The difference for the Bulls this season is not going to be just who, but how, which was evident in the first possession of Saturday’s opening Summer League game, which the Bulls lost 91-75 to the Dallas Mavericks.
Kris Dunn dribbled up court after the Bulls won the jump ball. He passed to seven foot Lauri Markkanen on top of the floor. Markkanen passed along the left wing to Denzel Valentine, and then Markkanen and Paul Zipser combined for a double screen along the right side to free Dunn for a lob pass from Valentine.
That Valentine made the play, which wasn’t completed, was perhaps symbolic of this dawning Bulls era. There’s going to be failures, but along the way innovations that perhaps eventually will transcend the learning curve.
“With the personnel we have, the type of coach Fred is and the offense we have I think there will be more opportunities for me to have the ball in my hands and make plays, be more comfortable out on the floor,” said Valentine, who had 12 points to support Markannen’s team high 14. Both shot five of 11 to lead the starters.
“Last year also gave me a good opportunity to play without the ball,” Valentine noted of his erratic rookie season. “I’m used to playing with the ball in my hands. I think this year I’ll have more opportunity to do that. I’ll have opportunities to make plays for others. I’ll have more scoring opportunities as well with the personnel we have.”
That’s still to be determined, especially with high scoring guard Zach LaVine out after ACL surgery last February.
This new Bulls group, with all five Summer League starters expected to be high in the regular season rotation, came out looking to push the ball with multiple ball handlers, including Valentine and Zipser. Cameron Payne started at point guard with Dunn at shooting guard, and both looked to throw ahead whenever they had the ball after missed shots.
The movement and defense were laudable in the first half when the Bulls led 43-38 with a strong start from Markkanen with a long three pointer and back to back dunks, one on a nice seal and spin move in the post. Markkanen scored nine of the Bulls first 18 points and had nine points and six rebounds in a lively first half.
He seemed to tire in the second half with five points and two rebounds as the guards reverted to more standing and shooting threes, especially Payne, who was one of eight on threes. Zipser was one of six and the team nine of 33 on threes overall.
“I liked our energy, especially to start the game,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who watched from the stands with assistant Randy Brown coaching. “We wanted to get our roster players some good minutes and get them playing together, which I thought we did a good job of. I thought Lauri did a very good job of asserting himself, especially early, and you can already see how diversified his game is. We got away from our defensive principles in the second half, especially in transition. But I thought our guys competed and we got some valuable five on five situations for our guys that we can teach and grow from.”
It’s apparent the Bulls, especially without LaVine, are going to have difficulty scoring. Markkanen led six players in double figures, including burly big man Nikola Jovanovic from USC with 11 points on five of five shooting from in close coming off the bench.
Dunn had 11 points, four rebounds and three assists and was three of 12 shooting, one of three on threes. He played a more physical style of point guard with more force than finesse. He was rugged on defense, drawing six fouls, though in Summer League players are allowed 10. Dunn competed well against lottery pick Dennis Smith, but played more like a smaller version of Jimmy Butler, not so much smooth as forceful.
Zipser, who supposedly excelled in the Chicago mini camp last week, again reverted to isolation plays. Payne spent way too much time firing threes, missing his first seven. He shot five of 15 overall.
Payne has an odd shot in which instead of squaring up he seems to shoot from the side, as if he’s aiming a rifle. He needs to penetrate more. The Mavericks began playing well off him as he missed shots.
The Bulls let the game get away to open the second half with Payne and Dunn taking quick, long threes. Brown called a quick timeout to remind them there were other players on the floor. The Mavs pulled away after the Bulls trailed 66-62 early in the fourth quarter as the Bulls went stagnant and were missing shots and hesitant to get back. Which seemed a lot like last season, which Valentine would like to forget.
It appears the way the Summer League started for he and the Bulls he will get the chance.
Valentine also had four rebounds and two steals, and again looked like the college player of the year the Bulls drafted last year instead the lonely shooter standing in the corner waiting, waiting.
“I’m trying not to look at the negatives from last year,” Valentine acknowledged. “What happened is what happened; I can’t change the past. I’m just looking at the positive things I learned from Jimmy, Rondo, D-Wade, all our vets. I try not to look at negative things because they can drive you down; just try to be positive about it. It’s a clean slate and I have a great opportunity, so it’s up to me what I want to do with it. I’m going to get in here and work hard and try to get this thing rolling.”
This Bulls group of young players, like most kids, appears eager and anxious to please, if not particularly experienced. They did exhibit control much of the game, competed defensively early and attempted to open the game and push the ball. Making shots would help things. It’s a game, however, in which Valentine again feels more adept and comfortable. The Bulls hope it will enable him to break out this season.
“Everybody is unselfish, guards, bigs, sharing the ball, playing with each other,” Valentine said of this group. “Of course we all want to do well, score and make plays. But that trust factor with us all being the same age and pretty much the front office to say they have confidence in us, it will be a big plus because we’ll feel more comfortable being unselfish and making the right plays. I think we have a great chance of making the playoffs and making some noise. I think the sky is the limit. I think we have the personnel, the talent; it’s just can we put it together? We don’t have a big name, a superstar. But we have guys who work like superstars, have superstar intentions for this year.”
I did joke with Valentine that talking that way, playoffs, could get him released. Which is a problem for any team undertaking a reboot like the Bulls. The players don’t want a high draft pick. They want to win. They’ve won their entire lives. You don’t get to the NBA without being a competitor at some level. And most now are relatively high first round draft picks, Dunn at five, Markkanen at seven, Payne and Valentine at 14. Their basketball DNA is to succeed.
“Unless you’re LeBron, KD, one of those big name guys, not everybody came in the league as a superstar,” reminded Valentine. “Steph (Curry at pick seven) worked himself to a superstar, Kawhi (Leonard at pick 15); a lot of these superstars now worked themselves to superstars. So who’s to say we can’t work ourselves to be superstars or better players on the floor this year? We all got to the NBA for a reason. We all can play, so it’s up to us to put the work in, listen to our coaches, make something happen this year. I think we can depending on what we want to do with it.”
It’s certainly what Bulls managements wants to hear because the Bulls best chances are if these players improve. They showed plenty of ability to in college.
“Of course,” agreed Valentine, “we’re not going to have the hype of Jimmy, D-Wade and Rondo, making noise in the league. D-Wade’s a Hall of Famer, Rondo; maybe Jimmy one day. There isn’t going to be the talk this year, but the reality of it is if you take a step back and look at it we have a lot of great players. I feel the city should really be excited about the young core we have and the type of people we have, unselfish, willing to work hard, not willing to back down from anyone. I think that’s an important culture for this city and organization. We’ve got a lot of guys who want to play unselfish, a lot of multi dimensional players who can guard different positions; we’re going to be a run and gun team. We can play different ways. I think we have a great future.”
There just was a glimpse of that Saturday as, after all, they’ve basically been working together a few days. There were encouraging signs with Valentine, Zipser and Markkanen all able to handle the ball and make plays. But it’s unclear if anyone can get hot until LaVine returns. Valentine never was a big scorer in college, not averaging more than 15 points until his senior year. But it’s a new look for the Bulls with so many players potentially able to set up others.
It effectively will be Year 1 for Valentine, who admits as it went on it only got more discouraging. Which makes him that much more motivated.
“The lowest point was after All-Star break,” he admitted about last season. “I had a good stretch and was playing well and D-Wade came back (from injury) and I didn’t play at all and throughout the playoffs. That bummed me out because I didn’t get a chance to play in the playoffs. I’ve been watching the playoffs all my life and really wanted to play. But it’s all OK.
“I kept working hard, just trying to be a positive teammate,” said Valentine. “I could sit around and mope and be negative about it or I could put that in my back pocket and add another chip on my shoulder for this season. I’ve been working all summer with a big chip on my shoulder because of what happened at the end of the year, not playing in the playoffs. I don’t know why I got injured (early and mid season ankle sprains) or the reason why our lineups were the way they were. So if that puts a bigger chip on my shoulder to help this team, so be it. I’m on a mission to make a statement this year, that I belong. And not only belong. I want to be great and make some noise.”
The Bulls can only hope.