There wasn't much Denzel Valentine didn't win in college. He was College Player of the Year from the AP, Sports Illustrated and USA Today. He won the Julius Erving award from the Basketball Hall of Fame for the best small forward in the nation and the Lute Olson award for best non one-and-done player. He was Big 10 Player of the Year and tournament MVP. He was runner up for the John Wooden and Oscar Robertson awards and top senior. He became an NBA lottery selection and won the NBA's 2016 Summer League championship for the Bulls with the game tying shot with two tenths of a second in regulation and the overtime winner at the buzzer.
As a rookie, he was assigned to stand in the corner and watch Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo fight for the ball. But he got a peak at excellence as a sophomore, averaging 10 points off the bench on 39 percent three-point shooting to lead the team, making as many as eight three pointers in a game. And then the ankle that had bothered him on and off his first two seasons finally failed, Valentine missing the entire 2018-19 season after ankle surgery.
He's back now, and where once he represented V for victories, Valentine may be an X-factor for this developing Bulls team.
Especially with his three-point shooting, Valentine should be able to benefit from the new additions and plans by coach Jim Boylen to employ a more open, free flowing system of play. Despite limited playing time his first two seasons, Valentine was among the team leaders in intangibles like loose balls. The loose bodies in his ankle have been tightened. Perhaps now his game will be as well.
"Definitely was a bummer (missing last season)," Valentine agreed. "I'm pretty much on full right now. We were planning to take a day off from practice this week just to be cautious (Friday). But as far as me being healthy, I'm 100 percent.
"I had to play a lesser role my rookie year," the 6-6 swingman acknowledged. "I had a bigger role my second year, but not quite what I wanted it to be. And then the third year, I was going to take it to another level. But things happen sometimes you can't control. So I have to take that experience, learn from it and grow and come back and let my hard work show. I'm a very confident basketball player.
"Definitely (this is a pivotal season for me)," Valentine agreed about the possibility of being a restricted free agent. "It's going to be a good year for us. Our team, the pieces we added, everybody being a year older and going through what we went through last season, I think we all are ready to take that next step toward greatness.
"Coach runs a multi-ballhandler system, so I feel I can plug myself right in. I can guard multiple positions. I can shoot it, pass, rebound and defend. So there are a lot of things I feel I can show on that court," Valentine said. "It's just a matter of being healthy. I am healthy now and I think we are going to be great this year. I am glad to get a chance to be a part of it."
Training camp is time for optimism, and we'll get that first glimpse of bare reality Monday when the Bulls open the preseason in the United Center 7 p.m. against the Milwaukee Bucks. Valentine figures to work with a second unit that likely will include Thaddeus Young and rookie Coby White. Though Boylen will employ various and varied lineups throughout the preseason considering the addition of five new regulars with the offseason acquisitions of Young, Tomas Satoransky, Luke Kornet and rookies White and Daniel Gafford.
Valentine has been limited some by a lack of general athleticism, which was the knock on him in college, as well, when he basically won just about every honor. He's an excellent shooter and intelligent player who can make up for his athletic limitations with anticipation and fundamental play. With small forward Chandler Hutchison injured, Valentine figures to support both Zach LaVine at shooting guard and Otto Porter Jr. at small forward.
Valentine has shown flashes, like in his rookie season after rarely playing and accumulating 15 coach DNPs. With multiple injuries in early January, he played 30 minutes in Washington after eight DNPs in the previous 11 games and made five threes and almost pulled out a win dueling with John Wall. Then Valentine couldn't play the next game with a sprained ankle. He closed the following season making at least four three-pointers in five of his last 15 games. And then week to week last pre-season turned into all season lost.
"I missed one year of being able to get better, but I think I did get better," the 25-year-old Valentine insisted. "I saw a lot of things I can pick up on and I did pick up on (watching). I think mentally I got stronger in being able to handle adversity. And I think it gave my body a break, kind of letting everything heal up and now I feel fresh.
"I wanted to be fully healthy before I returned, which was the end of August," Valentine said. "I expect I'll have a great year. I'm healthy this year and will be able to do what I do and contribute and be a good teammate and try to help this team win. I do feel like this year is a big opportunity. Coach is really excited about this year's team. I'm excited about this year's team. So I will try to contribute as much as I can.
"I always play with a chip on my shoulder no matter what. I always feel like the underdog (because of questions about his athleticism). I'm here working and I'll let my work show," Valentine said. "I'm not going to sit here and hype myself up. I'm just going to prove it."
Like he's done before when challenged.