The painful part is the painful part. But beyond the physical ache of a sprained left ankle (again) there is the emotional pain that Denzel Valentine went through after another missed opportunity with the Chicago Bulls (when that is exactly what he needs most).
The injury that first cost him much of training camp -- a setback for any rookie, but especially for one stepping into a crowded rotation at shooting guard -- healed and some minutes came in late November and early December.
Then he fell out of the rotation, then he climbed back in. And then Valentine sprained the ankle again. That last injury happened at the very moment there appeared to be a chance for another increased role as the Bulls’ backcourt dealt with (at various times) Jimmy Butler being sick, Dwyane Wade resting (or dealing with a swollen knee) and Rajon Rondo being shown the end of the bench.
Front offices raved about Valentine’s maturity before the Draft, and four seasons at Michigan State counts for a lot in that way. So, there is little chance he would be wounded by the opportunities that flew just out of reach. But lost minutes are lost minutes and the No. 14 pick doesn’t need to keep showing he can be patient.
He did have a very encouraging return Tuesday after missing three games, with 19 points in 30 minutes in a 101-99 loss to the Washington Wizards. Wade didn’t play, Butler didn’t play, so Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant started in the backcourt with Doug McDermott at small forward, and Valentine shot 7-for-15 off the bench.
What would have been an obvious step in the right direction anyway was even more noteworthy after the layoff. He took advantage of this chance, with the possibility of more to come.
To this week’s rankings:
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Six consecutive games with at least 20 points, while sitting out another as part of a back-to-back, would be noteworthy enough, except that Embiid got there by making 86.7 percent of his free throws. The big jump from the season-long 78.4 is another promising sign for the future, considering how often he will have the ball will translate into a lot of time at the line in the years ahead. He averaged 10 attempts in the six games, had a three-game stretch of 14, 11 and 10, and made teams pay.
2. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Coach Jason Kidd is leaving open the possibility that Brogdon will remain in the starting lineup even after Matthew Dellavedova returns from a strained right hamstring. No wonder. Brogdon’s encouraging play for a rookie has become consistent contribution for a guard regardless of experience, with double-digit scoring in nine of the last 11 games and 45.1 percent shooting during that span. Plus, he has taken the lead in assists per game among rookies and is also first in the class in 3-point percentage (minimum 50 attempts).
3. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
Saric is averaging 12.2 points the last six games to maintain second place among rookies, at 9.6 ppg overall, in what has become a good race with Brogdon and Buddy Hield, though not nearly good enough to put pressure on Embiid for No. 1. Just as important, Saric is at 7.2 rebounds the same six games, to climb to 5.9 for the season. That is also second in the class and also far behind Embiid, but Saric is a solid No. 2 in this case. He is eighth in 3-point shooting (minimum 50 attempts) and 12th in field-goal percentage (minimum 50 attempts).
4. Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans
Climbing four spots in a week is very unusual, but Hield’s extended hot streak made it easy to feast on what has long been a soft middle of the pack waiting to get jumped. He is up to third in scoring, ninth in shooting, fourth in 3-point percentage and 12th in rebounding. Shooting is the biggest factor in the surge, with Hield at 42.4 percent the last 10 games that has moved him close to getting back over 40 percent for the season. After the 26.6 percent behind the arc as a reserve, he is converting 48.4 percent of the attempts there in 19 outings as a starter.
5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
First he got replaced as the starting power forward, then he got bumped completely out of the rotation. Siakam has played three, zero, zero and zero minutes the last four games, an especially big blow for someone whose Ladder standing was based largely on having an important role for one of the best teams. He is still second in shooting among rookies, second in blocks, sixth in rebounding and ninth in defensive rating, more than enough to keep a prominent place in the rankings, but also facing a big drop if he continues to lose contact with the rotation.
6. Andrew Harrison, Memphis Grizzlies
The shooting woes suddenly aren’t the pressing problem. Harrison went from seven assists without a turnover in 20 minutes last Wednesday against the Clippers right into five minutes and eight minutes the next two games in a high-speed decline that left him scrapping for playing time for the first time since early-November. Welcome to a mid-season crossroads for one of the surprises of the class. Harrison, though, is still second in assists, fourth in steals, sixth in defensive rating, eighth in scoring and ninth in blocks.
7. Isaiah Whitehead, Brooklyn Nets
Without any hot streaks lately, without many big games that demand the spotlight, Whitehead is in the top 10 in five rookie categories: scoring, shooting, assists, steals and blocks. The work as a distributor from late-November to mid-December has helped keep him No. 3 in assists despite not recording more than three since Dec. 16, a span of nine games played plus three more missed to injury. The number of blocks is not impressive in a very bad season for first-year players in that department -- 0.8 bpg -- but Whitehead could move into second place as a guard if he has any production while Siakam stays on a minutes ration.
8. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
He is down to 33.3 percent from the field in the last 10 games and 37.3 overall, No. 14 among rookies, while likewise struggling behind the arc at 20 percent the same 10 outings. Murray is still fifth in scoring, but with thinning numbers there as well that threaten to drop him a couple spots unless he picks up the pace. Averaging 16.5 minutes in the 10 games isn’t terrible, except that he hasn’t even reached that number in five of the last seven appearances.
9. Marquese Chriss, Phoenix Suns
The minutes are choppy -- 12 to 31 to 18 to 33 -- but Chriss is seventh in scoring, sixth in shooting, fifth in blocks and ninth in rebounding as part of a promising start for the No. 8 pick originally considered more long-term prospect than immediate contributor. Learning to stay away from fouls has been a factor -- he has four or more personals just twice in 13 appearances since Nov. 15. Chriss is also shooting 44.9 percent and averaging 8.1 points the last 10 games, pushing him to 42.6 and 7.2, respectively, for the season.
10. Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
He played his way back into the rankings after a one-week benching, thanks to shooting 53.7 percent the last six games and 44 percent in the last 11, a span that included five in a row of 50 or better. Ingram is, in short, one of the hottest rookies. If he keeps making shots, he probably keeps moving up, as has been the case for much of the season while he remains out of the top 10 in overall accuracy and behind the arc. At the same time, he is first in minutes per game, fourth in rebounding, sixth in scoring and 10th in assists per game.