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Bulls star Zach LaVine has work to do at Olympics

If LaVine can leave Tokyo with a gold medal, that will speak volumes in the recruiting process that undoubtedly has been going on among Team USA players since they arrived in Las Vegas for the Olympic training camp.

Bulls guard Zach LaVine vows to be Team USA’s defensive stopper at the Tokyo Olympics.
Bulls guard Zach LaVine vows to be Team USA’s defensive stopper at the Tokyo Olympics.
John Locher/AP

Argentine forward Juan Pablo Vaulet might never be the same.

Sure, he still will be a contributor for his team in the upcoming Summer Olympics and will continue his professional career in Spain when his time in Tokyo is up.

But when it comes to challenging Bulls guard Zach LaVine at the rim again, Vaulet might want to make a business decision and just stay on the ground.

LaVine turned in the highlight of Team USA’s pre-Olympics exhibition games this week when he went to the right side of the rim, elevated and hammered home a dunk over the 6-6 Vaulet in the Americans’ rout Tuesday of Argentina.

It was impressive, but it’s nothing most in the NBA haven’t seen before from one of the premier dunkers in the game.

‘‘We’ve seen him do some crazy stuff in there,’’ guard Bradley Beal — who was removed from Team USA’s roster Thursday after being put into COVID health-and-safety protocols — said of LaVine’s electric play. ‘‘Obviously, we know his athletic ability. It doesn’t surprise us. Zach’s talented. We know what he’s capable of doing.’’

That’s why the Olympics are so important for LaVine and the Bulls. It’s time for LaVine to show his teammates — and the NBA players watching at home — that he can surprise them, that he is capable of doing things that aren’t expected, that he can become the defensive stopper he continues professing himself to be.

If LaVine can do that on the world stage and leave Tokyo with a gold medal, that will speak volumes in the recruiting process that undoubtedly has been going on among Team USA players since they arrived in Las Vegas for the Olympic training camp.

‘‘I mean, players are gonna be players, man,’’ LaVine said when he was asked last week about the recruiting chatter that has been going on. ‘‘You’re gonna mingle and talk. But we’re here for one goal: We’re trying to win the gold medal. I think whatever comes from that — friendships, teammates — I think that’s an afterthought.

‘‘But you know how the NBA is. Everybody talks and it’s a player’s league, so we understand what goes on. Something happens, it happens.’’

Something needs to happen.

As currently constructed going into the 2021-22 season, the Bulls are in a fast lane to NBA mediocrity. If the playoffs have made one point very clear, it’s that the Bulls are a long way from the top two tiers in the Eastern Conference.

LaVine and center Nikola Vucevic are a nice one-two punch, but that combination is susceptible to counterpunches.

As it stands right now, LaVine and Vucevic have a window of about two years together, so opening the eyes of free agents — or, more realistically because of the Bulls’ salary-cap situation, unhappy players looking to be traded — is imperative.

LaVine showing he is willing to be an unselfish defender on an Olympic team with more than enough scorers might be a nice selling point.

‘‘I can guard multiple positions,’’ LaVine said. ‘‘I always feel when I get out there that I’m one of the more athletic guys, so bring energy, try to defend as many people as I can. I feel like that can be a niche I have on this team.’’

LaVine didn’t play a lot in Team USA’s first two exhibition games and, like most of the guards have been, was attacked in the pick-and-roll when he did. But what matters is what happens when the Olympics begin and the games start to count.

That’s when LaVine will have a chance to back up his defensive promises and make believers of those who don’t see him as a two-way player.

He already has Vaulet sold.