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CHICAGO — After a testing issue resulted in a brief stint in health and safety protocols for COVID-19, Zach LaVine was scheduled to fly to Tokyo and rejoin Team USA on Thursday afternoon.
LaVine should be cleared to practice with the team Friday and be ready to play in the opener against France Sunday. The men’s national basketball team is finally getting whole after a rocky exhibition season — they dropped their first two games against Nigeria and Australia before rebounding with a pair of wins over Argentina and Spain — and LaVine has taken on a larger role with each game.
LaVine was third on the team — behind Damian Lillard and Kevin Durant — in scoring with 10.8 points per game on 53% shooting, and moved into the starting lineup the last two games.
Here are five takeaways from LaVine’s exhibition season.
1. Zach LaVine’s role has expanded.
LaVine arrived in Las Vegas for training camp with Team USA with a noted eagerness, ready to play any role the team required of him. The roster is filled with players capable of scoring in bunches, so LaVine seemed ready to fill in the gaps like a role player, committed to playing defense, making hustle plays and providing energy off the bench.
But after sporadic playing time in the first two exhibition games, LaVine became much more of a fixture in the last two. He was inserted into the starting lineup in place of an injured Jayson Tatum and then again after Bradley Beal left the team after entering the health and safety protocols.
“It’s whatever they need me to do. Obviously if they need more scoring, I think everybody knows I can do that,” LaVine said with a laugh. “I’ll be fine with whatever role they give me.”
Coach Gregg Popovich has cautioned about reading too much into lineups, saying he wanted to experiment with different combinations, but Beal’s absence should offer an opportunity for increased playing time for LaVine. In Game 1, LaVine played 21 minutes off the bench before playing in just 13 minutes in Game 2. But as a starter the past two games, he logged 24 minutes in Game 3 and 22 minutes in Game 4.
“First game, I really wanted to go out there and impact the ball on defense. Pick up the energy, pick up the pace. Took my shots when they were there. Second game, got some spot minutes,” LaVine said.
“Third game, with Brad out … when that changes obviously I can be a little bit more like me. Being in the starting lineup, I can still go out there and impact the ball on defense, but look to be more aggressive as well.”
2. Team USA is still the favorite, but the gold medal might not come as easily as expected.
The biggest surprise of the exhibition season was how Team USA stumbled out of the gate, losing their first two games.
Sure, they haven’t had much practice time together, don’t have familiarity with each other like their international opponents and the roster is a bit ill-fitted, but the U.S. is still the most talented team in the Olympics.
Anything less than a fourth consecutive gold medal would be a massive disappointment.
“We’ve got to go out here and get the job done regardless,” LaVine said. “I don’t think anybody is going to feel bad for us or try to take it easy. We’ve still got to get a job done.”
3. Team USA will be whole for the first time.
Reinforcements are arriving ahead of Sunday’s opener.
In addition to LaVine, the three players from the NBA Finals — Devin Booker, Khris Middelton and Jrue Holiday — are expected to join the team in Tokyo and be ready to play against France. Even though they will likely have just one full practice before group play, it represents the first time the U.S. will have their full roster.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do when they get here the day before,” Popovich said Wednesday from Tokyo. “Luckily, it’s basketball. Try to keep it simple and take care of what we think we can take care of. ... The good thing is they’ll be in shape. I don’t know how the plane’s going to affect them because it’s not an easy flight.”
Considering the Bulls missed the playoffs yet again, LaVine should be among the freshest players on the roster and could see a benefit in playing time.
4. LaVine was impressed by Patrick Williams’ play on U.S. Select Team.
After completing his rookie season with the Bulls, Patrick Williams got an opportunity few young players receive when he was selected for the U.S. Select Team to compete and train against the national team during training camp in Las Vegas.
Williams and LaVine went to dinner on one of their first nights in town and LaVine, who played on the Select Team before the 2016 Olympics in Rio, offered advice about the experience.
“Pat’s incredible, man. Extremely, extremely happy and joyful and just wants to learn and get better,” LaVine said.
“He gets on the court and he just displays so many different things he can do, man. He can defend, he can shoot, he can pass, he has all the intangibles. Just seeing him build, even over this summer, I’ve seen him get into the gym and working out. He’s had some really good games out here, playing against the Olympic squad, and just talking to him, how serious he is about developing and getting better. So that’s all you can ask for with a guy of his age and his potential.”
5. LaVine is looking ahead to a matchup for bragging rights with Bulls teammate Tomáš Satoranský.
LaVine isn’t the only Bulls guard playing in these Olympics. Tomáš Satoranský led the Czech Republic to Tokyo after they won the qualifying tournament. He was named MVP after averaging 16 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists.
It brought the Czech Republic to their first Olympics where they landed in Group A with the United States. That prompted an excited 2 a.m. FaceTime from Satoranský to LaVine.
“They were up having a ball in their locker room and stuff like that. So, I didn’t understand anything he was saying, but it seemed like he was really happy,” LaVine said with a laugh. “I’m very happy for him. The type of guy he is, and when he puts that uniform on he’s their go-to guy, he’s their leader.”
The U.S. and Czech Republic will match up on July 31, and LaVine was already eager for it.
“I’m looking forward to playing them and having some bragging rights,” LaVine said. “Hopefully we really kick their butt.”