SAITAMA, JAPAN – Mentioning Zach LaVine in the same breath as superstars Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard would get you ostracized from NBA circles just a couple of years ago.
It’d still be unfair to call them equal now, but there’s no denying the high-flying Bothell native — once known only for his jaw-dropping performances at the annual slam dunk contest — is at least moving into the conversation.
“Anyone that starts for the national Olympic team is an elite player and Zach is no exception,” said Team USA coach Gregg Popovich after Sunday’s surprise group stage loss to France. “He brings a tremendous amount of versatility on both ends of the floor and we’re fortunate to have him.”
LaVine scored eight points in his debut Olympic performance Sunday as the Americans fell to the persistent French team, 83-76, for the country’s first loss in Olympic play since 2004. Through today’s opener and three exhibition games in Las Vegas earlier this month, he’s played a meaningful role on a loaded U.S. team with 10 NBA all-stars and a combined nine league championships.
Popovich said Sunday that LaVine’s role should remain similar going forward, despite the team’s struggles and recent additions of Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker. The latter three players landed in Tokyo less than 24 hours before tip-off and just days after competing in this month’s NBA finals.
As far as the 26-year-old Renton native is concerned, though, any role on the international stage will do. As long as the Americans can right the ship before it’s too late.
“It’s special just to be an Olympian,” he said earlier this week. “It’s a giant event with a lot of history, and I’m just trying to soak it all in.”
LaVine is coming off the best season of his seven-year NBA career, in which he averaged 27.4 points, 5 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game in his fourth season with the Chicago Bulls. His 35.1 minutes per game ranked near the top of the league.
His role on the national team, though, is understandably different. Instead of playing entire games and being a focal point on offense, LaVine is scrapping for minutes and getting only a few opportunities to score each game. His 19.5 average minutes and 6.8 shots through the three exhibition games and Sunday’s Olympic opener against France ranks in the middle of Team USA.
LaVine hasn’t had to play a secondary role on a team in several seasons. But on this stage, with the world’s best players, the Renton native said he has no problem sharing the spotlight if it means standing on the top podium next week.
“I’m here to bring energy and toughness on the defensive end,” he said. “If they need me to score, everyone knows I can do that too. I’m here to do anything I can for this team to win gold.”
A familiar face, wearing green and gold
LaVine isn’t the only NBA star with local ties competing on the international stage in Japan. Former Husky Matisse Thybulle also made his Olympic debut on Sunday, just not for the U.S.
Thybulle, who earned All-Defensive Second Team honors in just his second NBA season with the Philadelphia 76ers, lived in Sydney from the age of 2 until he was 9 and maintains dual-citizenship. Fellow NBA players Joe Ingles and Patty Mills recruited him to join Team Australia, and it’s paying huge dividends so far — for both Thybulle and the Boomers.
“I think my defense and just overall what I bring to the table from an athletic standpoint have made me a great fit,” Thybulle said after scoring seven points and posting five steals in the Aussies’ 84-67 rout of Nigeria earlier on Sunday. “We’re really enjoying ourselves and the sky’s the limit for us.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise from the 24-year-old Thybulle, for casual NBA fans at least, has been his impact on offense.
He averages just 4.2 points per game in the NBA on pedestrian clips of 42.1 and 33% shooting from the floor and three-point line. But with Team Australia, he’s poured in 34 combined points through the team’s three exhibition wins in Las Vegas and Sunday’s Olympic opener, on an impressive 14-of-23 shooting from the floor and 6-of-8 from behind the arc. Thybulle is proving what people who watched him for four years at UW already know: he can score, too.
“He brings a defensive intensity that we need to go far in this tournament,” said Australia coach Brian Goorjian. “And offensively, you can see the talent is there. He’s a genuine two-way player and an important part of this team.”
Both LaVine and Thybulle will return to the floor Wednesday at the Saitama Super Arena. LaVine and the Americans will look to bounce back against Iran. As soon as the Americans’ game is completed, Thybulle and the Aussies will take on Italy.