Valentine debuts as Bulls win Summer League opener 71-62

Denzel Valentine Saturday played one of the best four of 16 shooting—zero for nine on threes—games you’re going to see in the Bulls summer league opener, a 71-62 victory over the Boston Celtics.

No, really.

“My shot wasn’t falling,” Valentine, the Bulls’ No. 1 draft pick, agreed after his NBA debut. “But I tried to do all the little things, defend, get some rebounds, add energy to the team, lead. Even if my shot is not falling, I can bring other things to the floor and with my shot falling that will be a bonus.”

Really, the kid can play.

He probably was a little embarrassed that the sound of his shot was more clank than swish, but sometimes you just know when you see something. You can’t always describe it, but you know it when you see it. Like Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart’s famous description of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” It’s the same with basketball players.

You don’t need a chart to see that Valentine has an unusually good feel for the game, handles the ball with confidence and passes impressively. Some players just seem to know where everyone is, like Bill Bradley’s famous “sense of where you are” about the basketball court. Valentine seems to have that.

Bobby Portis led the Bulls with 17 points and 13 rebounds, 15 points in the first half when the Bulls were tied at 38 after leading 20-10 after one quarter. Jerian Grant had 14 points after a tough start with three early turnovers. Jack Cooley had 11 points and point guard Spencer Dinwiddie was re-signed and had 10 points.

Valentine had eight points, six rebounds, two steals and one assist, though was second best among the starters in plus/minus while on the floor. And he should have had several more assists. But his passing was so good it caught Bulls big men by surprise.

Portis fumbled one behind the back Valentine pass and pounded the floor in frustration.

“Great basketball IQ,” Portis said of Valentine. “Hard nosed kid who plays hard; he has a lot of talent. It was three or four times I could have scored but I wasn’t looking for the ball and he passed it to me and I hope tomorrow I’ll get it right. I probably missed four assists for him, but this was our first time playing together. With him and (Rajon) Rondo we’ll have two guys who will pass the ball and get A-1 easy baskets.”

The Bulls closed the game with a 20-12 fourth quarter to pull away late. Celtics top rookie Jaylen Brown had nine points on three of 13 shooting.

Boston shot 32.8 percent in one of the lower scoring summer league games as the Bulls played aggressive defense. Yes, summer league. But it matters, too, because winning can become a habit. You’d rather, though when you don’t you can say it doesn’t count. It’s getting the AAU out of the player when they are posing instead of performing.

The Bulls were helping on screens, getting over and blitzing, defense often not pursed last season.

“I thought they really competed,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, who watched from the stands as assistant Pete Myers coached. “We worked a lot on defense in the minicamp and I thought they carried that over. We were very aggressive, trying to create turnovers, disrupt offense and I thought we were committed to that all game.”

Hoiberg played on the 2004 Minnesota Timberwolves Conference Finals team that featured veterans who liked to have the ball like Kevin Garnett, Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. Hoiberg didn’t exactly predict a Conference Finals, but said those sort of styles can succeed.</p

“I’m really excited about our team next year with the amount of playmakers we’re going to have,” said Hoiberg. “That’s what the offense is all about, having guys who can get in the paint and spray it out. We still will try to get as much shooting on the floor as we can. It’s about molding your system and philosophy to who’s going to be on the floor and hopefully play unselfishly.”

How much and where Valentine will play remains uncertain with the Bulls making changes after last season.

But Valentine showed a rare calm and confidence for a rookie even with his poor shooting and that tendency to share with others.

He didn’t then go seeking out shots and continued to run the offense and involve teammates despite his misses, mature for a rookie.

“Just got to get my conditioning since it’s a while since I played in a real game, getting your rhythm, feeling it out, getting used to the speed of the game, playing with each other,” said Valentine. “That’s what we tried to do.”

Valentine scored the Bulls first basket and then threw a lob to Cristiano Felicio after a turnover, then made a steal after a Grant turnover to save a basket. It enabled the Bulls to start fast and catch the Boston players off guard. Portis was active on the offensive boards for several scores early as he said he’s also learned not to stand around waiting to shoot, like he did sometimes last season.

“I’ve always been a guy the ball was fed to and I’ve always been a guy the ball goes to,” said Portis. “So for me to be a fourth or fifth option, it’s been hard. But at the same time I had to learn. As the year progressed, I watched film, watched my favorite players and tried to do the things they do. I’ve always been a big time rebounder, I feel, on the offensive end. I feel that gives us momentum and can give the team a boost.”

While Valentine kept moving and got open shots, which he mostly missed, his strength was with the ball. He regularly drove into the lane and fanned out the ball, not being credited with those sort of hockey assists not counted in basketball. Valentine also worked into the paint to rebound regularly.

But it was the more subtle plays that were impressive with Valentine.

Late in the game as ball was being swung on top and you could see the play going to the other side, Valentine recognized a switch and mismatch Portis got inside. Valentine immediately began calling for the ball and made a nice post pass inside to Portis to take advantage. It is the sort of recognition that goes unnoticed and a player sort of has or doesn’t. Valentine seems to even as a rookie.

“I was really pumped up and ready to play,” said Valentine. “I hadn’t played in a while since we lost in March. I was real excited. I feel probably the best thing I can do is make plays. That’s first, but shots come with that because it opens up offense for us.

“They were all good shots,” Valentine said with confidence about his offensive offensive numbers. “I feel like they are going to fall. So I’m just going to keep shooting with confidence. Make the right play, knock down shots if I can and become a two-way player, defend and the offense will take care of itself.

“I was talking to (the big guys) and they told me they weren’t ready for the (passes),” Valentine said with a laugh afterward. “Just got to get used to playing with me, just a chemistry thing and I think we’ll get that here. I feel confident passing the ball. Now I can settle down a little bit. I was a little anxious and excited and now I can settle down and play.”