It’s Jimmy Butler driving into the lane, passing cross court to Denzel Valentine, who then off the dribble finds a cutting Jerian Grant to the basket for a layup. Or perhaps a pass out to Doug McDermott or Nikola Mirotic for a three.
The Splash Platoon! A lineup that can kill? You know, a Death Lineup.
The Bulls can only hope,
C’mon, we all know Chicago is “The City.”
Monday was the official introduction of the Bulls’ newest player, first round draft pick Denzel Valentine from Michigan State, and the Bulls hope perhaps the first dribble in a fast break toward the modern NBA, a multitalented, versatile group of players who can pass, shoot and think with equal parts ambition and success.
Valentine, wearing a blue sport jacket and white shirt with a non-Mirotic level beard, was pithy in his answers, short, direct and to the point if without much flair. Perhaps like his game, which as the AP Player of the Year and a senior produced near triple double averages with 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists, rare for a college player.
<p“Pretty much anywhere, one to three, guarding one to four,” the 6-5 Valentine said about his preferred playing position. “I really like freelancing. I’m available to do multiple things, play multiple positions. I can be versatile in that situation, try to make the most of what the position is that I’m playing at the time. You just gotta do what you gotta do. Winning is key for me. I hate letting my team down. I’m going to give it my all if I can go out there no matter what happens. If I can play, I can play. The only thing that won’t let me play is if I really can’t.”
Valentine, by the way, insists he certainly can despite unconfirmed reports before the draft that his arthroscopic knee surgery during the season was more serious. He noted, appropriately, he missed just four games out of 148 in college, is healthy and is anxious to get to work for the Bulls.
“I’m very excited to be a member of the Chicago Bulls and this great tradition,” Valentine said. “Winning matters here. Just everything about being a Chicago Bull I like. That’s one of the reasons I got so excited on draft night. Coming to an organization like this and the caliber that they represent. So I’m very excited to be a Chicago Bull and I’m excited to get started. (The knee reports) did kind of surprise me because I’m healthy now. I only missed four games in college and a number of practices. But I can control what I can control and that’s working hard. I was a little angry. People were texting me, asking me if I was hurt. But I just let the chips fall into place and I’m happy to be here.”
The Bulls, of course, are as well.
“Like I talked about on draft night, we think we’ve got a guy who A, is a winner and B, is a warrior,” said Bulls general manager Gar Forman. “For us, for what we were looking for and the direction that we’re headed in that we talked about the other day, I just think he checks a lot of boxes. The first thing is his skill and ability to play basketball. Anyone who’s watched him play knows the versatility that he brings to the floor on a nightly basis. But in Denzel, we’ve got a guy who can shoot it with range, a great shooter. And what we really loved was his ability to pass and handle the ball. And as we watched him throughout his career, as we talked about the other night, he’s such an instinctual player who’s got a great feel for the game. I think how we want to play with our young core, how Fred (Hoiberg) wants to play, we think it’s a perfect fit in regards to his skill level and his basketball IQ and what he brings to the floor. He makes a lot of players better in terms of his ability to play in transition, play the ball ahead, play off pick-and-rolls, all real positives to us. But on top of his basketball ability, we did a lot of work on his background, spent time on Michigan State’s campus, and to hear the people rave about his makeup and character was just incredible.”
Valentine obviously is a solid, structured individual.
He was a four-year player at Michigan State who turns 23 in November. He earned a college degree, extremely unusual for players being drafted. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called him perhaps the most versatile player he’s ever coached. And Michigan State has had some pretty versatile players, like, well, Magic Johnson. He was pre-Izzo, but Izzo has a pretty good track record, too.
There were a lot of comparisons with Valentine to Michigan State draft surprise Draymond Green, an All-Star for the 2015 champion Warriors. Though they are different in positions, there are similarities as both initially didn’t receive full scholarships because Izzo felt they weren’t ready. Izzo instructed Valentine to improve his shooting. By last season, Valentine was one of the best shooters in college at almost 45 percent on threes.
Valentine compares perhaps best to another NBA player, former No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner from St. Joseph’s High School and Ohio State. Turner is a versatile small forward, not a great athlete, but good with the ball seeing the floor and passing. Valentine is a better shooter, more like another of his NBA comparisons, O.J. Mayo. Valentine also has likened his play to Bucks guard Greivis Vasquez, who was the league assist leader when he played in New Orleans.
Though Valentine is not regarded as the explosive, beat-your-defender guard, he is a high level playmaker and floor leader. Not to make exact comparisons with the Golden State Warriors, who took years to build to their championship level, but theirs is not a team of great athletes. It is one with intelligent players who move the ball, pass and cut, a style of play Hoiberg has endorsed but was unable to implement last season with the Bulls.
So Derrick Rose was traded last week, there’s a strong chance free agent centers Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol don’t return—center Robin Lopez along with Grant and Jose Calderon were acquired in the Rose trade—and the Bulls move into a new era, and Hoiberg hopes a new style of play.
Though Calderon is a traditional point guard and a good shooter, it seems unlikely the Bulls will use a ball control point guard and could play with Butler, Grant and Valentine, all playmakers to use with good perimeter shooters like Mirotic, McDermott and Mike Dunleavy.
Of course, there is much to see and many moving parts, including Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson and free agent E’Twaun Moore, the latter whom Forman Monday discussed in meeting with in free agency later this week.
But Hoiberg, albeit without saying so directly, seemed to be envisioning a group that could combine elements of the Warriors’ appealing movement game with the addition of Valentine.
“You can use him in a lot of different ways,” Hoiberg said of Valentine. “He’s a downhill guy and can get into the paint and make plays. He can shoot. You look at a guy like Jimmy Butler. If you give him the ball coming off ball screens and you have floor spacers, it’s going to allow him to get in the lane and kick out for guys who can make shots, like Denzel, like Jose Calderon. Denzel attacks. The more guys you have who can get into the paint, the better off you’re going to be and your offensive efficiency numbers should go way up. Denzel is smart. I think you can put him on the block against some smaller players as well. You don’t have to have maybe the pure point guard in there if you have multiple ball handlers. And that’s a role I know Denzel can fill.”
It’s an appealing possibility for a Bulls team that often turned stagnant with isolation play last season.
Much of that was said to be the presence of Rose, Gasol, Noah and Butler, one of whom has been traded and likely the two centers gone in free agency with the acquisition of Lopez. Forman said Monday the team would talk with its free agents starting July 1.
“We’ll talk to our own free agents to get a feel,” Forman said. “With the uncertainty, the spike in the cap it’s going to be a fluid period. We like the group we’ve put together and think we are headed in the right direction, getting younger, more athletic and retooling the roster to a certain extent and then see what opportunities arise July 1.”
That’s when NBA free agency begins, though with the financial uncertainty and the fact the Bulls, for now, seem to have filled positions and have considerable depth, it seems unlikely they will be major players in free agency this summer. Forman talked more about it being a process and the 2017 free agent class being more significant. Plus with the Bulls in a self-acknowledged retool situation, it’s unlikely elite free agents would be headed in that direction until the route is clearer. But Forman also has talked about the possibility of two first round draft picks next year and players like Cristiano Felicio being appealing. Hoiberg said the Bulls summer league team would feature Valentine, Portis, Felicio, Grant and recently acquired Spencer Dinwiddie. Plus, McDermott will practice in Las Vegas with the team. The coaching staff will remain the same.
Hoiberg also said Butler would spend time with the young players in Las Vegas as he prepares for USA Basketball camp there the week after summer league. Butler Monday was officially named to the 12-member USA Basketball team for the 2016 Olympics.
LeBron James, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard were among those who will not participate. The team includes Butler, Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan. It will be favored for the gold medal in Rio.
Though Butler had issues at times with Hoiberg last season, Hoiberg said the two have bonded well over recent meetings in Los Angeles and Chicago. Plus, the trade of Rose and perhaps the departures of Gasol and Noah leaves Butler as the dominant figure on the team.
“I’ve been in a lot of conversation with Jimmy,” said Hoiberg. “I went out to LA and talked with him. He was back in Chicago this week, had great talks with him on several occasions here in the gym when Jimmy was working out. I know he’s excited now about the upcoming year, and obviously the Olympic team that he’s about to start training for. We talked about a lot of things. I won’t get into the exact specifics. The biggest thing with our group is we need to play more consistent basketball next year. You go 7-1 against Toronto and Cleveland and 17-13 against the West and find ourselves out of the playoffs. That can’t happen. We have to play much more consistent basketball. That’s what I talked about to Jimmy and all of our players.”
Hoiberg said he likes what he sees in Valentine to help. Valentine was a two-time state champion in high school playing for his father, who also played at Michigan State and played pro ball overseas. His brother is an assistant coach at Oakland U. and previously at Michigan State. Valentine even in high school was an uncanny passer, averaging 14 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists as a senior, another indicator of his all around skill.
“Gar said it best when he talked about Denzel being a warrior,” said Hoiberg. “He’s going to fight and he’s been in so many high-pressure games in his four years at Michigan State. For a guy who played in the Final Four and made big play after big play for his team, that translates. He’s been part of a winning culture and program for a long time, going all the way back to high school. That’s huge.”
A Chicago warrior. It’s a start.