Extensive offseason work has raised Chicago’s Zach LaVine’s game to an All-Star level

The shortened 2019-20 season had unintended benefits for Zach LaVine.

The Bulls weren’t part of the bubble restart, giving the shooting guard an unusual amount of time to analyze his game on video and then work on it in the gym.

“I took advantage of the time,” LaVine told USA TODAY Sports. “I got extra time to break down my game. Not my whole game because at a certain point you are who you are. You just get better at the things you’re good at and try to make up for your faults. Last summer, I was real specific about what I wanted to work on.”

LaVine sat down with renowned skills coach Drew Hanlen who identified areas where LaVine needed to improve offensively: at the rim, 3-10 feet from the rim and 3-pointers.

LaVine and Hanlen put together a plan.

The results have been phenomenal. LaVine averages career-highs in points (28.7), assists (5.1) and rebounds (5.2). Most impressive are his shooting percentages: career-bests in field goal shooting (52.5%, seven points higher than last season) and 3-pointers (43.5%, five points higher than last season).

One of the biggest areas of improvement for Zach LaVine from previous seasons is finishing at the rim. (Photo: The Associated Press)

LaVine made the All-Star team for the first time in his career.

“Once you break through, you get the respect of your peers, your coaches and the media,” LaVine said. “I feel I’ve been playing at an All-Star level. Breaking through, finally, feels good. I’m very happy. My teammates have helped me a lot, and the coaching staff as well. I just have to be thankful.”

Said Hanlen: “One of the things that fueled his offseason drive was that he wasn’t even in the conversation to be an All-Star last season when his numbers should’ve had him at least in the conversation and possibly in the game.”

Shortly after the Bulls told LaVine he was an All-Star, he thought he was getting on a Zoom call with reporters. Instead, he saw family and friends on the call.

“What was cool for me was seeing the excitement on the faces of my family and friends,” he said. “That made it all it worthwhile because they’ve put a lot of work and energy into this, too.”

“Once you break through, you get the respect of your peers, your coaches and the media. I feel I’ve been playing at an All-Star level. Breaking through, finally, feels good. I’m very happy. My teammates have helped me a lot, and the coaching staff as well. I just have to be thankful.”

LaVine, 25, had been on the All-Star fringe for the past couple of seasons but played for bad teams. He was also slowed by a torn ACL in 2017 and the Timberwolves traded him to the Bulls after the season.

Stability has not been constant in LaVine’s career. He sustained a significant injury, was traded and has played for six coaches in seven seasons.

But the Bulls wanted to make him the face of the franchise, and first-year Bulls coach Billy Donovan is providing stability for LaVine.

“He's got to lead by example by every day in practice putting forth a great effort where he can hold himself to a high standard, which enables him to hold his teammates to a high standard.” Donovan told reporters. “These are all the things that he has wanted to do. For him, doing what he's doing this year in terms of these numbers and his career-best and all those things, it's a great complement to the commitment that he's made to the game, to himself and to his teammates."

When Hanlen watched video of LaVine’s 2019-20 season, he noticed LaVine’s posture and pace was off, and it was reflected in his shooting statistics. In the restricted area, LaVine shot 59.7%, 17.7% in the paint (non-restricted area) and 14.6% on shots from 5-9 feet.

Zach LaVine (8) has had six coaches in his seven NBA seasons, but first-year Bulls coach Billy Donovan may finally provide some stability. (Photo: The Associated Press)

Hanlen cut up the video and showed LaVine the source of the problem. Then Hanlen had LaVine watch video of other good finishers: James Harden and Bradley Beal.

“What we realized is it wasn’t that he didn’t have the ability,” Hanlen said. “He was too rushed. He was too off balance. We worked on his pace and his posture, and that improved every aspect of his game. It allows to play under control and make reads. He’s able to change speeds and remain in a good posture and be on balance for jump shots and keep his athleticism so he can finish in the rim. When you can accelerate and deaccelerate and have good posture with the athleticism of Zach LaVine, it’s almost impossible to stop.”

LaVine had access to a gym during the pandemic. After re-signing with the Bulls in 2018, he bought his parents a home in suburban Seattle and built a basketball facility near the house. He could workout whenever he wanted.

The results? This season he is shooting 67.2% in the restricted area, 44.8% in the paint (non-restricted area) and 48.4% on shots from 5-9 feet. Include his 3-point shooting, and LaVine is one of the more efficient wing scorers in the league.

“This year,” he said, “I feel like I’ve impacted winning a lot more.”

The Bulls are in playoff contention, and LaVine’s improvement is a major reason why.

“I’m just trying to do whatever the game calls for,” LaVine said. “Billy does a good job of helping me with that. There’s games where I’m going to go out there and try to get 40 and put the team on my back. But there’s going to be games where I have to be the facilitator and try to guard the other team’s best player. Just to do what I can to impact winning and show growth as a two-way player.”

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