Denzel Valentine isn’t the face of these developing Bulls, who return home Sunday from their winless Western Conference road trip to play the Miami Heat.
Valentine, for now, probably is trying to just make a case for the starting small forward position in likely a competition with Justin Holiday for when Zach LaVine is ready to return at shooting guard. But Valentine in some respects mirrors this Bulls team, a player mostly overlooked who may have some surprises.
“(You) come to an NBA team and the second year basically is like the first year until you gain that trust and prove yourself a little bit in the league,” Valentine was saying during the recent road trip. “I haven’t proved myself yet, but I think I am inching my way to trusting, the coaches trusting me and me trusting the coaches. And once that happens, I can be much more of a leader."
Valentine has started the last six games for the Bulls at small forward. Though his statistics aren’t dazzling, they are consistent, like his goal. It perhaps defines Valentine, a versatile player who isn’t going to provide as much excitement as substance.
Valentine is averaging 10.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists on the season. He’s raised that to 11.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and four assists as a starter. On the 0-4 road trip, he averaged 9.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Valentine had his playing time shrink in the one sided games, but even against the Warriors Friday in the 49-point loss, he was leading the team early when it was a competitive game. He was probably the most reliable, if unnoticed, player in the four games.
It’s shown across the board with the Bulls as Valentine is first on the team in three-point percentage, third in steals and assists, fourth in rebounding and sixth in scoring, though just four points per game behind leader Lauri Markkanen.
"I think my role is just to be a person who comes in the game to be a three-point threat, playmaking, and a guy who can guard multiple positions,” said Valentine. “I can guard the point, I can guard threes, and also rebounding. That’s how I can establish myself.”
There’s a lot of establishing for the Bulls to do again after the difficult close to the road trip. Probably the most consistent player in the four games was Robin Lopez, who averaged 13 points and six rebounds and shot 58 percent. Markkanen fell into a shooting slump and even with a 10 of 18 start to the trip in Phoenix, he shot 32 percent. Holiday shot 27 percent and took 59 percent of his shots from three-point range. But he was just 31 percent on those threes.
Despite the poor game against Golden State, Kris Dunn was competent moving in as a starter the last three games. He averaged 11.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists on the trip. Bobby Portis averaged 11 points and seven rebounds and Antonio Blakeney 10.3 points, though on 40 percent shooting with one electric half against the Lakers.
Paul Zipser, Quincy Pondexter and Kay Felder seem to have fallen back in the rotation with Cristiano Felicio limited. David Nwaba remains slow to return from an ankle injury.
It perhaps says enough about the nomadic quest of the Bulls this season that the circus was disbanded. Yet, the NBA still sent the Bulls on the old circus-like trip route, a week in the Western Conference with criss cross trips, west to Phoenix and L.A., back east to Salt Lake City, back west to Oakland and then home for a game less than 48 hours later.
You’ll excuse Valentine if he feels his professional career has been spinning the same way.
After being college player of the year as a senior and the last pick in the 2016 lottery coming as a playmaking guard with all around skills, Valentine got stationed in the corner to watch the Bulls infamous three alphas dribble and shoot.
Valentine averaged about five points playing through missing about two dozen games with ankle sprains and not even a sniff for the All-Star weekend rookie game.
“It was very tough last year, a tough situation,” Valentine acknowledged. “But you have to go through it to get to it. You are putting (yourself) in different situations that maybe will help me later on when things aren’t going well.
“It was confusing because I was used to having the ball and doing a lot of different things,” Valentine said about his professional debut season. “My freshman, sophomore year (in college), I was in the same role. (I thought), ’It’s like it’s happening all over again. So have to grow up and adapt and learn and figure out who you are.’ And that’s what I am doing.”
It was an up and down start this season for Valentine off the bench as the Bulls went with Zipser at small forward. But he seems to have regressed and has seen his playing time shrink as he’s fallen into holding the ball. Valentine then seemed to emerge as a playmaking point forward in the win over Charlotte before the road trip with 18 points and six assists.
Valentine’s shooting has been the most consistent all season. He’s not a top athlete, but he is good with the ball and sees the court well, giving the Bulls an additional playmaker. LaVine figures to move in at shooting guard once he’s ready to play. Holiday could move to small forward, but Valentine would like to claim that spot.
And he knows he'll need to reject some of those labels regarding his defense.
“If you watch the game, you’ll see my defense is very underrated,” the 6-6 Valentine insisted. “The only reason people say that (about being weak defensively) is I’m not the typical NBA player with the athleticism who looks like they can go out and guard a superstar. But defense isn’t about that. It’s about heart, will. You’re going to get scored on; it’s the NBA. But as long as you are relentless and willing to buy into the game plan and be smart you can defend out here. I feel like I am doing a great job of playing defense.
“I always have a chip on my shoulder,” Valentine added. “(Now) just a bigger chip because I feel like I’m always an underdog. I felt I had a bigger chip because I didn’t have as successful a rookie season as I envisioned myself having.”
Valentine said he’d still like that shot at All-Star weekend with the sophomores.
“That’s still a goal,” he admits. “I still can accomplish that. I just have to keep playing. I am building some momentum. Just have to keep staying focused, trusting in the process, believing in myself and my teammates.”
Point forward of the future? Actually, Valentine had a unique way of looking at that when asked.
“I think (about being) a little like D-Wade in his prime,” Valentine corrected. "Not the athleticism, but D-Wade just had a knack for making plays, finding people, getting in the lane. He kind of brought the team together and I think that is going to be me out there. I can shoot a little better. A little like D-Wade, which is a lot to live up to. But I hope to.”
The Bulls can only hope as well.