Bulls guard Zach LaVine felt more like a stowaway than a participant.
Last season, Chicago hosted the All-Star Game and LaVine had the numbers to play in it. Instead, he was snubbed for the game and relegated to the three-point contest.
A season later, LaVine’s basketball life couldn’t be any different. If the 2020 All-Star Game was his motivation, the 2021 All-Star Game in Atlanta was him serving notice.
‘‘This isn’t just a pit stop for me; this is something I want to continue happening,’’ LaVine said of his first appearance in the game.
And it wasn’t a bad debut.
Although his Team Durant struggled with Team LeBron, losing 170-150, LaVine made an early impact. He scored seven points in the first quarter and finished with 13 points in 28 minutes.
Sure, he didn’t make it out of the first round of the three-point contest, which eventually was won by Warriors star Stephen Curry, but this was about LaVine’s arrival. More important, it was about LaVine having so much more to be excited about, especially from a recruiting standpoint.
Because not only has LaVine’s mentality changed since the All-Star Game last season, but the Bulls’ mentality has, too.
At this time last season, the Bulls were about to start a massive front-office overhaul and were being led on the court by Jim Boylen, a coach known more for suicide sprints in practice and late-game timeouts than sound X’s-and-O’s NBA coaching.
Players talk at these gatherings. The seeds for becoming future teammates are planted. Frankly, LaVine used to not have much to talk about.
But that has changed. And while ‘‘recruiting’’ is a dirty word in the eyes of the NBA, LaVine knows exactly how much power the players have in this league.
‘‘I just want to let people know my personality,’’ he said when asked about spreading the word of the new-look Bulls. ‘‘I think I’m a pretty well-liked guy around the league. Being able to share what we have going on right now . . . I think I can do that pretty well.’’
Not that LaVine is looking to do the jobs of Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas, general manager Marc Eversley or coach Billy Donovan, but he understands the best player on the roster has a responsibility to do what he can to make the team better.
‘‘I always try to let the people with the hat on do that,’’ LaVine said. ‘‘What I can do is always go out there and show people what we are about if you ask questions.
‘‘This is a player-driven league, and everything is built on relationships, even for free agents and things like that. It’s not like you are just going to go somewhere without knowing anybody, so that’s pretty much all I’ve got for you.’’
The fact that LaVine was using the All-Star Game to think about the big picture shows exactly where he is in his development.
So while the Pacers’ Domantas Sabonis won the skills challenge, Curry the three-point contest and the Trail Blazers’ Anfernee Simons the dunk contest, LaVine was talking about bigger goals.
‘‘Once you reach [the All-Star Game], you have a certain stature and you want to uphold it,’’ LaVine said after the game. ‘‘You’ve got a target on your back, essentially. . . . Especially over the last few years, I thought I played at an All-Star level. Now you’ve got to continue to go out there and show it.’’
And what do the Bulls need to show?
‘‘I usually try to stay out of [front-office business], but I’m somebody that’s always looking to improve and get better,’’ LaVine said. “I want to have a chance of going for the playoffs, and [what’s] always been on my mind is, how can I help?’’
Sunday might have been the first step in doing that.