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Bulls guard Zach LaVine is getting defensive, and it’s about time

Tired of people “talking [bleep]” about his defense, LaVine knows he has to become dominant on both ends of the floor to be considered an elite player.

“I’m just tired of people talking [bleep] about my defense,’’ the Bulls’ Zach LaVine said.
David Zalubowski/AP

Bulls guard Zach LaVine being aware of his defensive reputation is nothing new, but he seemingly is ready to do something about it this season.

At least, that’s the plan.

‘‘I’m just tired of people talking [bleep] about my defense,’’ LaVine said Monday. ‘‘I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that good on the defensive end. So I’m taking more pride in it. I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.’’

LaVine’s self-assessment is fairly accurate. His on-the-ball defense never has been the problem. It’s when the ball is moving that LaVine seems to lose focus, specifically on the player he’s supposed to be guarding. There are other defensive fundamentals that have tripped up LaVine, too, but nothing he can’t correct.

And if he leads on that end of the court, the team will follow.

‘‘Yeah, because there are no excuses,’’ LaVine said. ‘‘It starts from top to bottom. It has to start with me. If I go out there and do my job, if I’m doing it offensively and defensively, I think it holds everybody accountable because I’m holding myself accountable, too.’’

So how has LaVine finally reached these conclusions in his sixth NBA season? It’s a combination of the criticism wearing on him and defensive-minded coach Jim Boylen preaching accountability from his best players.

Add in some respected veteran teammates to pass that message along, too, and LaVine suddenly was taking a long look at himself.

‘‘Zach has taken on a new challenge,’’ said forward Thaddeus Young, who joined the Bulls as a free agent during the offseason. ‘‘We told him that he has to become a better two-way player, and he’s taken strides in the preseason and doing that — hustling back and going on the court for loose balls, making sure he’s out there doing the things we need him to do for us.

‘‘His leadership has grown tremendously since I’ve been here, and he’s getting better each and every day. But he doesn’t get tired of the grind, he doesn’t get tired of the work, and he’s going to continue to get better.’’

LaVine has averaged 23.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.3 steals in the three preseason games in which he has played. More important, his two-way play is showing and might have some staying power.

‘‘He needs to become [a two-way player],’’ Boylen said. ‘‘It’s crucial that he becomes that. But I think when you put the work in and you care and you are committed like he is with the talent he has, it’s going to happen. I think he’s taking care of the things he controls.

‘‘What he’s talked about — and what we’ve talked about — is him becoming the best two-way player he can become. Two-way player means he is engaged and committed to both ends of the floor, and he is doing that. It’s fun to see, and it helps him, helps our team and just shows another level he can go to.’’