Zach LaVine still needs to develop killer instinct to reach the top of his game

LaVine scored 18 points — including a huge three-pointer with 10.8 seconds left in the game — in the Bulls’ 111-108 win over the Trail Blazers.

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Bulls guard Zach LaVine shoots a 3-pointer against the Portland Trail Blazers during the second half of Tuesday night’s game.

Bulls guard Zach LaVine shoots a 3-pointer against the Portland Trail Blazers during the second half of Tuesday night’s game.

Craig Mitchelldyer/AP

The praise for guard Zach LaVine’s talent remains high.

His talent ceiling, however, has been up for debate for a few seasons.

But not from within the Bulls’ locker room, where the feeling is LaVine isn’t close to topping out. Actually, he’s only scratching the surface of what kind of player he can become. The 111-108 win over the Trail Blazers on Tuesday, might have been Exhibit A in that argument.

Down 20 in the first quarter and looking like dead team walking, LaVine was nibbling with assists, keeping the Bulls barely afloat and seemingly buying his time. In outscoring Portland (3-4) in the second quarter, 24-15, LaVine had some key moments on defense that seemed to bring some life to the visiting team.

But he did what he does best in crunch time, hitting a huge three-pointer with 10.8 seconds left in the game that turned a one-point Bulls lead into a four-point lead.

“Seeing Zach up close now in person, the things he can do from a physical standpoint are something that I’ve never seen as a teammate from anybody I’ve ever played with,’’ well-traveled guard Garrett Temple said. “He’s easily the most athletic, the most fluid teammate I’ve ever had. With the skills to match — in terms of the ability to shoot, the ability to get to where he wants to on the court, finish.’’

So why hasn’t LaVine been associated with winning basketball in his six previous seasons?

That’s a bit more difficult to answer.

Since coming out of UCLA as the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, LaVine has only seen the postseason on TV. He’s also seen more than a handful of coaching changes between Minnesota and Chicago, and his teammates should’ve worn name tags with all the roster movement he has experienced.

Should elite talent outshine that?

If it was all-around talent, maybe. But as much praise as LaVine is getting from his coaches and teammates this season, he’s also getting some pull-no-punches honesty. Few can score as easily as LaVine, but there’s more to stardom than just points per game in the box score.

Coach Billy Donovan has been trying to beat that home with LaVine since training camp.

“I think the talent is definitely there, there’s no question,’’ Donovan said. “The biggest thing for me was his mindset and his aggressiveness to attack and to play. And obviously he’s got to make good decisions, but I think for Zach, it’s got to be a consistent every-night mentality for him, where he’s coming with the mentality of ‘I’m going to be aggressive. I’m going to kind of impose my athleticism into the game on both ends of the floor.’ ’’

It’s not like LaVine hasn’t heard this from previous coaches, but sometimes only certain voices resonate.

The hope is enough of them are reaching LaVine at 25.

One definitely is.

Asked after the win if the Bulls would have won a game like that, especially after being down 20, LaVine didn’t hesitate.

“No,’’ he said. “I think that’s a good way of saying it. I think you learn from your mistakes over the years. This is a different mentality going into this year. Even with the losses we do have I think we’re learning from them.’’

LaVine sure seems to be.

“He wants to win, and obviously his first six years in the league, he’s played for a lot of different coaches, a lot of different terminology, all those kinds of things, but I think for him, he’s got incredible upside,’’ Donovan said. “But a lot of it is going to come down to, what level does he want to get to as a player? The talent is there. He’s got to take it upon himself to be responsible for the aggressiveness that he displays every game.’’

The good thing for Donovan and the Bulls is that they have LaVine signed for this season and next, so there’s time for the new regime to determine if he does have a higher ceiling. Temple made his opinion clear.

“If you go back and watch film on [Michael] Jordan, Kobe [Bryant], the reason these guys are great is not only because they have the elite athleticism and skills, but they’re consistently just at your neck every single time,’’ Temple said. ‘‘They’re out for blood every single play, every single night. I think Zach getting that into his game, the rest of the team will follow suit. If he has that mindset every single game, every single play, that will really raise his level.’’

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