got everything," says Tyus Jones, a former teammate of LaVine's with the Timberwolves. "He can shoot the hell out of the ball, [has an] isolation game, and last year what started coming along was his playmaking ability—he can create for others."
In all, LaVine averaged 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game last season. He was one of only a dozen players to make at least 2.5 threes and 2.5 free throws per game, despite fighting for touches in Minnesota, where plays were seldom designed for him. That won't be a problem in Chicago.
"You're a centerpiece, you gotta play like it," he says of his new role. "You have to be a leader. This is going to be a young, rebuilding team. At 22, I'll be going into my fourth year—a lot of 22-year-old dudes are in their first year."
LaVine's situation is a rare one. Across the NBA, he might be the only player 22 or younger tabbed as the leader of a team to which he was not drafted.
Moreover, these are the Chicago Bulls, and LaVine—their cornerstone—is too young to remember watching Michael Jordan play basketball. He was six years old when MJ debuted with the Washington Wizards.
To his point, LaVine is the same age as your average college grad, and in many ways acts like one. His arrival in Chicago marks his first time living alone—his parents and sister relocated to Minnesota with him when he was drafted. The LaVines are a tight-knit family. In June, they all traveled to the Bahamas, where they watched the NBA draft and learned of the big trade.
"My dad was excited, hyped," Zach remembers of that night. LaVine's agent had called to inform him of the deal just before news broke to the general public. "But I kept everything at ease. I'm a real laid-back person."
Lately, he's also trying to be a health-conscious person. "Did you know lemon in water is actually good for you?" he asks me. "I just learned that."
It's a little concerning that we're eating at Gus's Fried Chicken about an hour after a midday workout, and that he ate here yesterday too, and that his smoothie maker is broken on account of his leaving the lid off with the machine on, thereby messing up the plastic blade in the center, but there is hope. Recently, he signed up for a service that delivers nutritious meals to his front door.
Plus—and perhaps more to the point—those who have spent time around LaVine professionally rave about his maturity. "Obviously, he's an up-and-coming star in this league, but he doesn't change the person he is—he's respectful to everybody," says Jones. "He carries himself how you'd want someone to."
In conversation, LaVine frames topics in a positive light and carries a sort of cool poise that puts company at ease. "Without saying anything, Zach just exudes an amount of confidence, which is good and which the team sees," says Nate Loenser, a Bulls assistant coach. "The maturity, the attention to detail, the drive that he has for a 'younger guy' has been remarkable."
And as for the MJ stuff, LaVine cites Jordan as his favorite player, having devoured endless hours of his film. First it was Space Jam, and then he needed all the rest—the championship tapes, Michael Jordan's Playground, His Airness, Come Fly With Me, and so on. His devotion to MJ was demonstrated during the 2015 Slam Dunk Contest, when LaVine donned Jordan's Tune Squad jersey for a tribute slam.
So maybe it's fate, then, that as LaVine trains at the Bulls' practice facility, Jordan's six title flags hover over him, watching his every move. LaVine welcomes the shadow. "Certain players are once-in-a-century, so it's good to walk in their footsteps," he says. With awe, he adds, "MJ, [Scottie] Pippen, the championship banners—it's ridiculous. It gives you the chills a little bit."
LaVine spent the first part of his day at the facility, working on his upper body. When we meet in August, that's all he's cleared for as he recovers from the ACL tear. The regimen features endless squats and some light lifting. "It's like, God damn!" he says. "My upper body is tight right now!" LaVine was listed at 6'5", 185 pounds last season; he's since bulked up to 205.
His workouts have impressed veteran teammate Quincy Pondexter. "Just trust me, he's going to come back better than he was," Pondexter says. "He looks amazing. It's about longevity right now. We're making sure he's not just coming back playing spot minutes, but he's contributing at a level that he's supposed to. He's a tremendous player. He has a hell of a future."
On June 26, 2014, the Minnesota Timberwolves went on the clock with the No. 13 pick in the NBA draft. They would choose LaVine, a 19-year-old guard out of UCLA. Their selection began as a mundane enough draft moment but would live on in infamy. Once Adam Silver announced the pick, LaVine buried his head on the green room table, and then, standing up in a state of shock, he said, "F--k me."
Or so we thought. "I actually said 'F--k man,'" LaVine says now. "You wait so long for the opportunity—I obviously had the horrible reaction, and people didn't understand. I put my head down like, F--k this really just happened?" Afterward, the media peppered him with questions about the obscenity. "I'm like, I didn't mean that!" he says. "You can tell when it's genuine—as a 19-year-old kid, I'm ecstatic to be drafted."
A couple of months later, Minnesota flipped franchise player Kevin Love for No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins. The T-Wolves roster mirrored the current one in Chicago. Youth abounded; proven talent did not.
As a rookie, LaVine averaged 10.1 points per game for a 16-win team. Minnesota won the ensuing lottery and selected Karl-Anthony Towns. Together LaVine, Wiggins and Towns had some fun but tallied just 29 wins. In 2016, Dunn, the No. 5 pick, joined the core. As the team jelled, LaVine posted a career year (before getting hurt), hitting 45.9 percent from the field, 38.7 percent from deep and 83.6 percent from the stripe—strong stuff from a volume scorer.
"We were getting really close and really good," LaVine says. Still, he was a complementary player on that team, and he wanted greater responsibility. "I'll always love Minnesota," he says. "But this is definitely something a lot of players ask for, and now that you're in that situation, you can't back out from it."
Fortunately, LaVine will receive help from the two players who arrived alongside him in the Butler trade.
In the backcourt, Dunn makes for an ideal companion. On offense, he's happy to keep the ball moving, meaning increased ball-handling work for LaVine, an intriguing notion. On defense, where at times LaVine looks passive, Dunn rattles the opponent's best scorer each night. This season, only Dunn and Russell Westbrook are averaging at least 13 points, six assists and two steals per game. "He's a dog," LaVine says of Dunn. The two became close last year in Minnesota. "He reads the ball extremely well—like a free safety getting in passing lanes. He's long, strong and guards multiple positions."
Markkanen, the 20-year-old power forward, is on pace to average and hit more threes than any rookie in NBA history (2.5 per game and 202 total). "Lauri is amazing," Pondexter says. "He's surprised everyone, even guys that see him every day. He's able to make passes with his left hand, rebound—simple things that catch your eye. In a few years, this kid is going to be perhaps one of the best at his position in the league."
Both players make for quality secondary options, the type every good team requires. What's needed now is a leader, that go-to guy, a star.
"We need Zach to be our face of the franchise," Pondexter says. "He's the biggest piece. Once he's in the mix, you'll see the flashes of potential on our team, and you can trust the process from there."
Someday, LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen should make three-fifths of a potent starting lineup. Denzel Valentine, Bobby Portis, David Nwaba and Justin Holiday look like long-term rotation pieces. Nikola Mirotic, averaging 17.3 points per game this year, is just 26 years old (though he may soon be traded). The Bulls will have an excellent 2018 draft pick and perhaps a couple more after that. Eventually, as a major-market force, they will strike in free agency to tie the team together. But that's all for later, far down the road.
For now, LaVine is just settling in, keeping everything at ease.
"You just try to do your best," he says. "So long as everyone buys in, works hard, goes out there and does their job—" he pauses, as a sense of adult pride comes whistling through. "This is our job. You have to go in there and clock in. Now I need a nap."
Leo Sepkowitz is a regular contributor to Bleacher Report, and is a senior writer at SLAM Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @LeoSepkowitz. Advanced stats via NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.