By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — It was in the second week July after being acquired by the Bulls a few weeks earlier that guard Zach LaVine proclaimed he planned to be ready for the start of training camp as he continued his rehab from a torn ACL.
That won’t be the case, but on the eve of camp opening, the Bulls and LaVine both struck a note of enthusiasm regarding his recovery.
“As soon as possible,” LaVine said Monday of a return timeline, the day before the Bulls open the season with two-a-day practices that he won’t yet take part in. “I know at the minimum, the surgeon has been telling everybody it’s nine months. I’m very far along in the progress right now and doing things I’m very happy about. I put a lot of work in this. I can’t stand just sitting here, but that’s the way it is. I think at the minimum it’s nine months and then I can start doing more on a timetable from there, but you know every day I’m at the gym working so when I get back, I can hit the floor running. I’m not going to have any constraints or anything like that.”
LaVine tore his left ACL in a Feb. 3 game while stilling playing for the Timberwolves. His reference to the nine-month timetable would suggest an early November return at the earliest, but given their history with injuries and LaVine’s importance as the centerpiece return in the Jimmy Butler trade, the Bulls will utilize caution.
Asked if LaVine has been ruled out of the season opener on Oct. 19, executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson didn’t make that official but strongly hinted at it.
“The timeline certainly does not appear that close,” Paxson said. “I think that’s a pretty safe bet, yeah.”
LaVine pointed out that the times he recently clocked for a three-quarter sprint and 10-meter sprint during rehab were better than those he registered upon entering the NBA back in 2014, as was his measurement for his standing vertical. The wait now is for LaVine to be cleared for full contact, which will be the most significant, final step.
A two-time slam dunk champion, LaVine added he has “no fear going through the lane or jumping or anything.”
“I’m not going to change my game because I got hurt,” he said.
And the Bulls won’t change their approach either.
“We’re not going to rush Zach back,” Paxson said. “But we’re also going to listen (to the doctors). When they say he’s ready to play or to practice, we’re going to allow him to do that. The one thing I’ve always found — and it’s big — is guys come back from an extended time out, especially coming off surgery, and when they get the OK they need to get in basketball condition. And that doesn’t happen overnight.”
Another timeline to be cognizant of is Oct. 16, the deadline for teams to finalize extensions with 2014 draft class members finishing off their rookie deals, as the 22-year-old LaVine is. On Monday at media day, both the Bulls and LaVine expressed no worry about a long-term deal getting done, whether it’s soon or in restricted free agency next summer.
Preliminary discussions have already taken place, with general manager Gar Forman saying, “Zach knows and his agents know how important he is for us moving forward.”
“It doesn’t really matter to me,” LaVine said. “I’m going to let all that take care of itself. I know I’m a big part of this team, and I’m excited to be in negotiations with them. I want to be here for a long period of time. If it’s now or later, I know it’s going to be done either way.”
The 6-foot-5 LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 45.9 percent shooting and 3.0 assists in 47 games in Minnesota last season. Once healthy, he’ll be expected to be the centerpiece of the Bulls’ offense for years to come.
Given his easy-going personality and talent, LaVine will likely also be looked to as a team leader in due time.
“Regardless of what the record is, what the score is, you always go out there and compete,” LaVine said. “You never know what’s going to happen. In a game where you’re down by 20, you’re still trying to win the game. You go into each game looking to win. We’re not looking at wins or losses because it proves something as a team. We go into every game trying to get better. As long as you compete, we’re gonna play our hearts out, we’re improving every day.”
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.