Bulls' Zach LaVine serious about continuing defensive improvement

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LaVine serious about continuing defensive improvement originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Zach LaVine said it first.

“I don’t want to stop here,” LaVine said back in February. “I want to be All-Defense, All-NBA.”

At the time, flush after his first All-Star game selection, LaVine making public his goal specifically about defense felt a little like Zach being Zach — always striving for more.

But he’s serious. And he’s starting to check off these goals one by one, isn’t he?

LaVine has far outperformed a contract that some critics questioned the Bulls matching when the Kings presented a four-year, $78 million offer sheet. He has become an All-Star and an Olympian. He will sign a max contract next offseason.

What’s missing from LaVine’s resume is winning in the NBA and achieving his aforementioned goals. And while making an All-Defensive team might’ve elicited some eye rolls when LaVine said it, his role acceptance and defense-first mindset at the Tokyo Olympics stood out.

In fact, LaVine referenced that performance when NBC Sports Chicago pre- and postgame analyst Kendall Gill challenged him to follow through on his goal this season.

“You saw me out there in Tokyo playing defense,” LaVine said during an appearance on NBC Sports Chicago on Bulls media day on Monday. “I was picking up 94 (feet). I felt like I was you. I was sliding, lunging, diving on the floor.

“I’ll try to take the challenge. I think it would just help me raise my game. So I’m all for it.”

LaVine has paid lip service to improving at that end before previous seasons. The difference this season could be the fact he drew widespread praise, including from superstar Kevin Durant, for his defensive mentality as Team USA won gold.

Plus, the Bulls have added Nikola Vučević and DeMar DeRozan, who can alleviate LaVine’s scoring load, and Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, who can set a defensive tone for LaVine to follow.

“The Olympic experience was incredible, just from a standpoint of being around a bunch of guys that are at the highest level on and off the court, with the coaches included, and then playing a role with a team that it was all about winning,” LaVine said. “We were all at the top of our game and we all couldn’t be the No. 1 option. And we had to find a role and help the team win.”

Obviously, LaVine isn’t going to be picking up fullcourt every possession and serving as the third or fourth offensive option for the Bulls. But while his role for the Bulls will be different than it was for Team USA, LaVine began talking as early as late last season about improving his already-lauded conditioning to be able to expend energy at both ends more consistently and become a two-way player.

So what will it take? Heightened focus. Improved off-the-ball awareness. An ability to stop getting hung up on screens.

It’s a lot. But Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who spent time with LaVine in Las Vegas as Team USA trained before departing for Tokyo, thinks his star is up for the task.

“I give him a lot of credit. It speaks to him and his mentality of how important he wants to win. He said, ‘Listen, we’ve got Kevin Durant, we’ve got Damian Lillard, we’ve got all these players. I’m going to bring a lot of energy defensively. I’m going to pick-up fullcourt. I’m going to really try and do that stuff,’” Donovan said. “Because I really think he felt like, ‘OK, this is what I need to do to help the team win.’ I think the experience just being around those players and the experience he went through, competing in that environment, I think was good for him.

“And then I think it’s always interesting when you’re a player and you go play with other great players and your role is totally different than maybe what it was for your primary team, and you’ve got to go through that. It’s a great learning experience for somebody.’’

LaVine always has been a willing pupil. He seems poised to pass defensive tests. Let the judging begin.

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