What does the return of Zach LaVine mean for the Chicago Bulls? 

Zach LaVine will make his return Saturday against the Pistons. What does Zach bring to the team and what does his return mean for the franchise going forward?

The moment Chicago Bulls fans have been waiting for is almost here!

Zach LaVine will make his season and Chicago Bulls debut Saturday versus the Detroit Pistons.

His return will come 344 days after his tore his ACL on Feb. 4, 2017, ironically, against the Pistons when he was a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

(On a lighter note, LaVine’s return will coincide with his bobble head night at the United Center!)

LaVine’s return to action is a monumental deal for the Windy City franchise. He was viewed as the centerpiece of the Bulls trade with the Timberwolves on the 2017 Draft night for Jimmy Butler.

The direction of the franchise doesn’t entirely rest on LaVine’s shoulders. But, he can and will have a significant effect on the Chicago Bulls’ short term and long term future.

So, with his return only a day away, it feels like an appropriate time to gauge what he brings to the team and what his return means for the organization from here on out.

The Chicago Bulls need an electric athlete

“He’s a dynamic scorer for us. He can get out in transition, shoot the 3 ball. He can pull up. He’s a guy who can create for others too,” said Bulls guard Kris Dunn, according to a Jan. 8 Chicago Tribune article. “It’s just another playmaker on the court. He’s going to make the game easier for everybody.”

Kris Dunn says it best. LaVine brings an array of skills as a scorer to the table.

Before his injury, the fourth-year guard out of UCLA was averaging careers highs in points per game (18.9), points per shot attempt (1.16), field goal percentage (45.9), and three-point shots made (2.6) and taken (6.6) per game.

The athleticism LaVine used to make a name for himself with his awe-inspiring winning performances in the 2015 and 2016 Dunk Contests translated well to in-game situations.

Give him any type of space in transition and LaVine is determined to blow by any defender in his way and finish the fast break opportunity with a highlight reel worthy dunk.

He glides in the air smoother than most people do walking on land. There isn’t another player on the Bulls that’s as electric as him in transition because there aren’t many basketball players that ignite as much excitement as he does in those situations.

He tallied 1.26 points per possession, scored on 61.2 percent of his opportunities and ranked in the 79th percentile out of all qualified players last season in transition.

He’s also effective in the half-court

Zach LaVine uses his quickness and creative ball handling skills to go around defenders and get to the rim frequently. Out of all his shot attempts, 33 percent of them came at the rim (within four feet of the basket) during the 2016-17 season. This was in the 67th percentile among all wings last season and is a step back from what he did during his first and second season in the league.

Thanks to his length (a 6’8” wingspan) and hops, the 22-year-old guard does a great job at finishing at the rim.

He had a 62 percent shooting clip at shots at the rim last season, which was above average for wing players but would’ve been an elite conversion rate if you consider him more of a combo guard.

Whether LaVine returns to the court with the same burst and athleticism remains to be seen. But, if you take Dunn’s word for it and believe windmill and between-the-leg dunks are signs that LaVine is just as athletic as he was pre-injury, then the Chicago Bulls are in luck.

As a team that likes to get up-and-down the court, 13th in the league in pace, but ranks 27th in points per transition play, 27th in frequency of shots taken at the rim and 28th in field goal percentage of shots at the time, the Bulls need LaVine’s finishing ability and explosiveness.

Only focusing on LaVine’s athleticism would be an insult

He’s one of the rare players in the league who’s an athletic specimen and can shoot the lights out the ball. LaVine has shot 37.8 percent from deep in his career and shoots well from deep in nearly any situation.

He excels when he’s running off screens and spotting up for three-point attempts; he made 42.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes off 3.9 attempts per game last season.

The Chicago Bulls shoot a fair number of catch-and-shoot threes, 22.3 attempts per game, 13th in the league. But, they rank 21st in conversation rate, 36.7 percent.

Pace-and-space is their new mantra. But, being 19th in three-point percentage while being 12th in attempt frequency per game shows they need help being successful in the second part of their style of play.

LaVine’s proficiency from beyond the arc, as well as his developing efficiency shooting midrange jumpers and skills as a pick-and-roll ball handler, is exactly what the Bulls need to improve in these areas.

LaVine is working on minimizing his weaknesses

“When Zach comes back we’ll be even better,” said Dunn, according to a Dec. 23, 2017 Chicago Tribune article. “He’s definitely a great player. His defense is even getting better from Minnesota to here.”

It’s encouraging to hear he’s been working on his defense since he’s been a minus on that end of the floor since he came into the league. If there’s anyone on the team I trust to evaluate LaVine’s progress as a defender, it’s Dunn.

LaVine has the tools to be an above average defender. He the quickness, speed, and length to be an asset, not a liability, on that end of the floor. He just needs to put the effort in to become adequate.

Doing a better job of taking care of the ball is another way LaVine has improved since his rookie season; he’s witnessed a steady decline in turnover percentage since entering the league.

It’s unlikely he’ll become anything more than an average, sometimes good, passer. But, his presence on the court will open opportunities and space for his teammates to score.

What does this mean for outlook for Chicago Bulls?

As good as LaVine was before his injury, it’s unlikely he’ll make a huge impact on winning this year. ACL tears take a considerable amount of time to recover from. It typically takes around 20-25 games for players to get feel of the game back, especially after not playing for nearly a year.

“My expectations are just (to) get him back in the flow of playing basketball,” said Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson, according to a Jan. 9 Chicago Tribune article. “There are no expectations in terms of how he’s going to play. If he misses shots, so be it. The long term is where we’re coming from — it’s not tomorrow, it’s not next week.”

This is the right approach to take. LaVine won’t be the best version of himself from the start. At best, he’ll look like the player he was last season in when March or April rolls around. But, he may not return to full form until next season, and that’s okay.

This season isn’t supposed to be about winning and LaVine’s return isn’t supposed to help the Bulls make a push for the playoffs.

It sounds like the front office understands this and will make sure LaVine is taken care of.

“We’re still going to take this conservatively,” said Paxson, according to a Jan. 9 Daily Herald article. “We’re going to look at this in kind of weekly installments. In talking with the coaches, we’re not going to put him in a situation where we’re saving minutes for end of games, anything like that.”

If LaVine’s able to resemble the player he was in his first 35 games from last season at some point this year, then that’s a bonus for the Bulls. The organization is all about the future; forward thinking.

Having LaVine back gets the Chicago Bulls one step closer to returning to prosperity they experienced earlier in the decade and having a successful rebuild.

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