In his second year in the NBA, Denzel Valentine is starting to play to his strengths

After a frustrating rookie season, Valentine's versatility is starting to payoff for Bulls

It was a small thing last season, understandably overlooked amidst all the confusion with whose team it was, whose vets would do what to whom and who was next to be traded, bought out or released.

Chicago police quietly wrote out six tickets to Denzel Valentine for loitering, standing in the baseline corner and basically never moving. OK, it really didn’t happen, but it could have the way the Bulls and Valentine played last season.

“I was programmed from last year to just catch and shoot a three,” said Valentine. “Get yourself going from three and that’s how you are going to be inserted into the game. But that’s not my game at all. That’s just a piece of my game.”

As the Bulls Friday prepare to face the Indiana Pacers, who may be without injured star scorer Victor Oladipo, the attention has been on Nikola Mirotic, Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen in this Bulls run of nine wins in their last 11 games.

But the second year swingman from Michigan State has quietly been evolving as a vital spoke in the wheel that has the Bulls picking up speed. Valentine, who has been starting the last five weeks, is averaging 9.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists on the season, modest statistics though about double his averages from his rookie season.

Over the last five games with a double/double and nine points and a team best nine rebounds in Wednesday’s win over the Knicks, Valentine is averaging 12.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and shooting a team best 53 percent on threes. For the season, Valentine is shooting 40 percent on threes, second only to Mirotic’s 47.5 percent.

But the strength of Valentine’s contribution is he isn’t being relegated to standing around attempting three pointers to get in the game. He’s been able to use his versatility as the college player of the year to further enhance the Bulls offensive flow.

Denzel Valentine of the Chicago Bulls during player introductions

“I give Denzel credit,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “He’s not playing outside himself right now. Earlier in the season, if he wasn’t getting shots he’d take a crazy one. Now he’s letting the game come to him. He’s a guy we can play through because he gives us another playmaker out there on the floor. The thing I talk to him a lot about even when he was going through his struggles, he’s one of our better team defenders. He gets himself in help positions very well and that’s what’s kept him on the floor even when he wasn’t scoring for us. Now his confidence has been high because he’s gotten off to some good starts offensively with making shots. If he can continue to play with that type of rhythm, obviously, it helps us because of his ability to be a playmaker.”

Valentine was a good three-point shooter in college ranking among NCAA leaders. But he was more regarded for his overall play, averaging almost eight assists and eight rebounds as a senior. Then as the 16th pick in the 2016 draft, he came to a team with three primary ball handlers in Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler.

Valentine basically only saw the ball on the ball rack or when someone threw him a bailout pass for a three with about four seconds left on the shot clock.

That with ankle injuries made it a lost rookie season, Valentine among the many regarded, as Dunn was, a draft mistake. The 6-6 Valentine played four years at Michigan State, a rare senior selected high in the draft. But that 2016 class wasn’t strong and for the most part there aren’t regulars or difference makers among the dozen selections made after Valentine. Some are even out of the league.

The selections right after Valentine were Juan Hernangomez, Guershon Yabusele, Wade Baldwin, Henry Ellenson, Malik Beasley, Chris LeVert, DeAndre Bembry, Malachi Richardson, Ante Zizic, Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot, Brice Johnson and Skal Labissiere.

Though it’s not about comparisons as much as production. It’s not easy to give haircuts when you are a carpenter. Perhaps you can do it, but it’s not exactly putting you in position to do your best.

“It’s just all part of growing up and learning who you are as a pro,” said Valentine. “It’s happening for a reason. I feel I’m getting better and I’m trying to keep improving.

“About 10 games ago there was like a two or three-game stretch where I was trying to get myself going as far as taking the three and I was watching film and thinking, ‘That’s not me. I get myself going playmaking, getting into the lane.’ If I have a wide open three, I have to shoot it. But just trying to depend on a three to get me going? If I’m not making threes I’m irrelevant? That’s not Denzel Valentine. Denzel Valentine is somebody who makes threes, but has a lot of different things he does offensively.”

Yes, that Denzel Valentine.

Denzel Valentine passes to Nikola Mirotic as the Bulls face off against the Orlando Magic

He’s not one of those wondrous athletes, but everything in basketball doesn’t have to be done at light speed.

Valentine came to the Bulls showing that as the star of the 2016 Summer League title team, game winning shots in the clincher, running the team.

Then came last season and it was suggested he step aside.

Understandably. Everyone else with the ball had been an All-Star, some champions, one headed to the Hall of Fame; perhaps others.

Valentine came into the season trying to start over. But the preseason fight and the losses made for uncertainty, even more than the 3-20 start. Valentine was averaging about 10 points and then got his first career start against Charlotte Nov. 17 and had 18 points, six assists and five rebounds. Then with the return of Mirotic in early December, the rotation finally stabilized.

“At first our lineups were changing,” Valentine noted. “We didn’t have Niko. There was a bunch of stuff happening. But since Niko came back and pretty much I started starting, I pretty much know what I am going to do when I get in there and lately I’ve been more aggressive defensively and offensively, and I think it’s helped us out.

“My game is playmaking, getting in the lane making floaters, taking it to the basket, playmaking for others,” said Valentine. “And then that opens up my three-ball game. Then when I do that it makes me better and opens up because they have to worry about me, also. I think definitely me going to the rack and finishing in the lane and being more aggressively has opened up my game.”

Valentine still is restrained in his shooting, averaging about nine shots per game. In the last 10 games, he’s only attempted double figure shots twice. He’s another adjusting to the unselfish play with more player and ball movement.

Denzel Valentine with the floater against the Bucks

“He’s crafty,” said Hoiberg. “He’s got a nice little floater, he can shoot that little push shot. And for a guy who doesn’t overwhelm you with his athleticism, he needs to have that in his arsenal. So he has done a better job finishing around the basket.”

Though hanging over all this is what happens when Zach LaVine returns.

Which as Hoiberg notes should be a good thing.

“I would certainly hope our guys would go out there and play their minutes and compete to the best of their abilities,” said Hoiberg. “With having basically a healthy roster right now, with LaVine coming back it’s going to affect everyone’s minutes. We’ve got Markkanen back and now with Niko back it has affected everybody’s minutes. Bobby’s (Portis) minutes have gone down a little bit, Niko’s minutes have gone down a little bit, Lauri’s minutes have gone down a little bit. But to have a successful team, you have to accept the role and go out and play your minutes hard and hopefully go out and make a positive impact on the game.”

Denzel Valentine finally has been freed up to do that as well.

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