The Chicago Bulls drafted former Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine this past summer because of course they did. No front office in the league loves established high-character, big-program players more than Chicago’s, and there really was no player with a realistic shot of getting drafted in the first round with a stronger pedigree than him.
When the Bulls made him their selection with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, nobody was surprised, and some fans even rolled their eyes at how uncreative and predictable the selection was. Why not reach for a player with more upside, someone younger with more to prove and higher to rise?
Valentine showed why not during his Summer League experience, where he pretty clearly exhibited why older rookies with his level of talent so often make an immediate impact in the NBA. His overtime-forcing shot and game-winning shot in the Vegas Summer League championship game were undeniably entertaining, and a great introduction to his experience in the NBA.
Summer League, though, was just the start of a career that has the look and feel of one that could be both long and successful.
“I was just trying to get a feel for things, work my way into playing in the NBA, see how it’s different from college, and just play,” Valentine told Basketball Insiders. “It worked out with us winning the championship and getting off to a good start, but there’s still a lot to learn.”
Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has had nothing but good things to say about his rookie thus far, admitting that even though we’re only a short ways into the preseason, Valentine already looks like somebody with a future in this league.
“He’s a really smart basketball player and he’s an instinctive basketball player,” said Hoiberg. “He showed that in Summer League, but the biggest thing I like about him is his ability to go out there and not be afraid of the moment. He is ready to play. If we throw him in the game, I know he’s going to go out there and do great things.”
Valentine, though, is trying his best to remain humble early in his career.
“I haven’t gone through a full season,” he said. “I’ve only played in a little bit of one game, so there’s still a lot to learn. I feel like I’m on a great team, a great organization, and a great staff that will put me in the best position to be great. I’m excited to be here.”
The team is excited to have him there, particularly because he can play so many positions on both ends of the floor.
“People ask what his position is and he’s really just a basketball player who can play multiple positions,” said Hoiberg. “He did that at Michigan State where they put the ball in his hands a lot. He made great decisions and he’s a really good passer. So if we can get him the ball and get him in slot type ball screen situations, then he’s going to make the right play.”
“Someone that is versatile who can play multiple positions and does a lot of things on the court is very valuable in today’s game with the way everyone is playing,” Valentine agreed. “I fit that mold, but I still have a lot of work to do.”
He has less work to do than most, however, and he knows that his four years at Michigan State University helped to prepare him for his career as an NBA player.
“I considered entering the draft my third year [at Michigan State], but I figured I would come back better, have a better season, and have another shot at winning the national championship my senior year,” Valentine admitted, adding that MSU head coach Tom Izzo would have been just as happy to have had one of his top players for three years as he would have for the full four.
“It all depended on how you produced and if you are a legitimate pick in the draft,” he said. “If you are a legitimate pick in the first round then he’s all for you leaving and going to the NBA early. But if you’re on the border like I was and a lot of people have been, then you might as well stay, get better, mature a little bit, and see how you can get better for next year.
“Obviously, I made the right choice,” he added.
Unlike a lot of other elite rookies, Valentine ended up on an iconic team with playoff aspirations, which of course is what almost every first-year player hopes for ahead of actually getting drafted. Still, Valentine was a nervous wreck the night before the draft simply because he did not know where he would end up.
“It sort of feels like the night before the championship game, like I was about to play or something similar to that,” he said about his sleepless night before the draft. “You’re just nervous because you put all this work in and you could be anywhere from New York to L.A. or anywhere in between. It’s nerve-wracking because you don’t know what direction your life is going to go.
“But everything works out,” he continued. “I’m in the best position possible, which is why I got so excited on draft night. This is a great city, great organization, and a great team for me to go to. This is the ideal situation for me. If not here, then I was going to go wherever and play, but I was hoping I would end up here. And now, I’m here.”
Already dealing with some minor injury issues, Valentine understands that his rookie season will be challenging, but he’s open to taking baby steps and doing things the right way. In truth, that’s exactly the approach he took in unconventionally playing all four years of college basketball to perfect his game ahead of entering the draft. Patience, in his case, tends to work out pretty well.
“I’m just trying to get better, be the best that I can, and come in learning a lot,” he said. “We have great veterans to learn from and I’ll be able to feel my way with how the NBA works with traveling, life style, arenas, and everything that goes a long with being an NBA player. I just need to get used to it, get my foot in the door, and in the meantime have a great year trying to produce on the court.”
It sounds like Chicago wants to see him out there contributing, and considering how much they have loved players of similar pedigree in the past, Valentine already looks like a perfect fit in that revamped Bulls locker room.
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