Chicago Bulls

Zach LaVine: The rise from Slam Dunk Contest darling to 2021 NBA All-Star

It didn't take long for Zach LaVine to become a household name among NBA fans, but it had little to do with his in-game production.

The UCLA freshman was known for his explosive athleticism when he was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 13 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. In his rookie season, at 19 years old, LaVine put his levitating leaping ability on display to win the 2015 Slam Dunk Contest, becoming the second youngest player in NBA history (behind an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant in 1997) to take home that title.

Yeah, he was named Second Team All-Rookie that season with averages of 10.1 points, 3.6 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game, but that was less than a footnote in the mind of NBA fans.

The very next season in 2016, in an effort to defend his Slam Dunk Contest title, LaVine put on a historic performance that will never be forgotten, defeating Aaron Gordon in what is now considered as the greatest Slam Dunk Contest of all-time.

An in-air behind-the-back finish, an alley-oop from the free throw line, a 360 windmill and a windmill from the free throw line, and he still needed multiple overtimes to beat Gordon. After finishing a through-the-legs reverse jam from behind the backboard and a never-before-seen through-the-legs from the free throw line, it was over.

LaVine was once again crowned the Slam Dunk Contest champion, but how many people could tell you how his 2015-16 season went, or how the Timberwolves finished that year?

And that's not a shot at LaVine, either. That was just what he was known as at the time - purely a dunker.

The following year in the 2016-17 season, LaVine suffered a torn ACL midway through the season; a devastating injury for any athlete, never mind a player that so heavily relies on his lightning-quick first step and gravity-defying hops. The future was unclear for the 21-year-old rising star, and Minnesota ended up using him as the focal point of a blockbuster trade because of it.

On the night of the 2017 NBA Draft, the Timberwolves sent LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 overall pick (which became Lauri Markkanen) to the Chicago Bulls for superstar forward Jimmy Butler. It was a win-now move for Minnesota, who looked to snap a 13-year playoff drought and a move toward a rebuild for Chicago. With LaVine expected to miss the majority of the 2017-18 season while rehabbing his ACL injury, it was a risky deal for the Bulls' front office.

He wouldn't take the floor until 43 games into the 2017-18 season and there was some inevitable rust when he did return. Averaging fewer points per game (16.7) than the year prior while shooting career-lows from the field and 3-point range, concerns were raised about how post-ACL injury LaVine may fare in the NBA. Those concerns were heightened even more when the recovering guard suffered an ankle injury on the same leg as his torn ACL, eventually requiring surgery which ruled him out for the remainder of his first season in Chicago.

Unluckily for LaVine, that was the final year of his rookie-scale contract, as he was set to enter restricted free agency coming off of back-to-back season-ending injuries. It's safe to say he didn't command the money he would have if he didn't get hurt, but when the Sacramento Kings sent him a four-year, $80 million offer sheet, LaVine jumped on it, putting the ball in the Bulls' court to see how much they believed in him. Chicago still saw LaVine as a franchise cornerstone, matching the offer sheet to keep the rising star guard in the Windy City.

"I'm not going to stop working until I'm an elite player in this league," LaVine told the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson during his 2018 free agency. Looking back on that quote today, he has since backed up that statement.

LaVine has improved every single season since signing that contract.

In 2018-19, he averaged career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game while shooting a career-best percentage from the field. In 2019-20, he solidified himself as one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA, averaging a new career-high of 25.5 points per game. LaVine was considered a snub for the 2020 All-Star Game that was played in his team's home city of Chicago, but with the Bulls well out of the playoff picture at the break, it was hard to justify his case despite how well he had been playing.

For years, the biggest knock on LaVine's game is that he's just a high-volume scorer. This season, in 2020-21, he has proved all of his doubters wrong, putting all the pieces together to finally be named an All-Star for the first time in his career.

LaVine is averaging a career-high 28.7 points per game, which is good for sixth-best in the NBA at the All-Star break. Even more impressively is the efficiency with which he's scoring, shooting a career-high 52.5 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from 3 and 85.7 percent from the free throw line. His playmaking might just be his biggest area of improvement, averaging a career-best 5.1 assists per game, and to top it off, he's also averaging a career-high 5.2 rebounds.

Most importantly, it's contributed to the Bulls being tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, fighting for a playoff spot for the first time since 2017.

"Once you start winning, everything comes with that, and individually (being named an All-Star) has helped me out a lot and it was deserving, and I'm thankful for that," LaVine told the media following the announcement of his first All-Star selection.

"But it makes you more hungry. You want more for me and the team, and that success, I think it just carries on," he continued. "So I'm excited to see where it goes from here. And I'm definitely not content, I think you guys know me for that. I definitely want to keep pushing that envelope.''

With this milestone checked off his bucket list, carrying a team to the playoffs is the next step for the All-Star guard who has yet to play in the postseason. But that's a goal for the second half of the season.

This past weekend, LaVine could look back at the long and resilient journey he has made from a Slam Dunk Contest darling to his graduation to the weekend's main event: the NBA All-Star Game.

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