Bulls player preview: Zach LaVine will be barometer of Bulls' success

Mark Strotman
NBC Sports Chicago

NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono | Antonio Blakeney | Coby White | Daniel Gafford | Wendell Carter Jr. | Luke Kornet | Cristiano Felicio | Tomas Satoransky | Chandler Hutchison | Otto Porter | Adam Mokoka | Kris Dunn

How last year went

Any more questions about that $78 million contract? Didn't think so. LaVine was worth every penny and then some in Year 1 of his new deal, averaging 23.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists in 34.5 minutes per game. He played well enough to make the All-Star team in the East, though the Bulls' 14-44 record did him no favors. He took on a massive usage role in October and November while Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Kris Dunn were all out. He meshed well with Markkanen in December, January and especially February, something we hadn't seen in the pair's first season together. He also looked comfortable playing with Otto Porter, with the Bulls putting together one of the best offenses in the league during that February stretch.

Injuries plagued him again, and he was limited to just 63 games. But he did enough in those games to prove that he's a key piece to the rebuild - if not the piece to it.

Expectations for this year's role

Whether LaVine is 1A or 1B to Markkanen, LaVine's expectations are clear: Take the Bulls to the next step. They believe they have their core pieces in LaVine, Markkanen and Otto Porter, and believe Coby White and Wendell Carter could be on their way to joining that list. But at day's end, the Bulls will go as far as LaVine takes them. It won't have to be at a usage rate of 30%, and he won't need to shoot 18 times a night, but the Bulls are still at the stage of their rebuild where you can look at LaVine's numbers in the box score and figure out if they won or not.

LaVine was efficient enough as a scorer in a role that necessitated tough (or bad) shots at times. The hope is a better supporting cast can make him an even more efficient scorer. That would take his game to another level. Whether Markkanen surpasses him in terms of talent, LaVine will have the ball in his hands late in games and in clutch situations. He showed off that killer mentality last season, and now he'll have to show he can do it in winning efforts.

Where he excels

When LaVine puts his head down and goes toward the basket, it's game over for opposing defenses. He didn't do it much after his return from ACL surgery, but a healthy LaVine this past season was unstoppable going toward the rim. He averaged 13.6 drives per game, tied with Kawhi Leonard for 12th most in the NBA. He was one of 49 players to average nine drives per game, and on a list littered with elite NBA talent, LaVine was one of the best scorers: 9.5 points (5th), 3.2 FTA (3rd behind Harden, Giannis), 3.3 FGM (9th), 49.6% FG (23rd). An aggressive LaVine was the best version of LaVine, and with Jim Boylen wanting to play downhill as much as possible, No. 8 was the perfect fit.

Attacking the basket is certainly LaVine's best offensive skill, but it was promising to see him shoot 37.4% from beyond the arc on 5.1 attempts per game. LaVine shot nearly as well on pull-up 3-pointers (36.9%) as he did on catch-and-shot 3-pointers (37.3%). The fact that he's able to do both at an above-league-average clip bodes well for him. He should get more catch-and-shoot opportunities given the makeup of the new roster, but it's good to know that in a pinch (or an iso), LaVine is comfortable.

LaVine isn't a point guard (apologies to those who believe he is). But he has the chance to be a really solid passer within the Bulls' offense. He took on a ball-dominant role last season and averaged 4.5 assists in a slow-paced offense. That was important for a Bulls team that didn't get much out of the point guard position and had some of the league's worst frontcourt passing. He needed to score for the Bulls, so it wasn't surprising that he passed on just 29.4% of his drives (the second lowest among those 49 players; only Brandon Ingram passed less - 25.3%). But in pick-and-roll action and in transition, LaVine was an apt passer. He'll only get better once he doesn't need to be the lead initiator (another reason the Tomas Satoransky signing was such a good one).

Where he struggles

LaVine had the highest usage rate for any Bulls player since Derrick Rose in 2015. A whole lot was asked of him, which is why his raw per-game numbers looked so good. Analytically, LaVine had a real issue with turnovers even in such a large role. Of the 36 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher, LaVine's 12.0% turnover rate was tied for third highest. Only Trae Young and Devin Booker were higher. LaVine has a tendency to be careless with the ball - 109 of his 215 turnovers were bad passes; he had 108 bad pass turnovers as a rookie in 200 fewer minutes. Yes, he needed to do so much for the Bulls to even stay competitive on a nightly basis, but that's what the NBA is for their stars.

The defensive angle has been beaten to death, so we won't spend too much time on it. LaVine isn't a great defender. The Bulls weren't any better or worse with him off the floor but his Defensive RPM (-1.87) was 93rd of 109 shooting guards. Part of the reason Porter was such a good acquisition is because he can hide some of LaVine's deficiencies on that end of the floor.

Best case/worst case

He's got All-Star potential. There's no denying that. In fact, we'll go as far as saying he should be an All-Star this season. In a best-case scenario, LaVine integrates well with Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter over the course of a full season and uses Tomas Satoransky like Bradley Beal used him in Washington. It's probably a lost cause to think LaVine will be anything but a marginal defender at best, but if the Bulls improve as a team defensively with Porter, a full season of Wendell Carter and Thaddeus Young, perhaps they can cover LaVine's weaknesses. A top-10 scoring season shouldn't be out of the question for LaVine, who finished 18th in scoring for the woefully slow Bulls.

It's inevitable that LaVine is going to get his 20+ points every night. Scoring comes easy to him, he can get it done on all three levels, and defenses will need to respect his teammates more this season. But the worry is that it just doesn't lead to more victories. There's a difference between scoring 24 empty points and getting to 24 points through timely buckets, smart decision-making and clutch buckets. Given his supporting cast, it was going to be tough for LaVine to lead the Bulls to wins no matter how well he played. But if he doesn't improve as a defender and continues to struggle taking care of the ball, the Bulls will probably be playing for ping-pong balls in April again.

One key stat

Remember LaVine's ability to score on drives? Turns out, he's in excellent company.

A friendly reminder to interior defenders. Get out of the way when No. 8 is coming down the lane.

Bulls player preview: Zach LaVine will be barometer of Bulls' success originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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