The last 12 months have been a rocky road for Bulls wing Denzel Valentine. From having to undergo reconstructive left ankle surgery, which kept him sidelined for a full season, to struggling to find consistent minutes in coach Jim Boylen’s ever-changing rotation, Denzel has had to overcome a lot of adversity to get to the position he is in right now. As he enters his fourth NBA season, this may well be Denzel Valentine’s time to shine given the right opportunity, as the Bulls’ wing depth is looking very slim with injuries to multiple players.
Denzel Valentine is no stranger to having the spotlight on him. The Michigan State University alum is the only player to average at least 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game in NCAA history. His well-roundedness got him out of the shadow of Oklahoma's Buddy Hield and allowed him to capture many National Player of the Year honors.
Valentine had an extremely successful college career and is remembered by many as a finalist for the Wooden Award, which is bestowed upon the most outstanding college athlete. The likes of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Durant have won the award. Denzel also received the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year award.
After playing a total of 144 games over four seasons at MSU, Denzel Valentine declared for the 2016 NBA Draft. Excitement filled the air as Valentine patiently waited to hear his name called by commissioner Adam Silver. The 14th overall pick belonged to the Chicago Bulls, who drafted Valentine without hesitation. President of Basketball Operations John Paxson explained the Bulls' reasoning on making the decision to draft Valentine. He said it was due to Denzel’s ability to “do a little bit of everything.”
While not being overly athletic, Denzel can score, and he can do it well. He has a deadly shooting stroke and he is a very gifted passer. The Bulls were fond of Denzel at the time due to his ability to be an extra facilitator who can space the floor and also play nicely off the ball in a spot-up shooting role. At that point, selecting Valentine gave the team another option to play off of All-Star guard Jimmy Butler.
After being drafted at pick fourteen, it was time to get to work. The culture of the Bulls heading into the 2016-17 season was unclear, as the Bulls hit the restart button after trading Derrick Rose to the Knicks. Valentine fulfilled the Bulls' needs at the time due to his ability to thrive in any system. He did so at Lansing Sexton and then again at MSU. His game morphed into whatever the team needed. The Bulls ultimately signed Chicago product and NBA champion, Dwyane Wade, and then followed it up by signing savvy point guard and NBA champion Rajon Rondo. Denzel had ‘gotten the goods’ when it came for veterans to learn the game from.
He made his presence felt in the NBA Summer League, hitting the game-winner to seal the championship for the Bulls. He spent the majority of the 2016-17 season riding the bench and taking stints in the G-League, where he averaged 28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals on 53% three-point shooting in just three games for the Windy City Bulls. The 2016-17 Bulls snuck into the playoffs led by Butler, but they were knocked out in the first round by the Boston Celtics, who took the series 4-2.
The 2017-18 season was when Denzel Valentine really started to make some noise as an NBA player. The Bulls pressed the reset button again by trading Jimmy Butler for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the seventh pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, which would eventually become forward Lauri Markkanen. With no Butler or Doug McDermott on the team and a complete rebuild in the works, the Bulls lacked depth in the small forward role. Zach LaVine spent the majority of the season recovering from a torn ACL, and Denzel got his first real opportunity to take the next leap as an NBA player.
He was productive in his second season as a pro. Playing in 77 games that season, he logged heavy minutes during stretches for Fred Hoiberg and certainly did not disappoint. While he only started in 37 of these games, Valentine averaged 10.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.2 assists while shooting 38.2% from three on just under five attempts per game. Denzel also had his best game as a Bull that season with a 34-point performance against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He did this while hitting a career-high eight three-pointers, bringing in seven rebounds, and dishing six assists.
The next year into the rebuild, Valentine was ready for a bigger role after proving himself as the Bulls’ best wing as well as being a player who fit well in Hoiberg’s system. The future was looking bright, and he was (literally) ready to take the next step forward until he suffered an ankle injury that kept him sidelined all season. The same surgeon who helped put an end to the ankle issues that plagued Stephen Curry early in his career also operated on Valentine. After the surgery, Valentine said to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, “When I get back it’s going to be a brand new ankle… I think it will take my game to a whole new level.”
The process of getting back for Denzel Valentine was the hard part. He sat the entire 2018-19 season on the sideline in a cast that seemed to be getting bigger and bigger every game, watching the developments of Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine. Additionally, Valentine had to experience a coaching change, a newly-formed leadership committee, a player mutiny, and perhaps the hardest part, the team trading for a player who played his position in Otto Porter Jr.
The season was hard and slow, as the Bulls finished with a miserable record of 22-60, good for 13th place in the Eastern Conference. While he wasn’t able to get on the court, Denzel played an important role for that Bulls team. He was consistently supporting the players on the bench, as well as being a voice in the locker room which kept the team calm during its darkest moments in the lengthy season. He was mostly disconnected from his teammates and fully separated from the game he loves.
When asked about his role going forward when the 2018-19 season concluded, Denzel said, "I'm not worried; I'm fully confident I'll come back and have an impact. That's the type of person I am. I'll train hard this summer and see where next year takes me. I really haven't been fully healthy (since that Summer League). I was at the beginning of last year but then had a setback at the end. This will be the first time I'll be able to be fully healthy.”
Fast forward to September 2019. Denzel is entering his fourth season as an NBA player. He is the only surviving member, aside from Cristiano Felicio, from the last Bulls’ team to make the NBA playoffs. Valentine told K.C. Johnson, “I’m very confident that I’m going to take that to the next level. “Sitting out, I think I’m more mentally tough. I gained a lot of experience watching. I feel I’m a more mature and confident player now. I’m excited.” The swingman kept his goals heading into this season simple: stay healthy and help the team make the playoffs.
After sitting out over 12 months, Denzel Valentine was back. The Bulls opened their 2019-20 preseason against the Milwaukee Bucks. Valentine played and scored 11 points to go with five rebounds and two steals in just over 19 minutes of court time. Coach Jim Boylen spoke of Valentine after the game: "We've always said he takes the lid off the rim for us. He has the ability to make plays. Not only him but a couple guys got a little bounce happy. We overdribbled a little. We'll work on that. But Denzel is a winning kid and smart basketball player. I'm just thankful he's playing. Seeing him out there running around brings a little joy to you after what he went through." Denzel said that he shed a tear arriving at the arena and that his arrival to the arena was an emotional trip down memory lane.
At the time of publishing, the Bulls sit at for 11th in the Eastern Conference with a 7-14 record. The season has been filled with many ups and downs with a heavy dose of the latter. One positive is that Zach LaVine has emerged as a player ready for an All-Star game after scoring 49 points to go with 13 three-pointers and a game-winning shot against the Charlotte Hornets. A negative is that Lauri Markkanen hasn’t shown many signs of life, experiencing career lows in almost every major category. Another negative as viewed by many is the lack of minutes for Denzel Valentine. He has spent more time in the G-League, has several DNP’s to his name, as well as only making appearances on the court for garbage time.
Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson asked coach Jim Boylen about Valentine's lack of meaningful court time. “Because I said so," Boylen bluntly responded. The Bulls’ rotation has been in shambles for the majority of this season so far, and on numerous occasions, we have seen different players being added and others falling out for unknown reasons. You would have to ask Jim Boylen. When asked why he is out of the rotation, Valentine deferred piling the blame on Boylen, saying, “Obviously I want to play. I’m a competitor. And I know I can play. I’m very confident in that.. But that’s not in my control right now. I’m just here to work hard and support the team in any way I can.”
While it's difficult to come up with a legitimate reason as to why Denzel Valentine isn’t a core part of this Bulls rotation, there is enough evidence as to why he should be playing. He is the only healthy ‘real’ small forward on the roster with Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison both sidelined. The Bulls have been dreadful shooting the ball, as they rank 23rd in the league in three-point percentage. Valentine is well above league average as a three-point shooter over his career at 37.4%. The Bulls have also been terrible at rebounding the ball this season, ranking 28th overall in rebounding percentage. Denzel Valentine, to nobody's surprise at this point, ranked tenth in the NBA in rebounds per game among guards in his most recent season. He can help out the Bulls in certain areas that they most desperately need help in. The proof is in the pudding.
The Bulls begin a homestand with a matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday. With no timeline on Otto Porter Jr. or Chandler Hutchison, we have seen Denzel Valentine suddenly appear in the rotation recently. He has logged double-digit minutes in just three out of the Bulls’ 21 games this season, with two of those being the Bulls’ last two games. The Bulls have struggled in certain areas this season, and whether Jim Boylen is searching for answers or not, Denzel Valentine can answer a few of these. The 6-foot-6 Michigan State graduate, who was a National Player of the Year and the nation's most decorated senior, is an astute playmaker and excellent three-point shooter (38.9% on the season). He can fill an important role as an alternative playmaker, which can open up the offense on so many levels and put less pressure on Zach LaVine to force shots and make passes in the half-court set.
Who knows what the future holds for Denzel Valentine in Jim Boylen’s rotations. We don’t know if we will see him play 20 minutes or six minutes. What we do know is that while he is still getting himself into game shape, he can help impact the game in many areas which other players cannot. Coach Boylen stresses multi-ball-handlers and positional size in his offense, and Denzel Valentine ticks those boxes. Daniel Gafford was freed just over a week ago, now it’s time for that trend to continue with Denzel Valentine. With injuries to rotational wings and a visibly lackluster offense, this will be Denzel Valentine’s time to shine if he is given the opportunity.
What are your thoughts on Denzel Valentine's role going forward? Do you think he deserves a spot in the rotation? Let me know on Twitter, @joshjbullshoops, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Photo: NBA.com