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Bulls guard Zach LaVine has been defensive lately, and it’s about time

The stats still paint a picture of a one-dimensional player so far this season, but the eye test, especially the last few weeks, show LaVine starting to put an effort toward being an improved defensive player.

Bulls guard Zach LaVine defends against the Lakers’ LeBron James.
Bulls guard Zach LaVine defends against the Lakers’ LeBron James.
Ashley Landis/AP

It’s not the type of neighborhood Zach LaVine wants to be hanging out in.

Sure, teammate Wendell Carter Jr. is right next door, and Wizards two-time All-Star Bradley Beal has a place up the road, but LaVine has an eye on moving.

Good thing for him he has a coach in Billy Donovan who has plenty of cardboard boxes and a willingness to help out.

As for the hard part, however? That’s all on LaVine.

“It’s not just going to be given to you,’’ the Bulls guard said. “Nothing has really ever been given, so I’m going to continue to go out there and show it, and the more the wins pile up and I do my part, it will be recognized. But it’s a self-decision of me trying to be the best version of Zach LaVine that I can be.’’

The eye test, especially three of the last five games, has LaVine working in that direction.

His defensive numbers, however? They scream something different so far this season.

In his 14 games played, LaVine ranks 415th in defensive rating (117.5) and 211th amongst NBA starters. A bad neighborhood indeed.

To add some context, Carter is just above him at 117.6, but is usually much better in that category. He’s learning a new drop defense from Donovan and the staff, and experiencing some serious growing pains. While Beal, like LaVine a guard with a reputation of shoot first, ask questions later, has a defensive rating of 116.7.

No, not good, but at least there seems to be an awakening for LaVine. A realization that being a complete basketball player leads to winning. Winning leads to recognition. There are no shortcuts.

And while Donovan is not the first coach to try convincing LaVine of that, maybe he’s the one that’s getting through. Maybe he is the Zach whisperer.

“He challenges you and he puts a big deal of, I don’t want to say pressure, but he makes you step up to the plate,’’ LaVine said of his relationship with his newest coach. “For me personally, I like that.’’

Obviously so, as lately LaVine’s not only playing improved on-the ball defense — an aspect of the game he’s always been solid in — but off-the ball defense, where he’s always seemed to struggle. Whether it’s been a focusing issue or looking to save energy on the defensive end so that his offense doesn’t take a hit, LaVine has always underwhelmed away from the ball and in help situations.

But starting in Los Angeles against the Lakers two weeks ago, there seemed to be a shift. LaVine had two steals in the loss, and looked way more active defensively.

Then against Dallas on Sunday, he took on the tough assignment of helping slow Luka Doncic down in the second half, and along with the likes of Patrick Williams and Garrett Temple, did just that, holding the All-Star to six points in the final two quarters and grabbing three steals.

That trend continued Monday in the win over Houston, with LaVine adding two more steals, a block, and again, just more awareness shown on the defensive side.

Look out Jimmy Butler? Not even close, but there’s no question that in Year 7, LaVine is taking his craft more seriously on that side of the ball. Finally.

“A little bit of everything,’’ LaVine said, when asked what was the reasoning for the new mentality on defense. “I’ve always considered myself a really good on-ball defender. I don’t think a lot of people are going to beat me off the dribble. But just the energy and awareness, and it comes with film and coaches being on you like you said, and me just understanding I have to do this to help us win.

“I have to lock in and just be better.’’

Sounds like a guy on the move.