Bulls

Bulls 'absolutely thrilled' to get Denzel Valentine as retooling process begins

Bulls 'absolutely thrilled' to get Denzel Valentine as retooling process begins

While Twitter speculation ran rampant on a potential deal involving Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, inside the Advocate Center, Gar Forman and the Bulls front office went about their business and selected the player they had been targeting in the lead-up to Thursday night’s NBA Draft.

The Bulls got their man with the 14th overall pick, nabbing Michigan State shooting guard Denzel Valentine in the next phase of their offseason retooling.

Forman spoke with reporters following Thursday night’s draft, saying they were optimistic the 6-foot-6 wing would be available at the end of the lottery. And unlike last year, when power forward Bobby Portis fell into their laps with the 22nd pick, the Bulls were able to fill a pressing need with a player they had long coveted.

“We were absolutely thrilled when he was there,” Forman said. “He was the guy we were targeting, and (we) just think he was a fit on so many levels. We knew what we were getting and are extremely happy that we did.”

A day after dealing point guard Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks in a five-player deal, the Bulls entered Thursday with myriad options on how to continue bolstering a roster set for significant change this offseason. Point guards Wade Baldwin IV and Demetrius Jackson had been linked to Chicago and were still on the board, while big men Deyonta Davis and Henry Ellenson – potential Top 10 picks – also fell and were available to the Bulls when they went on the clock just after 8 p.m.

But Forman and the Bulls stuck to their draft board, selecting a versatile wing in Valentine who drew rave reviews from Tom Izzo and the rest of the Michigan State coaching staff when they met earlier this year. It continued the Bulls’ philosophy of drafting the best player available, while securing needs through free agency and the draft.

“As far as drafts are concerned from a philosophical standpoint we’re going to draft who we feel is the best player that fits our system, fits our culture and our organization, regardless of position,” Forman said. “Now if it’s close, if it’s a tie, then we may take into account need or position or something like that. But in this case he’s just a guy we thought would fit.”

Valentine fits the Bulls’ culture as a hard-working, established prospect, and he also fills a need. The Associated Press Player of the Year averaged 19.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists in his senior season with the Spartans. He’s the only player in NCAA history to average 19-7-7 in a single season, taking the leadership reins for a team that won 29 games and the Big Ten Tournament before a stunning exit in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Valentine was also one of the country’s best perimeter shooters, connecting on 3.4 triples per game (6th in the NCAA) at a 44.7 percent clip. The Lansing, Mich., native will give the Bulls an additional facilitator in the wake of Rose’s departure, as Valentine’s 7.6 assists ranked sixth in the country. Forman added that Valentine, a natural shooting guard, has the ability to play both point guard and small forward, depending on the lineup; Valentine added in a conference call with Bulls reporters that his best attribute is that versatility, “being able to play one through three on both sides of the ball.”

Valentine struggled at times to defend, hidden at times by a solid Michigan State defense that ranked 52nd in the country in efficiency last year, per KenPom.com. He’s not overly athletic – something Forman said on Wednesday the Bulls were looking to improve on as a roster this offseason. His 32-inch maximum vertical leap and 3.46-second ¾-court sprint both ranked 40th among 49 players who tested at last month’s combine, and he converted just 48 percent of his 2-point attempts last season, a low mark given his status as a lottery pick.

But Forman said Valentine, who does possess a solid 6-foot-10 wingspan, has been able to make up for his lack of athleticism with his raw talent and innate court sense.

“I certainly think he’s a good enough athlete at the position he plays, and we studied that quite a bit, athletic testing when we got guys that come in. But his game is based more on skill and basketball IQ than it is on athleticism,” he said. “But anybody who’s watched him play, he moves well, he’s got good mobility, obviously he plays very hard, so that wasn’t a concern. We think his skill and his IQ are going to carry him in his career.”

That description isn’t all that far off from Draymond Green’s in 2012. And while it would be unfair to label Valentine in a similar fashion to Green, now one of the premier players in the NBA, their Michigan State backgrounds have formed a bond, with Valentine referring to Green as his big brother. Green was one of the first people Valentine spoke with after being selected

“Yeah I’ve already been talking to him, face-timing, and he’s very excited for me. He just told me to enjoy the moment and get to work,” Valentine said. “I’m very proud to carry on the torch of Michigan State basketball to the NBA.”

The Bulls expected Valentine to be around at No. 14, and part of that may have been because of injury concerns that arose leading up to the draft. An MRI taken at last month’s combine revealed a potential risk in his right knee that could affect him later in his career. Some compared it to former Pacers star Danny Granger, who had his career cut short because of knee injuries.

Valentine had surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee. He had two screws inserted that were removed two months later. He played in 144 of a possible 148 games for the Spartans, missing four games last season with a minor injury to his left knee.

But Forman said the Bulls’ medical staff “was very, very comfortable with where he’s at from a health perspective.” Valentine added that he’s completely healthy and that the knee isn’t a concern for him. The Bulls’ front office also received a ringing endorsement from Izzo, who said Valentine’s toughness to play through injuries couldn’t be questioned.

“Tom Izzo told us, there’s some guys who won’t, some guys who will play hurt,” Forman said. “I can’t remember what the exact quote was, but he said ‘Denzel will play dead.’ He just absolutely raved about him.”

Valentine isn’t the savior for a Bulls franchise attempting to get back to contender status after missing the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. He isn’t a potential face of a franchise like Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons or Los Angeles’ Brandon Ingram, the first two picks in Thursday’s draft. But he does give the Bulls a valuable piece to go forward with on a roster in dire need of a spark. That the Bulls were targeting Valentine and got their man is a sign that they’re moving in the right direction after last season’s collapse.

“We realize we have to get younger, more athletic, start to put some pieces together where we can play more of a style that Fred wants to play. So we’ve begun that process,” Forman said.

“I don’t think it all happens at once; we’ve got to take steps in that direction. I think last week we started to take some steps in that direction and we’ll continue to evaluate and see how we can continue moving in the right direction.”

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen nearly 'Finnishes' in Skills Challenge against former Bull Spencer Dinwiddie

Los Angeles—Lauri Markkanen called himself “The Finnisher” when asked what the movie of his life would be called.

Apparently, that moniker didn’t apply to the All-Star Skills challenge as he took down the best big men but couldn’t close against a former Bull, Spencer Dinwiddie, in the final.

The contest highlights players’ ability to dribble around cones shaped like NBA logos, throwing a chest pass into a net while having to complete a layup and then 3-pointer before their opponent does.

Markkanen took down Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid before facing off with Dinwiddie. He held a pose after hitting a triple to beat the uber confident Embiid, in what will likely be used as a memorable gif following the weekend.

His confidence doesn’t come across as blatantly as Embiid’s, but that snapshot shows he’s no humble star in the making. He didn’t even practice for the contest, by his own admission.

“I heard some of the guys did,” Markkanen said. “I didn’t do much, just before the competition, I did a little warm-up.”

Missing on the first pass attempt into the circular net in the final, it gave Dinwiddie the advantage he wouldn’t relinquish, hitting on his second 3-point attempt before Markkanen could make it downcourt to contest.

“It’s a lot harder than I’ve seen,” Markkanen said. “I thought it was gonna be super easy but it was kind of tough. Maybe I need to hold my follow through (on the pass).”

“I saw he missed (the first shot) and I started going. I thought he would’ve missed it too. I think I would’ve gotten it on the third shot.”

Being one of the multi-dimensional big men in today’s game who can be adept on the perimeter as well as the interior, it almost seems like the contest was made for Markkanen. Although he doesn’t do much handling in Fred Hoiberg’s offense, it’s clearly a skill he will develop as time goes on.

The last two winners of the skills challenge were Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, and Markkanen was well aware of the recent trend.

“The last two years the bigs have won,” Markkanen said. “I’m kind of pissed that I couldn’t keep the streak going after (those two). I think there’s a lot of guys who can do that now, it’s why they changed the format to bigs versus smalls.”

For Dinwiddie, who was discarded by the Bulls last season after a promising start in the preseason so they could pick up R.J. Hunter, he’s taken advantage of an opportunity with Brooklyn.

“I think for Chicago it was just another series of unfortunate events,” he said. “They were in win-now mode. I was an unproven guard on a non-guaranteed contract and they felt Michael Carter-Williams gave them a better shot to win.”