Rozner: Chicago Bulls' LaVine still in comeback mode

Updated 6/23/2018 7:08 PM
  • Chicago Bulls' Zach LaVine, center, scores between Memphis Grizzlies' Dillon Brooks, left,  and Marc Gasol, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Chicago.

    Chicago Bulls' Zach LaVine, center, scores between Memphis Grizzlies' Dillon Brooks, left, and Marc Gasol, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Chicago.

As the NBA draft came and went, a rather surprising narrative emerged from Bulls Nation.

The gist of it was that 23-year-old Zach LaVine has not developed the way the Bulls had hoped he would, and will never become the player the Chicago Bulls expected him to be when they traded Jimmy Butler.

So, yeah, that happened fast.

It's a bit hard to understand since LaVine played in only 24 games after returning from an ACL tear that cost him nearly a year of basketball, and the only thing Bulls veep John Paxson wanted was to see LaVine on the court again.

"Our expectation when Zach came back was just to get him playing basketball again," Paxson told us Friday morning on the Score. "He was coming off a major injury and hadn't played basketball in 11 months.

"It's very difficult for a player to come back and have that consistent game. He needed to get his legs underneath him and just get back to playing basketball.

"So from that standpoint we were thrilled."

At times, LaVine played some really good basketball and some really mediocre basketball. He also had some bad games, which is just what you would expect from a player off the court for so long.

"We had to sit him down toward the end of the year when he got some tendinitis in that knee," Paxson said. "We didn't want to push that envelope, but he's got an entire summer to get himself stronger and get himself in great basketball condition."

That's the most underrated part of this equation. A world-class athlete generally can't miss that much time with that kind of injury and play like he hasn't missed that much time with that kind of injury.

"Anybody who's had a significant injury and sits out, the conditioning component is a really hard piece in coming back, and that doesn't just happen easily," Paxson said. "We brought Zach back on a minutes limit just to get him playing again, and what we found was when he was playing shorter minutes, he was a much more effective basketball player.

"I think that speaks to the conditioning component of when you come back from an injury. As his minutes extended, he wasn't as efficient a player."

Nothing about LaVine's season was surprising, but conversations about a contract extension and restricted free agency have led to speculation that the Bulls are not as enamored as they once were.

There have been reports that the Bulls wouldn't match if LaVine were offered a huge deal, which might be a possibility, but Paxson said the idea that the Bulls have suddenly soured on LaVine is simply not true.

"The message we gave these guys at the end of the year was we want everyone to come back in great basketball shape," Paxson said. "We feel like this roster can play the way (coach) Fred (Hoiberg) wants to play in terms of pace and pushing the ball.

"I know (the coaches) have already dissected how we're doing things offensively and defensively. They're gonna make some changes in philosophy in terms of running and spacing and those types of things.

"It's a really good opportunity for us, and Zach fits that type of play. If you can get a guy with his speed and athleticism out ahead of the ball and throw it up to him where he can create and get to the rim -- get to the foul line, those types of things -- that will be a huge plus for us.

"It's always difficult -- we saw it with Derrick (Rose) -- when a player comes back from those kinds of injuries, but Zach's athleticism is still there and he's got an off-season now to really get himself together and we're looking forward to having him back."

The Bulls thought LaVine had star power when they acquired him, and they also knew he would need time while returning from a serious injury before they would see it consistently.

There doesn't seem to be any doubt in Paxson's mind that LaVine can still be that guy, and nothing that's happened since his comeback in January has changed that.

There's no guarantee it will occur, but let's allow him a bit more than 24 games -- at 27 minutes a night -- before we write him off.

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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