Bulls guard Zach LaVine has golden chance to influence winning

LaVine and Team USA will try to capture the gold medal Friday night at the Tokyo Olympics, and the hope is LaVine can return to the Bulls with all that experience and influence the turnaround — no matter how much the roster has changed.

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Bulls guard Zach LaVine went to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics with an agenda.

Winning gold was tops on that list, and he’ll have his chance Friday when Team USA takes on France in the medal game.

But LaVine also wanted to earn respect from his peers. While making his first NBA All-Star Game last season was important, it wasn’t much more than an in-and-out showcase game because of pandemic restrictions. LaVine was unable to train, eat or compete long with the best.

For nearly a month now with Team USA, he has. And his hope is to return to the new-look Bulls with a better understanding of what it takes to win at the highest level.

“I think I’m always trying to get judged by my peers, and when you get the respect from your peers, that’s what means the most,’’ LaVine said when the Olympic team first arrived in Tokyo. “So being here, competing with these guys, going out here and doing this is a big honor. Making the All-Star Game — that was great, but I want to be a winner, and I think everything will come with winning. And the better I get, the better I make my team, the more accolades you get individually, so all that stuff will come.

“I know how good I am, and I know where I want to be at.”

Of Team USA’s five games before Friday, LaVine started one and was the sixth-leading scorer, averaging 10.6 points. He also was second in assists and was shooting a team-best 47% from three-point range.

But what really stands out is the role he has accepted on defense. Coach Gregg Popovich wanted LaVine to use his athleticism to be a defensive irritant for opposing point guards and ball-handlers, and despite a few breakdowns along the way, he has done a solid job.

His defense was felt again Thursday in the semifinals when he nabbed a pass from Australia’s Matisse Thybulle and took it in for a dunk, then again in the fourth when he thwarted an attempt by Matthew Dellavedova and dunked again.

Two questions: Will LaVine be willing to do that when he returns to the Bulls? And what kind of team is he even returning to?

Only LaVine will be able to answer the first question. The second remained fluid as of Thursday.

Having put together deals to add guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, small forward DeMar DeRozan and center Tony Bradley, the Bulls are nonetheless unfinished. Before a heart scare caused big man LaMarcus Aldridge to retire in April, he had been interested in returning to the Bulls, who drafted him in 2006; now he’s reportedly considering coming out of retirement. It was also confirmed the Hornets are a frontrunner to offer a deal to Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen, a restricted free agent, which could lead to the Bulls trying to regain some draft capital with a sign-and-trade.

What’s known for sure is that LaVine has two new starters to figure out how to play with — Ball and DeRozan — and that he can continue jelling with center Nikola Vucevic, a process that was put on hold when LaVine went into the coronavirus protocol in April.

The pride of a gold medal around his neck should only help.

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