When reporters showed up at the Advocare Center for the 2016 NBA Draft on Thursday, they found the Chicago Bulls had covered the windows. The Bulls have long aimed to operate under a facade of secrecy, and that wasn't about to change with an avalanche of Jimmy Butler trade rumors leaking out all around them.
In the end, the only thing the Bulls were really able to conceal was the selection of a player that hardly registered as a surprise. In hindsight, we all should have seen this franchise's interest in Denzel Valentine coming a mile away.
Valentine fits the profile of a draft pick the Bulls constructed more than a decade ago. Like Kirk Hinrich and Joakim Noah, he played at a major college program that reached the Final Four. Like Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott, he's a four-year player who enters the NBA as one of the league's oldest rookies. Just about the only time the Bulls have really broken this mold is when they walked away with Tony Snell. Maybe they're right to self-impose such strict guidelines.
Valentine was either the best or second best player in college basketball this season by any standard. He set the tone for his senior season in the second game of the year, when he came to the United Center and beat No. 4 Kansas almost entirely by himself, finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. I was in the building that night and remember thinking his complete and total offensive takeover was decidedly LeBron-like. There wasn't another player in the country who could have filled the box score like that against the eventual No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Valentine is a fascinating NBA prospect because his strengths and weaknesses are laid out so plainly to see. He's a great shooter, an amazing passer and plays with an advanced feel for the game. He's also slow. Really slow. The only players who finished with a slower three-quarter sprint time at the NBA Draft Combine were big men who either went in the second round or undrafted. Valentine was picked in the lottery and plays the position that houses the world's best pure runners and jumpers.
It's a philosophical question as much as anything: would you rather draft a basketball player and hope he can keep up with NBA athletes or draft an athlete and try to teach him how to play basketball? The selection of Valentine is an emphatic decision to go with the former.
I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. The Bulls needed another wing, another playmaker and more shooting. They also needed someone who could conceivably step in right away. We can point to Tyrus Thomas and Marquis Teague as evidence that this franchise doesn't do well with 19-year-olds who aren't Derrick Rose. It's usually a fool's errand to draft for the present instead of the future, but Valentine is a rare example of when I think that's a pretty good decision.
Let's start with shooting. Valentine didn't enter Michigan State as a good shooter, but he grew into a great one. The rise in both volume and efficiency behind the arc throughout his career college is truly impressive:
|3PA||3P%||True Shooting Percentage|
To put Valentine's senior season shooting in perspective, consider that Buddy Hield shot 45.7 percent on 8.7 attempts per game from three. There wasn't much of a difference between Hield and Valentine from deep, and the rest of Valentine's game is a lot more complete.
The consistency of Valentine's stroke immediately jumps out. His footwork is exact, his release is high and his form is fluid. He can hit off the catch or the bounce, and also made a few shots that clearly demonstrates he has NBA range:
This isn't just a one dimensional shooter, though. He scored efficiently in almost every situation as a senior. Here's the play type numbers from Synergy Sports courtesy of DraftExpress:
|Points Per Possession|
|Contested catch-and-shoot jumpers||1.24|
The thing that jumped out to me watching Michigan State this year was his in-between game. A floater can be a major weapon and Valentine's is as good as any as player in this draft class. It's a great way to attack a closeout, and a trump card for a player who might struggle to get all the way to the rim in the league.
I put an alley-oop pass at the end of this clip because it showcases just how well-rounded his game is. He's a master at making the right decision on the fly, whether that's taking the three, going to the floater or finding a teammate.
Valentine acted as the de facto point guard for Michigan State after Tum Tum Nairn went down with an injury in January. When he was surrounded by shooters, MSU was nearly impossible to defend. He averaged 7.8 assists per game and posted an obscene 45.8 assist rate, second in the country behind only Kay Felder.
This dime sticks out from the Kansas game:
The flip side of everything is his defense. If you watch the DraftExpress video on Valentine's weaknesses, it seems like he won't have a prayer to defend NBA-level athletes. I think he can be better than that video would suggest for a few different reasons. While it's tough to overcome a lack of foot speed, Valentine is long (6'10 wingspan) and smart. Tom Izzo consistently credited his defense, and he isn't the type of coach that would lie about something like that:
Izzo says Valentine deserves to be in the race for national POY. Says Valentine doesn't get credit for his defense— Kyle Austin (@kylebaustin) February 14, 2016
McDermott entered the NBA with a reputation as a smart player as well, but it feels like his first two years have exposed that as a myth. He looks jittery and nervous at nearly all times on that end of the floor, often mistaking activity for achievement.
Valentine has gone up against great offensive players and played in big time games his entire college career. I don't think he'll be overwhelmed by the moment. He won't be a shutdown one-on-one defender, but he should be a good enough team defender because of his length and intelligence. If he does that, his offensive skill set should make him a really useful player.
There will be a tendency to compare Valentine to McDermott because both were prolific four-year players with limited athleticism, but the truth is that Valentine brings so much more to the table (McDermott had 194 assists in his four years at Creighton; Valentine had 241 assists as a senior). Fred Hoiberg would do well to split up Denzel and Doug, but I do think Valentine's game will be a great complement for Jimmy Butler's. That's what's really important.
The Bulls obviously need to get more athletic, but I don't fault them at all for taking Valentine. This franchise couldn't afford another swing and miss in the draft and I feel comfortable saying that's off the table now. Valentine probably won't be an All-Star, but he's definitely going to be solid while also filling so many of the team's needs. With the No. 14 pick in a purportedly weak draft, it's hard to ask for more than that.