In all likelihood, the 2015-2016 NCAA basketball season will be the peak of Chicago Bulls guard Denzel Valentine’s basketball career. That season for Michigan State, he was the Associated Press Player of the Year. Valentine averaged 19.2 points per game, shot over 44 percent from 3-point land, dished out 7.8 assists, and grabbed 7.5 rebounds.
His NBA career has stalled after injury and poor play. After missing the entire 2018-19 season to ankle surgery, it took Jim Boylen 18 games to dust off Valentine from the bench and give the fourth-year player meaningful minutes.
But in the seven games since he’s really been reintroduced back into the rotation, Valentine has averaged 7.5 points and 1.3 assists per game. He’s shot the ball at an over 42 percent clip from 3-point land and has launched over six field goal attempts in 13.7 minutes of playing time in that stretch.
Obviously not anywhere close to what he did in college, but showing a versatile skill set that is much needed in the Bulls offense. What Valentine can provide includes a superlative passing ability. During that senior season at Michigan State, Valentine assisted on an absolutely absurd 45.8 percent of his teammates scores. That was second in the nation to one-time Bull Kay Felder, and just ahead of current teammate Kris Dunn.
This season, Valentine’s assist percentage is at 16.2 percent. That is fifth best on the team though he also has a career high usage percentage of 21.2 percent. There should be more assists coming from Denzel.
We should perhaps look at Valentine’s teammates when he is getting in these games. Valentine’s substitution patterns have been pretty consistent over the last three contests, entering at the end of the first quarter into the start of the second quarter, and then at the end of the third quarter into the start of the fourth quarter. The lineups have mostly reserves and usually filled with enough guards to make him the de facto small forward, forcing him off the ball.
Valentine plays most of his minutes with Coby White (97 of his 121 minutes this season). The offense mostly runs through White (23.6 percent usage percentage which is the second highest on the team), head coach Jim Boylen often uses Valentine as a 3-point floor spacer in the short corner or on the wing.
Valentine is getting his shots up. He is third on the team in field goal attempts per 36 minutes (17.3), but is No. 7 in assists per 36 (334).
Although he mostly looks to score when he gets touches, on the occasions where he’s allowed to run some offense he’s flashed some of that playmaking ability.
Although he only gets credit for the hockey assist on this one, his nifty pass out of the pick-and-roll sets the table for the eventual easy finish from Daniel Gafford.
In the next play, Valentine leads the fast break , makes a cross-court pass to an open Ryan Arcidiacono that gets the defense looking towards Arch, receives a pass back from Arcidiacono, and then is perceptive enough to make a no-look pass to Coby White in the corner for an open 3-point field goal.
A more recent play is this nice find by Valentine.
The Bulls second unit players———guys like White, Young, Arcidiacono, Dunn, Gafford, etc.———don’t have very many great scoring options and often times these units revert to Coby White hero-ball. If Valentine can further unlock some of that playmaking ability that made him special in college, that would benefit everybody involved offensively in those second-unit lineups.
Let Valentine run the second-unit offense sometimes instead of White. It could help spark some of the rougher offensive lineups and puts Valentine in the best role to maximize his contributions to this team.
What do the Bulls have to lose at this point?