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NBA AM: Valentine Perfect Fit for Bulls

Denzel Valentine may have seemed like an uninspired pick, but he is the kind of young pro Chicago loves.

Joel Brigham

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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.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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Mavs Guard Devin Harris on Personal Leave from Team

Basketball Insiders

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Guard Devin Harris will take an indefinite leave from the Dallas Mavericks after the tragic death of his brother, Bruce.

“I was with him yesterday and just encouraged him that when he’s ready to come on back,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “I don’t know when that will be. He can take as long as he needs.”

Source: Tim MacMahon of ESPN

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