With His ‘High Ceiling,’ Bulls Counting On Zach LaVine To Be A Cornerstone Of Rebuild

By Cody Westerlund–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Perhaps the most important aspect of a ground-up rebuild in basketball is acquiring a player with star potential and developing him into just that, a central figure who can be counted on night to night to be your best player on the floor and someone who can bend opposing defenses to your will.

On the sixth day of their full-on rebuild, the Bulls don’t yet know who their star will be.

He might be waiting in the 2018 draft, if all goes to plan and the ping-pong balls bounce in the Bulls’ favor, if they’re as bad as it seems they’ll be next season. He might come via a trade, if the organization’s projection that a bubble is about to burst comes to fruition, forcing desperation among other salary cap-strapped teams with less flexibility. He might come in free agency years down the road, if the franchise sets up a quality foundation and finds a way to reverse history by attracting an elite player in his prime.

He also might never show up at all.

What the Bulls are more certain of is that they have a cornerstone piece in the addition of 6-foot-5 guard Zach LaVine, who was acquired in the trade with the Timberwolves last Thursday that sent three-time All-Star wing Jimmy Butler and No. 16 pick Justin Patton to Minnesota and also point guard Kris Dunn and No. 7 pick Lauri Markkanen to Chicago.

“It’s exciting to think about the possibilities of what you can do with players like them, players like Zach,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said.

The 22-year-old LaVine averaged 18.9 points per game while shooting just shy of 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-point range in 47 games last season, one that was cut short by an ACL tear in his left knee in early February. His injury did little to deter the Bulls in trade discussions.

They’d had their eyes on him dating back to draft night in 2016, when they also engaged in trade talks with the Wolves centered on Butler.

“I’m feeling really good,” LaVine said when asked about his ACL rehab. “I’m attacking this injury like I do everything in life, working my butt off for it every day, in the gym and doing as much as possible. There’s always that base timeline of nine to 12 months with it. I feel like with my ability, I’m able to come back early. But I really haven’t set a timetable for that. I’m very confident that I’ll come back better.”

The Bulls view LaVine as a budding offensive star, noting that he was efficient last season with a .576 true shooting percentage while serving as the third option behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Or as LaVine put it, he sometimes did a lot of standing in the corner.

So much more will be expected of him in Chicago.

“He’s got a high ceiling,” Hoiberg said. “Because of how athletic he is and the way he shoots the ball, he’s still got a lot of room to grow. It’s exciting when you have a guy who can get out and make highlight-level plays above the rim and also shoot the ball five feet behind the 3-point line, you’ve got a guy that you can do a lot of things with.”

Because he’s the headlining return in a deal that sent an all-NBA player out of town, LaVine will find himself in the spotlight like never before in Chicago. A two-time slam dunk champion, he has the most potential of any Bulls player on the roster currently.

With an easy-going personality that was on display Tuesday, LaVine figures to be counted on to be a leader as well. It’s a role LaVine looked to fill on a young Minnesota team, Dunn said. Even after his ACL tear, LaVine would show up at most shootarounds, and when the Wolves were on the road, he was often texting his teammates, Dunn said.

“I’m only 22, I’m ready for it,” LaVine said of taking center stage. “I’m very humble. When it’s time for me to get going, I’m going to come in here and work my butt off like I always do, going in with full confidence. I’m just extremely excited to get this ball rolling and see what we can do.”

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.

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