Zach LaVine was noticeably absent from ESPN’s list of best 25 players under the age of 25, which came as a bit of a surprise to him.
“Did it have something to do with my injury?” he queried, referencing to the ACL injury he suffered last February as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The list was published last week and based on future potential, not necessarily on accomplishments to date.
Usually cool, LaVine flashed a little bit of incredulousness once he had a chance to gather his thoughts.
“You guys (media) don’t think I’m better…Top 25 players under 25? If I’m not in the Top 25 of that, then I obviously haven’t done what I’m supposed to be doing out here,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com. “I don’t worry about that. I know I’m a lot better than what they think. Random people talking.”
“I don’t give a damn, man,” LaVine said. “I motivate myself. I go out there and play for my team and family. I couldn’t care what they think. There’s a lot of people that know what I do.”
Former teammate Andrew Wiggins also made the list, tied at No. 23. As a third option last season before his injury, LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 46 percent shooting and 39 from the 3-point line. This season, LaVine is averaging 17 points and nearly four rebounds with three assists in 27.5 minutes for the Bulls, having played in 22 games since making his debut in January.
His shooting this season is down – at 39.5 percent – as he works himself into a new system on a changing team in addition to feeling out his body.
“Zach, right now, he’s still working himself back into shape,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Having a year off, I don’t think people understand how hard it is to get back into top form when you’re almost off for a calendar year. He’s shown some really good flashes and played really good basketball.”
He’s had some signature games, such as outdueling Butler last month in a 35-point showing that capped off a career-best streak of four straight 20-point games. There’s been games where he looked dead-legged, an expected side effect from his recovery.
He called the 1-for-11 showing against the Boston Celtics last week “the worst game of my career.”
“The Minnesota game was cool. I was just hyped for that game,” LaVine said. “I felt good in the Portland game, I felt good in the Sacramento game. There’s games I came out and felt really good. And then games I haven’t, where it was like ‘this is bad.'”
At his position, Washington’s Bradley Beal (No. 8), Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Phoenix’s Devin Booker (tied at No. 9), Denver’s Gary Harris (No. 11) and Boston’s Jaylen Brown (No. 22) checked in ahead of LaVine.
Beal is blossoming, leading the Wizards in the absence of John Wall. Mitchell is a sensational Rookie of the Year candidate, helping Utah surge toward a playoff spot in the West. Booker had a 70-point game last season, but Phoenix is the league’s second-worst team. Harris doesn’t wow anyone statistically but is a darling of the advanced stats crowd and solid across the board. Brown has helped the Celtics thrive in the absence of Gordon Hayward.
LaVine is getting his first real chance at being a starter, and has had to do it under the circumstances of an injury recovery for a team that is looking toward the long play as opposed to contending in the moment.
“I’m just trying to get in a rhythm and get better,” LaVine said. “Each game I try to go out and do better than I did the day before.”
Considering he’s up for restricted free agency this summer, he’s had to resist the urge of going stat-hunting to stay inside the construct of Hoiberg’s system, while at the same time trying to find his new footing.
“You have to be (aggressive). Sometimes, it gotta come within the flow of the game,” LaVine said. “We have so many different lineups out here, it might not be your night, too. It’s gonna be a process going forward with it.”
Already supremely motivated, LaVine probably found something else to guide him for the rest of the season and beyond.