Zach LaVine elevating his game this season with the Chicago Bulls
Nothing Zach LaVine is doing surprises him. Not the scoring, which is impressive. Or the assists, which are increasing. Or the defense, which Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said is improving.
“You work hard, you expect good things,” LaVine said.
No surprise. LaVine has been confident since the day the late Flip Saunders took him with the 13th pick in the 2014 NBA draft out of UCLA. LaVine was lanky, athletic, raw. Confident.
LaVine was part of the trade that brought Jimmy Butler to Minnesota on draft day 2017. He went to the Bulls still rehabbing from a torn knee ligament and ensuing surgery that ended his 2016-17 season.
Now, having fully healed and had an offseason devoted to improving his game rather than rehabbing his knee, LaVine is emerging as one of the league’s more potent scorers.
He entered Saturday’s game between the Timberwolves and Bulls 10th in the league in scoring at 25.4 points per game. With all the injuries the Bulls have had, LaVine has been their go-to scorer, dealing with more double-teams and defenses designed to slow him down. LaVine averaged 27.9 points over his first 11 games. He was slowed a bit for a stretch. But in the two games before Saturday LaVine averaged 26.5 points.
His season scoring average, assists (4.4) and rebounds (5.1) are all career highs.
“I feel good,” he said. “I feel healthy. I’m not hitting my threes right now. But that will come. ... Teams have been loading up on me. But that helps us on offense, too. Because there is always an open man. And I’m getting better at reading that.”
Hoiberg said his defense — not a LaVine strength to this point — is getting better, too.
“Zach is a guy who really took the challenge to try to improve,” Hoiberg said. “And, offensively, he’s carrying a lot of the load right now. Every night. That’s not easy. He’s second in the league in usage. He’s really grown as far as making the right play.”
Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau has noticed, too.
“I think last year you saw glimpses of what he could do,” Thibodeau said. “I think now that he’s healthy, he’s gone to a different level. He loves the game. Those types of guys always get better.’’
LaVine still carries some connection to Minnesota. On draft day 2014, Saunders walked around with a piece of paper in his pocket with the name of the player he planned to take at 13. It was LaVine. Saunders gave him the paper as a memento, and he still has it.
“I’ll always keep that,” he said.
Stealing the show
In Friday’s victory in Brooklyn, the Wolves scored a season-high 31 points off 19 Nets turnovers. It was the fourth time in five games the Wolves have scored 20 or more points off opponents’ turnovers and the sixth time this season.
The Wolves entered Saturday first in the league in deflections (16.0) and second in steals (9.7).
It starts with Robert Covington, who is third in the league in deflections (3.7) and steals (2.2). Covington — who has averaged 3.2 steals with the Wolves — had five of Minnesota’s 15 steals Friday.
“I think our activity has been really good, and I think Robert adds a lot to that,” Thibodeau said. “He’s everywhere. He’s a hard guy to throw over. Very disruptive.”
Bates-Diop back in Iowa
Keita Bates-Diop had 20 points, six rebounds, two assists and a steal in his first game back with the Iowa Wolves, a 123-115 victory over the Oklahoma City Blue.
Staff Writer Chris Hine contributed to this report.