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Just How Good Can Zach LaVine Really Be?

As Zach Lavine continues to improve his game, what heights can he reach?

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Entering his sixth season in the league, Zach LaVine made his goals very clear. He told reporters there was no reason he shouldn’t be an All-Star or All-NBA type guy. It seemed like a fairly reachable goal assuming the Bulls won some games, right? To be fair to Zach, the previous year he did put All-Star caliber numbers in his first full season back from his ACL injury, but the Bulls only managed to win 22 games.

Preseason came in October and Zach was outstanding. He averaged 23.3 points per game (ranking third in the league) while shooting 59.3% from the field and 56% from three (on five attempts per game). Everyone wondered, will this form carry over into the regular season? The simple answer was yes, it did, but it did take some time.

For the first few weeks of the season, it was fair to say LaVine was somewhat inconsistent in terms of finding his fitting in a struggling Bulls offense. The Bulls tried to limit the use of the mid-range, an important element of LaVine’s game and encouraged him to take more threes while getting to the rim.

Credit: NBA via Synergy

Just to show how often LaVine did use the mid-range, in the previous season 27% of his looks came from that area while 25% of his shots came from three. It’s important to note that while he did take a good amount of mid-range looks, they weren’t the most consistent shot as he only made 33% of them. Either way, trying to work out different spots to make up 27% of your shots did take some time for LaVine, that was until he exploded for 49 points against the Hornets in November.

Credit: NBA via Synergy


Everyone remembers the Charlotte game. Coach Jim Boylen called out LaVine for making “three egregious mistakes” the night before, after the Bulls’ blowout loss to the Heat. Zach responded by having the best game of his career. He also added 13 three-pointers, the second-most in NBA history. Following that game, LaVine was on a tear of his own.

From November 23rd onwards, Zach averaged 28.3 points per game while shooting 38.3% from three on over 300 attempts. He was amazing in his own regard, while consistently being the best player on the team every night. With injuries to three starters and several key reserves, it was hard for the Bulls to consistently win games. It’s hard to do when you are changing your lineup almost every second game. That said, watching every minute this season it was undeniable just how good Zach LaVine was – especially on the offensive end.

What’s the Ceiling?

We all wonder what Zach’s limits are. The 25-year-old has gotten better every year he’s played in the league, and it’s clear his work ethic is unmatched. He’s praised by many around the league as one of the hardest workers in the NBA, and that’s one thing important to note when trying to evaluate just how good LaVine can be, especially considering how young he is too. Even the greatest sixth man of all time, Jamal Crawford chimed in on Zach’s future.

“Nobody’s gonna outwork him. He’s such a great young man and…he’s somebody you want leading your franchise. And even if some people don’t see it right now I guarantee they will see it soon enough.”

Jamal Crawford on NBC Sports Chicago


Efficiency

Coming off another year where he most certainly could’ve been an All-Star, the Bulls failed to put a stronger cast around him. Even without a more consistent support cast around him to ensure he succeeded, LaVine finished this year averaging a career-high in points per game with 25.5. He rebounded the ball very well for a guard with 4.8 per game while dishing out 4.2 dimes. For high volume scorers, efficiency is very important to note – and Zach ticked those boxes. He shot 45% from the field, 38% from three, over 81% from the line while boasting around a 57% true shooting percentage, all equally impressive.

When trying to put a label on LaVine’s limitations, you must commend him for his extreme offensive efficiency. He and Damian Lillard were the only players in the league to finish top ten in total points in the league that shot over 38% from three. LaVine also shot 41.4% on threes deemed “wide open” and 48.4% on threes from the corner, with the latter putting him in the 99th percentile.

Credit: NBA via Synergy

Talking more on LaVine as an actual shooter, he showed he can consistently transition from complex dribbles, spins, and hesitations into pull-ups, step-backs, and other elusive side steps which often finds him wide open. An extremely low gravity on his jump-shot allowed him to shoot over defenders whenever he wanted, and if I am going to be truthfully honest with you all here, when Zach had it going I don’t think anyone in the league could guard him.

Credit: NBA via Synergy

As an overall scorer is where we’ve seen the most growth from LaVine over the last two years. Last season he settled on a lot of pointless isolation ball and early shot clock mid-range attempts – hence the poor efficiency from that range. This season we saw LaVine take his time getting to his spots, not forcing shots at the rate that he was used to. This allowed him to string together multi-move sequences to get himself open at any point in the game. Much improved shot awareness from LaVine was the reason he was so efficient as a volume scorer this season, and there is no reason to believe he won’t improve on that once against next season for the Bulls.

Consistency

Another area of growth LaVine made this season was in his consistency. That isn’t to see he wasn’t consistent last season – he most definitely was, but this season he managed to maintain his hot streaks for weeks, rather than days. LaVine scored double figures in 59 of his 60 games played and scored over 20 points in 45 of those. Zach has already passed the efficiency and consistency test, which is a great sign to assume he is going to up that once again.

Before we move on to his playmaking ability, the only thing holding LaVine back from being a top 3-5 scorer in the league is limited free-throw attempts. As previously mentioned, he ranked ninth in total points, and the eight players above him basically all averaged 100 more total free-throws attempts than Zach – with most playing fewer games.

For someone so crafty at the rim, there is no excuse for LaVine to become that guy taking seven to ten free throws a night (he took 5.6 this season). To be fair, Zach does get a lot of no calls, but he also does have a 46” vertical while being a great free-throw shooter. I wouldn’t be surprised if new management, and presumably new coaching want him to be attacking the rim more next season. Welcoming contact and getting to the line more often can easily take his points per game count from 25.5 to 30+ and put him in that elite scorer category if he isn’t already regarded as one yet.

Credit: NBA via Synergy

Playmaking

Really the only thing holding LaVine back from being the first option on a legitimately good team right now is his playmaking. He’s definitely made strides, but still has a long way to go before he can be recognized as someone that doesn’t just look to pass for assists, but more so someone that looks to pass to make the right reads. This means we shouldn’t expect LaVine to be a guy averaging over seven assists, but we should expect him to make reads out of a pick and roll while being able to find the open man consistently at the very least.

Credit: NBA via Synergy

LaVine is a decent passer but will often show tunnel vision when trying to find open teammates once he gets in that in-between zone. If LaVine is your only playmaker like he was this season, your team probably won’t be that good unless he does continue to make strides in the right direction. From a fan perspective, I’m interested to see how a backcourt of Coby White and Zach LaVine would work, especially when you consider neither are yet capable of running an offense at a high level. 

Personally, I’d be extremely excited to see either one of LaMelo Ball or Deni Avdija in a Bulls uniform by the time the 2020-21 season kicks off. Adding someone capable of consistently making whip passes and fling passes cross-court while attentively finding cutters and open shooters will take so much pressure off LaVine. This allows him to play in more of an off the ball role, where we know he excels as a cutter and spot-up shooter.

Defense

Another knock to LaVine’s game is his defense. This isn’t to say he’s as bad of a defender as the media narrative says he is. I’d be lying to you all if I said he’s an All-Defensive type player, though. The truth of the matter is that LaVine is now a slightly below-average defender, compared to his Minnesota days where he was well below. Prior to the injuries to Wendell Carter Jr. and Kris Dunn, LaVine actually had a positive DRPM for the first time in his career as the Bulls’ hard hedge style defense really catered to his limitations guarding off the ball.

Credit: NBA via Synergy

Once the Bulls lost three starters and other rotational players due to injuries, the defense declined from the top six in the league to around league average, and LaVine’s advanced numbers gradually decreased to a bit below average. However, his effort levels drastically improved when he was locked in, and he did show he can be reliable as an on-ball defender as he has the agility to stay in front of his man while guarding out on the perimeter. Averaging over four rebounds over the last two seasons, LaVine is also a really good rebounder for a guard which does provide him with some value on that end.

Credit: NBA via Synergy
Credit: NBA via Synergy

In the Bulls’ hard hedge style defense, LaVine averaged a career-high 1.5 steals and 0.5 blocks per game and was actually really good at disrupting passing lanes. You could argue that sometimes he did gamble a little too much. He ranked in the 67th percentile in passing lane defense with 3.2 deflections per game, and the 77th percentile in steals per 75 possessions. His STL% of 1.8 put him in the 79th percentile.

Credit: NBA via Synergy

He still isn’t overly reliable off the ball, and I would be surprised if LaVine was ever recognized as a solid two-way player, but he’s most certainly made strides. I do think that it would be fair to say that LaVine’s offensive output outweighs his defensive limitations by a healthy mile, and it is important to note that a wing player’s defense is a lot easier to hide than a point of attack like Atlanta’s Trae Young is, or a big man like Washington’s Thomas Bryant is.

The big question majority of the fanbase and even the organization have about Zach LaVine is can he continue to be the first option going forward for the Chicago Bulls, and can the Bulls win with him as their best player? He certainly has the mindset. He was also the definition of leading by example this season with the Bulls. His responses to media have been great, and from what Tomas Satoransky said, he is well and truly liked and respected by his teammates in the locker room.

Zach has the mentality of a great player. His work ethic is elite. His mindset is elite. He brushes off a missed shot, he gets up for big moments, he wants the ball in his hands down the stretch and he always takes accountability for his actions, whether it be a missed game winner or a turnover.

Being able to take over games down the stretch is a good sign of how great the face of your franchise really is, and this season LaVine was one of the best players in the clutch. He ranked third in the league in points inside the last two minutes when the score was within five points, and countless times he has put the team on his back and done the absolute most to win a game.

Credit: NBA via Synergy

Heading into the first real year of the rebuild, this time under new management, whether LaVine can remove that stigma and become a winning player as a first option remains to be seen. However, if Karnisovas and co. can provide LaVine with a top draft pick who facilitates well, a stable supporting cast and development from the other young pieces, there is no reason the Bulls don’t win a few more games next season.

Just how good do I think Zach LaVine can be?

That is still so undecided. What we do know is that LaVine has the mindset and the work ethic of an elite player, and he’s already a top 10 scorer in the league at age 25. I don’t think he’ll ever be able to run an offense at a high level due to his inconsistent display of passing as of now, but I would love to eat my own words and see him come into next season as a much more polished playmaker. Considering he has taken strong leaps in his play every year, I would not be surprised if he becomes a 30 point per game scorer (assuming he gets to the line more) and makes an All-Star team either next year or the following.

Zach LaVine’s ultimate ceiling right now is probably 1B on a championship-caliber team next to an elite playmaker like Nikola Jokic or a complete superstar like LeBron James being the 1A. I think a lot of the fanbase has not given LaVine the deserved respect this season due to the Bulls failing to win games, but let’s not forget almost every night he was the reason they were even in these games with his stellar offense. It’s easy to forget he isn’t getting paid star money either. He came back from a torn ACL and really has exceeded his expectations by a country mile, and I look forward to seeing if he continues to do so.


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NBA Writer based in New Zealand.

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