Has Zach LaVine Officially Bounced Back?

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Has Zach LaVine Officially Bounced Back?

Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls came into the season with expectations set high. Not only did Arturas Karnisovas specifically state that this team was planning to make it past the first round of the playoffs, but the Bulls were about to get back a fully healthy Zach LaVine.

Playing the second half of last season on a bum knee, the Bulls’ max player received a rather routine offseason knee surgery. The popular opinion was that LaVine would be fully ready to go for the start of the season, and he seemingly validated that word by participating in training camp and playing in three of the team’s four preseason games.

But opening night told a different story.

As the team geared up for a tough matchup in Miami, LaVine stayed in street clothes. The Bulls went on to sit him in their first two games of the year before he clocked 28 minutes during the team’s 32-point home-opening loss to the Cavaliers. Little did we know, the confusing and frustrating first week of the season would reflect a lot of what was about to come.

While LaVine went on to miss only two more games – both of which occurred during a back-to-back set – it became abundantly clear that he wasn’t the same. And as he struggled to look like the same elite three-level score that made him an All-Star the past two seasons, his team struggled to look like the obvious playoff squad they were one season ago.

LaVine was averaging some of his worst marks since the 2017-18 season (his first in Chicago where he played 24 games after coming off ACL surgery), scoring just 20.9 points per game on a brutal 40.9 percent from the field.

He didn’t have the same lift on his jumpers, wasn’t able to explode to the rim like normal, and failed to convert shot after shot at the rim. The Bulls had won just nine of their first 22 games at the time, and there was no question that LaVine’s shockingly poor play factored into that total.

Then, something changed. While a .500 record in the next 10 games doesn’t quite reflect the kind of improvement the Bulls were originally hoping to see, it at least signaled a step in the right direction. And I doubt it’s at all a coincidence that this also came tied to LaVine’s best play of the season.

LaVine has returned to form this month. Over the team’s last 11 games, he’s averaged 24.1 points per game on 52.3 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from behind the arc. He also recently strung together a 33-point performance in a win over the New York Knicks, where he shot 12-22 and went to the free throw for a perfect 5-5. Simply put, he looked like the old Zach LaVine. And arguably the biggest reason for that was his execution at the rim.

LaVine knocked down seven of his eight shots at the basket against New York, offering up yet another performance that put concerns about his finishing ability to bed. He’s now shooting 72.1 percent on his shots that come within 8ft of the basket since Dec. 4, per NBA Stats. Just how great of a change is that? He was shooting 53.1 percent over the course of the previous 18 games.

More specifically, Cleaning the Glass has LaVine converting 77 percent of his attempts at the rim over his past 11 games, which sits within the league’s 90th percentile. Again, what did things look like before that? He was averaging just 61 percent, which ranked in the 44th percentile.

To earn max money in the NBA, you have to be really stinkin’ good at something. And scoring at a high clip – particularly around the rim – is what LaVine has been really stinkin’ good at in recent years. The fact that skillset is starting to show itself again is extremely good news for a Bulls, and we can say the same about his stroke from downtown.

While this didn’t fall off as severely as his finishing did to start the year, LaVine was shooting just 35.2 percent from long range before Dec. 4. For a player who has shot a combined 39.2 percent over the past four seasons, this was still a concerning drop-off, especially when we consider how few shooters this current Bulls roster has to rely on. Now, however, LaVine is back to shooting over 40 percent in these past 11 games, giving us proof that his jumper is returning to form.

I know this may not sound all that exciting with the Bulls sitting at 14-19 and fresh off a loss to the West’s worst team. But, no matter how we look at it, LaVine looking more comfortable is a good thing for the Chicago Bulls. Even if it might not help this iteration of the team right the ship, it at least can give this front office more confidence that he is a piece to continue building around moving forward (and, if not, at least it boosts his trade value!).

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Author: Elias Schuster

Elias Schuster is the Lead Bulls Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @Schuster_Elias.