Denzel Valentine Finds a Role in His New NBA Home
Less than a quarter of the way into the Cavs 2021-22 season, they’ve already been forced to lean on the ‘next-man-up’ mentality – one, unfortunately, that many of them are very familiar with.
With difficult news breaking over the weekend that Collin Sexton’s season is finished after undergoing recent knee surgery, the squad finds itself in uncharted waters. And it’ll need all the “next-men-up” it can get.
One reserve who’s already gotten his number called is Denzel Valentine, who’s now seen action in five straight games off the bench and will likely see much more action moving forward. The former Spartan saw some mop-up time earlier in the season, but with Cleveland needing some added punch, he’s been on the floor for some key moments – including his Cavs coming-out party in the dramatic comeback win over Boston.
After that win – with Valentine hitting a pair of big third-quarter threes and finishing with a +9 in 23 outstanding minutes of work – J.B. Bickerstaff said of his veteran swingman: “Denzel was a guy who hadn’t gotten a ton of minutes, but I know his make-up. I know where he comes from. Those guys from Michigan State, they have a grit and a toughness to them. And I thought that’s what we needed. We needed some energy, our guys needed it. And I knew he’d bring that competitiveness, because of his character and his make-up.”
The East Lansing native, whose dad played for the Spartans in the 80s and whose brother is the head coach of Loyola-Marymount, was the 14th overall pick of the 2016 Draft after four-year career at Michigan State, where he became the first player in school history to be named Player of the Year by the Associated Press during his senior year.
”Our motto (at Michigan State) is: ‘Players play. Tough players win,’” said Valentine. “So, if you make it through four years of Michigan State, you can make it through anything. Coach Izzo does a great job in instilling toughness in everybody. Every single day he’s the same way, trying to bring the best out of you. So, you get that mindset – that toughness, that grit. That’s how we win games there. And guys carry that into their professional career.”
Valentine saw plenty of action with the Bulls last season – playing in 62 games, netting double-figure scoring in 21 games, including seven straight in early February. Over four seasons with Chicago, the 28-year-old Valentine played in 232 contests, almost exclusively off the bench, averaging 7.4 points, 3.5 boards and 2.0 assists. His 342 three-pointers with the Bulls place him in the franchise’s all-time top 15.
”I think I’m still kind of figuring things out, because it’s definitely an adjustment for me – coming here after being in one place for five years,” said Valentine. “But it’s a great adjustment. I love it. J.B. (Bickerstaff) does a great job. He doesn’t put reins on his players – he lets his players play and figure things out, and that’s what I like. And everybody here’s so unselfish. It’s an opportunity for me to get back on my feet and re-establish myself in the league.”
After getting off to a hot start to the season, the Wine & Gold have dropped their last three as the injury (and illness) bug have ravaged the squad – with Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley, Kevin Love, Lamar Stevens and, of course, Sexton missing significant time. Jarrett Allen and Markkanen should return to the lineup shortly.
"Denzel was a guy who hadn’t gotten a ton of minutes, but I know his make-up. I know where he comes from. Those guys from Michigan State, they have a grit and a toughness to them. And I thought that’s what we needed."
Recently for Cleveland, the best next-man-up has been 12th-year man Ed Davis, filling in admirably for a battered starting frontline – averaging 14.5 boards per in two spot starts.
Valentine, who also grabbed nine rebounds in that thriller over the Celtics – coincidentally, Cleveland’s last win – knows everyone will have to pick up the slack while the squad gets healthy. But that’s part of the reason he joined the Cavs in the first place.
”I’m loving this team,” said the 6-5, 200-pound Valentine. “Great, great energy. Good vibes around here. Everybody’s focused, everybody has one common goal, and that’s to win and to get better. Everybody’s young, hungry, ready to prove themselves. Even Ricky. He’s an established player, very respected in this league. But for him to do what he’s doing, I think Cleveland was the perfect spot for him. Because he’s always played with those one or two guys that he’s got to get the ball to. But here, he can play free, be himself and figure things out.
”I just think we have a lot of guys who are hungry to win and hungry to prove themselves again. And usually, that’s a good formula.”
Rubio has indeed had a rebirth in Cleveland, averaging a career-high 15.0ppg while establishing himself as the veteran leader of the team. Coach Bickerstaff spoke of the Wine & Gold wanting ‘Spanish National Team Ricky.’ And that’s who they’ve gotten.
Valentine is one of the younger veteran leaders off the bench – one of four four-year-college guys in Cleveland’s regular rotation, joining Dylan Windler, Dean Wade and Lamar Stevens.
”We’ve already been through a lot; we’ve been through adversity in college,” said Valentine, a First-Team All-American in 2016, “We kind of take those four years to get the immaturity out of our system. So, when we reach the professional level, we know our job, we know what it takes to succeed. And that’s how we figure things out.”
After a well-deserved weekend off, the Wine & Gold get back after it on Monday, as the homestand rolls on with the heavyweight Nets and Suns rolling in before the Thanksgiving holiday. The Cavaliers haven’t hit the century mark since the Young Bull went down, so they’ll need all the firepower they can get. And that means Denzel Valentine and the rest of the reserves.
”I’m going to just play my role to my best abilities,” Valentine said of his outlook the rest of the way. “Talking to Coach J.B., he wants tough players that compete and make the right basketball play. So just coming out here, playing the right way, playing hard defensively, getting rebounds, playmaking and making my open shots. And just go from there.
”You try not to overthink it. Play free. Play tough. Bring the energy. And everything else will take care of itself.”