The Chicago Bulls, despite their current 4-6 record look like a different team this year under coach Billy Donovan.
The biggest difference is that when down by double digits the team has not buried it’s head. Instead, they wipe themselves off and climb back into the game. No player on the team symbolizes this renewed energy and self-confidence more than fourth year player Denzel Valentine.
Valentine came to the Bulls as the 14th pick in the 2016 NBA draft. If you go to his Wikipedia page you will see that he played four years at MSU, during which time he won every college basketball award imaginable, including National Player of the Year awards and All American. I cannot even imagine the size of his trophy case.
Still, because he was a four-year player and had missed three weeks with arthroscopic knee surgery during his senior year, he fell in the draft. When questioned about it, Denzel responded then, “I feel like when I get to the next level, I will keep on getting better. Those guys with ‘more potential’ than me are supposed to keep getting better, so I will keep getting better.”
Unfortunately, his first three years in the league were not so much about improvement as they were about survival. He has endured ankle injuries, arthroscopic debridement on his left knee and a left ankle stabilization procedure. That resulted in missing 59 of a possible 229 games during his first three years in the NBA.
In a league where ability equals availability, he has looked like another Gar Forman bust.
The fact that he spent his first three years, like his teammates, playing for a dysfunctional organization also did not help. He spent his rookie year observing the D-Wade, Rajon Rondo, Jimmy Butler fiasco. Then came the Butler trade and the addition of the two guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, further pushing him down the bench. That was followed by the Bobby Portis–Nikola Mirotic fight and eventually the head coaching switch from Fred Hoiberg to Jim Boylen.
Wow. Where would any player have been after three years like that?
At that point, the organization was more banged up than Denzel and change was coming. The Bulls overhauled management, brought in Billy Donovan as coach and now every player is being evaluated from scratch.
Many thought the Bulls would walk away from Valentine and possibly resign Dunn who had established himself as a strong defensive player. Instead, during the last off-season, the Bulls decided to bring back Denzel on a one-year contract, in what appears to be his last chance to show what he has left in the tank at 27 years old.
When you watch Denzel play today, you would think Uncle Drew was made up to look like a 27-year-old.
His game is as smooth as ever and as old as ever at the same time. His knees are bandaged but his shot, his passing, his instincts, and his court awareness remains top notch.
Look at this gem from Wednesday night’s game.
if this was a LaMelo pass it'd have 1,000 retweets pic.twitter.com/tjQc9rPgo2
— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) January 7, 2021
That is a ten score on the Magic Moment monitor.
Most of his contributions are often small though, and do not show up on stat sheets. He plays the point when Coby White sits and meshes really well with Zack. In a small ball lineup, he has shared the floor with Garrett Temple, displaying some of the best ball movement we have seen in years.
He tips out offensive rebounds, takes charges and knows when to make the extra pass. His repertoire of shots includes three pointers, floaters, euro steps and any other move you can make up in the backyard as a kid. Denzel is a baller, period.
Over the last five games, with Tomas Satoransky and Ryan Arcidiacono out due to COVID-19 protocol, Denzel has come in and shown that he still has a lot to offer. Though stats do not prove it, many in Chicago feel he may even be the best shooter and passer on the team. He is shooting 40.7% on threes and over the last five games has averaged slightly over 20 minutes while averaging 7.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists.
Time will tell what will happen with Denzel once the Bulls back court is again at full strength. But Denzel, like his team, has climbed back into the conversation. He may move past Arcidiacono on the depth chart, may make Satoransky disposable or he may just be a piece other teams in need of backcourt help are noticing.
One thing is clear though. The reset button has been pushed both for the Chicago Bulls and Denzel Valentine.