Can Zach LaVine live up to his price tag?

Let me take you back to 2016. The then 21-year-old Zach LaVine was averaging over 18 points per game for the Minnesota Timberwolves, throwing down highlight dunks and splashing triples at a reliable level. A future maximum salary contract seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Fast forward to the present day. LaVine is now a Chicago Bull, he has suffered and overcome an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tear, and his 4-year, $78 million contract (far less than the max) is surrounded by a plethora of question marks.

The 23-year-old has heard the noise, too. He explains how he uses it as motivation when he spoke to ESPN after the signing.

“There’s nothing that any of you guys can say to me that I [don’t] take harder upon myself. I go back and critique my game every year. I’m used to people sleeping on me, and I’m also used to waking them up as well. I’m happy that I have this contract, and I’m happy that I have a little extra motivation to go out there and prove it to some people that don’t believe in me.” he said.

After putting up 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3 assists and shooting a shoddy 38.3 percent from the field and 34.1 percent from long distance, LaVine better have a full tank of that motivational fuel. While he was still prone to destructive scoring outbursts, they came less frequently than before, and his defense – which has never been a strong suit – was reminiscent of a traffic cone.

However, after 11 months on the sidelines, this form slump could be a wash. After all, the substandard numbers came in a small, 24-game sample size. With his feet under him for a full pre-season, LaVine could go back to the high-flying, shot-stroking ball of potential that hoop heads had come to love next season. For near on $20 million a year, Chicago has blown on their dice and are ready to take a massive gamble that he does return to that level – and reach a new one defensively.

If he doesn’t, there is going to be a whole lot of points given up in the Windy City.  When the human pogo stick was joined on the floor by other franchise centerpieces Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls registered a ghoulish 119.2 defensive rating. Now the front office brass decided to throw Jabari Parker into the mix, another injury prone player who happened to rank 464th in defensive real plus/minus in 2017-18.

If their freshly paid man can’t find a way to put it all together, Chicago might come to seriously regret shelling out for the wiry wing. However, when discussing the deal with ESPN, head coach Fred Hoiberg doesn’t seem too stressed about that possibility.

“Listen, Zach’s a great kid. He’s a great teammate,” Hoiberg said. “We’re going to move forward with the direction with this young group of guys that Zach’s a huge part of, obviously. We feel with his skill set, he fits with how we want to play. I can’t stress it enough, having a full summer, having a full offseason, a full training camp will benefit him greatly.” he said.

Next season will be the most meaningful in LaVine’s career, there is no doubt about that. At just 23-years-old, he can easily reach and outgun the play that made him such a popular talent back in Minnesota. But the large, scary shadow that is his injury and defensive woes will need to be eliminated first.

Strap yourself in Bulls fans, this is going to be fun.

 

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