It’s a love story, but so often with a love story there’s so much sadness and nights of longing before you get the valentine. Call this one Sleepless in Chicago.
“There were times at the beginning of the season I was so frustrated I didn’t know what to do,” Denzel Valentine was saying late Saturday night following the Bulls 109-106 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was the Bulls first victory of the season against a team with a winning record. It was made possible in large part because of the play of Valentine, a clutch three pointer to tie the game with 48 seconds left and wrap up his team high 10 fourth quarter points.
So reporters gathered around Valentine this time not to stare at his scooter he’d lean on last season to immobilize his surgically repaired ankle or wonder whether he was paying for that courtside seat since he wasn’t invited into the games.
“Many sleepless nights,” Valentine was saying about the early season inactivity.
“Many last year, too, sleepless nights,” he reiterated. “Last year was crazy. So every day I wake up from my pregame nap, I replay those moments when I was sitting in my crib with my foot up in the boot not knowing if you’ll come back healthy or not, everyone counting you out and forgetting about you.”
Since Valentine scored 16 points and shockingly played just about the entire fourth quarter — at least given his current season workload — no one seemed to have the heart to ask why he needed an afternoon nap since he could sleep on the bench for all he was playing. But Valentine never lost hope or faith in himself, and the Bulls are being rewarded.
Denzel Valentine doesn’t make the highlight shows. Sometimes it’s because he’s moving too slowly to get in the picture. But he gets there better than most, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that since the Bulls have found him on the end of the bench they are in their best stretch of the season.
The Bulls Monday opening a four-game road trip in Oklahoma City are not a .500 team, now 10-18. But since Valentine has returned to the rotation to start December they are, 4-4 with Valentine rising to the top of the team’s three-point shooting list.
With four of seven threes in the Clippers game, Valentine is shooting 43.4 percent on three pointers with a buttery smooth stroke that surprises you when he misses. Valentine is no savior for the Bulls disappointments this season. But he is a reason to maintain optimism. He’s averaging 7.4 points for the season. But since he finally was reinserted into the playing rotation, he is averaging 10.1 points in just 18 minutes per game and shooting 46.2 percent on threes. Even for the season, he’s one of the team’s most efficient scorers, second to Zach LaVine in average points per 48 minutes.
There are many statistics to prove many things in sports these days, so caution is advised. One measure is the so called real plus/minus, which is said to measure most closely a player’s contribution to the team. It seems to have some legitimacy since the top six this season are LeBron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jason Tatum, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
No. 7 is Denzel Valentine.
Which is not to say the Bulls need to alter their future and game plan by featuring Valentine instead of LaVine or Lauri Markkanen.
Valentine’s obviously is a smaller sample, but the guy impacts the game.
Just not so that everyone notices.
“My teammates always believed in me and showed a lot of confidence in me,” Valentine said. “I believe in myself and put in the work. Always having faith everything will work itself out.”
Though you wouldn’t blame Valentine if he felt the game was divorcing him, his lost season in 2018-19 following ankle surgery and then suddenly being the last man not standing on a Bulls roster that wasn’t exactly championship ready.
It was one of many mysteries to begin the season, a team shifting to a perimeter based shooting offense benching the player with the third best career three-point shooting percentage on the roster. Perhaps Valentine’s ankle wasn’t quite ready as he was behind the other players in the preseason workouts. Perhaps his lack of athleticism was a concern for a defensive scheme that was to rely on activity and pressure. There could be reasons. Still, it remained unclear because whenever coach Jim Boylen was asked why Valentine wasn’t playing he tended to drop his habitual nervous smile when answering an uncomfortable question and defaulting to terse responses.
Though Boylen also deserves credit for relenting. Not every coach seemingly carrying a bias lets it go. It really wasn’t until December that Boylen called on Valentine. But once Boylen did, he identified Valentine’s strengths that proved pivotal against the Clippers. No hard feeling, eh? There were several late timeouts in the fourth quarter Saturday. But Boylen kept Valentine in the lineup, saying the team needing his shooting. And proving prescient.
One issue is that it’s been easy for NBA talent “experts” to disregard the 6-6 third year pro from Michigan State. Sure, Valentine was a celebrated collegian, national player of the year as a senior. But four-year collegians tend to be devalued in the NBA world. It’s often shorthand for too slow, not enough upside. You know, like Luka Doncic, about whom we heard those kinds of scouting reports at times.
The inability to dunk in someone’s face often becomes a red flag warning. It goes in the can’t-teach-height category. Meaning if you are athletic, they can teach you the other stuff, like shooting and passing and fundamentals. When in reality they never do and it’s perhaps the greatest flaw of professional evaluation.
Valentine is sometimes described as having “an old man’s game,” the game maybe you’d see at the park on weekends, a good shot but not fast enough for the speed of the NBA game. The sort of analysis that misses the subtleties of basketball and had Larry Hughes selected ahead of Dirk Nowitzki, Nikola Jokic becoming a second round draft pick and Brad Miller undrafted. There’s a great art to seeing the floor and being able to anticipate a play. Don’t all the rookies once they improve talk about the game slowing down? Sure, if the player is a fabulous athlete like LeBron James and can pass and have that feel, yes, play him ahead of Denzel Valentine. But don’t discount the abilities of a player like Valentine, who last week against Atlanta helped turn the game around with four straight running scores over screens, none of which made SportsCenter. Occasionally his two-man game lobs to Daniel Gafford did, but generally only Gafford was in the picture.
So perhaps the absence was understandable, Valentine coming back from injury and a new coaching staff which never saw Valentine before trying to figure out a relatively deep roster and plotting out a fast tempo game.
Still, it was a painful time for Valentine, 26, a lottery selection in 2016, bypassed in lineups by rookies, undrafted players, basically receiving the same playing time as the two-way G-league guys.
It could make anyone question themselves; perhaps even fall out of love.
No, Valentine said, never with the game.
“Believing in myself and staying patient,” said Valentine. “I pray I’ll have a long career in the NBA. So I’m not going to let one game or a couple of games to begin the season define me or my career. I love what I do and will work hard and do whatever the team and the coach need me to do.”
Though Valentine admitted he had his dark times.
“I questioned whether I would come back healthy enough,” Valentine admitted about last season. “So my thanks to the Bulls medical staff, (assistant coach) Shawn Respert and my trainer, Steve, who moved here and we worked together. I give the credit to God. Having faith and believing in myself and having a lot of great people around me. I’m just so thankful and grateful I’m out there playing the game I love. People counted me out.”
Instead of counting on him, as they have often on the basketball court.
Valentine has a routine for that pregame nap. He rises late in the afternoon and thinks about the scooter rides down the hallway to the locker room in the United Center, the end of the bench and the call that never was coming through October and November, the doubts from those outside his circle.
“Everytime I wake up for a game,” Valentine says, “I think back on those moments and get fired up to play.”
The Bulls are again benefitting from that passion.