It's nearly a year since fans last had the chance to watch Zach LaVine play basketball. Since tearing his ACL last February, much has changed in his career.
The high-flying, two-time dunk contest champion joined the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler after spending three seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves. After months of criticism and questionable direction for the Bulls franchise, the other pieces of the deal (Kris Dunn and Lauri Markannen) have helped fans forget about Butler and prepare for a bright future, and without LaVine, the Bulls have managed to turn around their horrifying 3-20 start and are now a more respectably bad 15-27.
The team is now ready for LaVine to make his debut Saturday night. But, after missing nearly a year of basketball, what should the expectation be? What will be his role on the Bulls? How does he fit in with the future of a team not ready to be a legitimate playoff threat?
It's fair to not expect too much from LaVine, as the Bulls' playoff odds are roughly three percent and returning from an ACL tear is no easy task. However, the intrigue comes from his opportunity to fit in as a top scoring option for the first time in his career.
LaVine started 47 games for the Timberwolves last season and was the third scoring option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. He was playing a team-leading 37.2 minutes per game, averaging 18.9 points on 45.9 percent shooting. He was also Minnesota's top three-point specialist, leading the team in both three-point attempts (6.6) and triples percentage (38.7).
LaVine isn't a pass-first guy, which explains why the Timberwolves failed to convert him into a point guard in his rookie season out of UCLA. His assist percentage has dropped sharply since then; however, his efficiency has progressively risen.
When playing off the ball, LaVine has been at his best. With the point guard rotation set in Chicago, and Jerian Grant playing mistake-free basketball - with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4:1 - in the 20 minutes per game he's received since being demoted to a bench role, LaVine will be plugged in as the team's top option to get the Bulls points.
His overall effect on the floor hasn't been ideal analytically, albeit aesthetically pleasing at times. His style of play, however, should substantially improve a team with a 101.1 offensive rating - second-last in the NBA.
Admit it: Odds are you didn't think Dunn would develop into a solid point guard after his less-than-stellar debut season in Minnesota. However, it didn't take him long to turn some heads and earn attention after leading the Bulls to a unexpected seven-game win streak. He's been a true floor general since becoming the team's full-time starter, averaging 14.4 points, 7.1 assists, and 4.5 rebounds in his last 27 starts.
What Dunn has lacked, though, is a legitimate perimeter scoring threat to support him. The team play through their perimeter-oriented big men, especially since the return of Nikola Mirotic.
Of the Bulls' top six scorers on the season, four of them are big men - Mirotic, Markkanen, Robin Lopez, and Bobby Portis. Justin Holiday is the lone wing in that group, shooting 38.2 percent from the field. Adding LaVine next to Dunn should give the Bulls an added perimeter boost they're sorely lacking.
The Bulls have been doing fine over the past 19 games with no scoring option on the outside. Despite Holiday's poor efficiency - his effective field-goal percentage is 48.3 - the team is still 7.7 points better offensively when he plays. Plugging a proven commodity on the offensive end who's able to score in bursts can change the dynamic of the Bulls, and give Dunn a versatile partner late in games.
The Bulls have given themselves an unexpectedly good core for the future. Their cap situation has been cured after removing Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, and the Butler trade brought in three above-average starters not yet close to reaching their potential.
LaVine is likely to be relied upon to become the next star, especially after receiving a big contract from Adidas. The endorsement is no surprise, considering the high-end market in Chicago, and how recognizable he's become after two of the best dunk contest performances of all time.
LaVine is in the final year of his contract and, if all signs point to a healthy future, can expect a hefty pay raise. He's currently making $3.2 million, with a good chance he eats up some of the Bulls' large cap space for the next four to five seasons.
In terms of on-court effect, he fits in nicely as a slasher-shooter next to Markkanen - who's already become an ace from behind the arc - and Dunn. The Bulls have also found a sweet role for David Nwaba, who's an absolute bulldog on the defensive end. If Chicago is able to get into the top five of the upcoming NBA Draft, they'll have an opportunity to select a potential superstar.
LaVine doesn't need to be the best basketball player on the floor, and his flaws defensively are unlikely to be fixed anytime soon. He isn't a reliable passer and sometimes he falls in love with the three ball, even when it isn't falling. He's fortunate to have Dunn by his side, who should be able to defend the best opposing backcourt player every game.
LaVine can't hide forever, though, and after the minutes restriction is eventually lifted, he must prove he can provide the effort on both ends of the floor shown by many of his teammates recently. If he can catch up on that score, he can zone in on being one of the better scorers in the league, effectively becoming the face of the Chicago Bulls.
(Stat courtesy - NBA.com)