Max deal or not, Zach LaVine plans to continue growing toward being a max player: ‘I know who I am'


A max contract is the topic for Zach LaVine.

But being a max player is his goal.

“I know who I am as a player,” LaVine told recently. “I know where I wanna be as a player, too. Knowing who you are and being that guy, it's something different because knowing who I am now is not where to be but I'm working toward that.”

There’s never a convenient time for an ACL injury, but the worst time is right before you’re traded, right before a long contract negotiation. Restricted free agency is on the horizon for LaVine, as he’s eligible to sign a five-year deal worth $145 million this summer.

The Bulls can point to the sample size to suppress his value, knowing only a handful of teams have the cap space to sign LaVine to a massive offer sheet—knowing they’d likely match it.

They also want to get LaVine at a team-friendly number so they can continue to build slowly and through the draft.

LaVine and his representatives can say the Bulls knew he could only display but so much of what his full potential could be once fully healthy—and he’d be correct, too.

There’s no wrong answer, but each side will see itself as “right.”

He’s seen what happened to Isaiah Thomas, going from an MVP candidate in Boston to damaged goods in Cleveland and Los Angeles all in the name of “team,” and now having an uncertain future ahead.

“You also have to be smart, knowing if it doesn't happen at this point, you still have to work for it,” LaVine said. “I'm someone who can have more than one opportunity (at a big contract).”

It didn’t look that way in the beginning, as LaVine’s first two games in a Bulls uniform looked effortless.

“Easy,” he said.

It looked easy, it felt easy and it was a smooth debut for LaVine for those outings against the Pistons and Miami Heat. The minutes-restriction only seemed like a minor hurdle as he was aggressive with his play, fitting into a team not far removed from its best stretch of the season.

One has to wonder if the expectations were too high for him to begin with as he walks into an offseason preparing for restricted free agency.

“Of course there's some excitement and some nerve because of how big it is,” LaVine said. “And you gotta collect yourself and worry about what's at hand. What's at hand is continuing to get better going into this offseason.”

With just 25 games on the ledger, there was nothing he could do short of a minor medical miracle to prove he would be worth a max deal. It bears repeating, he’s still 14 months removed from his ACL injury and it usually takes 18 months before a player truly starts to feel like himself.

Even he was in store for a reality check, as he finished averaging 16.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 27.3 minutes per game.

“It got to a point where your legs leave at some point,” LaVine said. “That was the thing that was really tough. Some games I didn't know how I felt.”

“It's frustrating when you put all that work in and (snaps fingers) it doesn't come back that fast.”

The bar was high as LaVine entered the season as the centerpiece to the Jimmy Butler trade, and then Lauri Markkanen emerged as a rookie ready to make his mark.

Then Kris Dunn found his footing, infusing the team with his spirit and attitude.

LaVine was the known commodity of sorts, even if he was the third guy in Minnesota. It was natural for everyone to think they knew what they were getting from him because of the spoken and unspoken expectations from draft day last June.

Scoring 14 and then 18 in those adrenaline-filled nights set the bar, and everyone expected LaVine to reach it as easily as he touched the sky during those All-Star Weekends where he took over the Saturday night dunk contest.

Averaging 22 in February and stealing the show from Butler by scoring 35 in Butler’s return to Chicago only confirmed those expectations. Looking back on an up-and-down season, LaVine has the sort of perspective on it that is tough to when battling all the different factors in his face: New team, new system, new body and probably, the weight of the world on his shoulders.

He didn’t have to say it, because it’s human nature. He wanted to prove he was worth what he’d be asking for a few months later.

“I think I did a lot of good things and bad things,” LaVine said. “There's some bad things I wish I could take back and re-do. But you can't do that. Everything wasn't gonna be perfect. I'm coming back from an injury.”

Being a max player means being a plus defender and efficient scorer, attributes he’s shown signs of but hasn’t fully put together.

“I'm just a year removed. I understand that. But in my own head I don't want to label myself because I think I can overcome that faster than a normal person could.”

He was careful not to keep using his recovery from ACL as an excuse, which one can see being the mindset he had when he returned. This is a player who remembers every draft workout he had and who he worked out against prior to being picked 14th in 2014.

This is also the same player who remembers an analyst saying he would “be in the D-League (now G-League)” because he wasn’t good enough to cut it as an NBA player.

So yeah, he’s still figuring out his strengths and weaknesses as a player, wading through some of the hit or miss moments during the year when coach Fred Hoiberg implored him to run the floor harder, or the instances where he wanted to assert himself offensively as opposed to letting the offense come to him—many times, it didn’t flow his way.

His talents haven’t been fully unlocked. Some of that is physical, some LaVine’s approach. Some of that has to be on the coaching staff to find ways to make the game easier for LaVine so he doesn’t feel the need to force the action.

They’ve figured out ways for Markkanen and Dunn to operate. It’s a bit surprising the same hasn’t been done for LaVine to this point.

“There was gonna be ups and downs, getting rhythm back,” LaVine said. “But I think above all I was happy I could show flashes and show I'm the same player and the player I want to be growing into.”

He looks at Indiana’s Victor Oladipo having his star turn this year, being handed the ball after being shackled next to Russell Westbrook last year in Oklahoma City to propel the Pacers to a playoff spot, sealing the Most Improved Player award in the process.

So when he’s asked if he’s aware of where he is now as a player, it doesn’t compare to the grander vision he has when his body is fully healed and he’s in total game shape.

But that injury is a reminder of athletic mortality, and after having a rookie-scale deal, this is the contract that can set his family up for generations. He’s squarely keeping his focus on the floor, though.

“All that comes from basketball,” LaVine said. “Regardless at the end of the day, contract wise, family, generations, all that comes from the ball in the hoop. That's what I'm worried about.”

So he’s hoping for a max deal but no matter what happens in the boardroom he intends on displaying a max player on the floor next season.

“That's what everybody goes for,” said LaVine of a max deal. “You have to know yourself and play the game. It's gonna be a negotiation and I understand that. I don't think it'll be a disappointment in me, but I think you (get) what you're worth and we'll go from there.”

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