Bulls

Bulls: NBA Validation for Valentine came in the United Center last season

Bulls: NBA Validation for Valentine came in the United Center last season

Denzel Valentine’s annual growth had long been noticed by NBA executives but perhaps fittingly, it was a game in Chicago that served as the reinforcement he needed to know the NBA was in his sights.

On a national stage and on the United Center floor last November, Valentine put up one of the best stat lines in college basketball, leading Michigan State to a comeback 79-73 win over Kansas, a team ranked No. 4 in the nation at the time.

If he had any doubts about his future, a 29-point, 12-rebound and 12-assist performance served as the confirmation he was on an upward trajectory.

“I knew I could play in the NBA when I started my career at Michigan State,” Valentine said to CSNChicago.com after his introductory news conference. “Playing against guys like (Victor) Oladipo, (Cody) Zeller and those guys, I knew I could play in the NBA but I didn’t know I would be a first round, 14th pick. But I realized that this year after my triple double against Kansas.

“I realized I could be the best player in the country. It was very important because I got off to a good start and it helped me throughout the year.”

That night, the Bulls were rolling right along at 7-3, headed out West for a four-game trip and looking every bit like a team that would be in the thick of Eastern Conference contention. The likelihood of a marriage between a player billed as a mid-lottery pick and the Bulls seemed improbable if not damn near impossible.

But the Bulls hit several roadblocks and landed in the draft lottery, while Valentine put together one of the more complete statistical seasons in recent memory, averaging nearly 20 points and almost eight rebounds and eight assists.

Valentine hit a roadblock of his own with draft preparation, as word about prospective teams red-flagging his left knee began to trickle out, raising questions about his long-term availability.

At least one team in the lottery definitively passed on Valentine because of fears surrounding his knee, which was surgically worked on in high school and followed by a minor procedure in December, causing him to miss four games.

“It did surprise me because I’m healthy now,” Valentine said. “I only missed four games. I can control what I can control and let the chips fall that it may. I was a little surprised, a little angry that people were texting me asking if I were hurt. And I was like ‘what?’ But at the same time, I could control what I could control and I’m happy to be here.”

Missing a few practices here and there seemed to be the biggest side effect for Valentine through the season, as accolades followed nonetheless with him winning National Player of the Year over Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, who went sixth in last Thursday’s draft.

“He’s gonna go out there and fight,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s been in so many high-pressure games at Michigan State. For a guy that played in Final Fours, made big play after big play. He’s been a part of winning cultures since high school. That’s huge, great experience for Denzel. If he can suit up, he can play.”

The awards are certainly not a precursor for pro success, as more than a few collegiate POY’s have wound up as professional carcasses in an unforgiving game.

But the qualities Valentine was noted for in college could translate to the NBA, and from the sounds of things he’ll get every opportunity with the Bulls to show off his versatility.

He’ll be thrown into the shallow end of the pool, so to speak, in Summer League next month. New acquisition Jerian Grant (via the Derrick Rose trade), Cristiano Felicio, Bobby Portis and Spencer Dinwiddie (acquired for Cameron Bairstow) will also join Valentine in Las Vegas.

“He's a basketball player,” Hoiberg said. “That's the big thing I got from talking to coach (Tom) Izzo, is you can play him all over the court. He's a facilitator. He's an excellent positional rebounder. He can bust out with the ball. And he gives you the opportunity to play in so many ways.”

Valentine wasn’t given a definitive position, and perhaps there’s no natural one over the other. But having the ability to be a floor-spreading point guard with Jimmy Butler handling or even a small-ball power forward leaves Hoiberg and the Bulls plenty of options.

“And I think how we want to play with our young core, how Fred we wants to play, we think it's a perfect fit in regards to his skill level and his basketball IQ and what he brings to the floor,” Bulls GM Gar Forman said.

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.”

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

Michael Jordan's Greatest Moments: 5-1

This is part of a four-part series looking back at the historic career of Michael Jordan and the legacy he left on the game of basketball. It all leads up to Saturday when we unveil his top 5 moments on his 55th birthday. Here are 55-4544-23, and 22-6.

5. Jordan wins fourth title and finishes greatest individual season ever, June 16, 1996

It’s hard to comprehend just how much Jordan accomplished during the 1995-96 season. We’ll try:He won his fourth championship, was named NBA Finals MVP for a record fourth time, won All-Star Game MVP, won a record 72 games, was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team, was the league’s leading scorer and became the Bulls’ all-time leader in games played. So when he dropped a casual 22 points in Game 6, it marked the end of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Oh, and Space Jam came out a few months later.
 
4. Jordan hits six triples, scores 35 points in first half against Blazers, June 3, 1992

During the 1991-92 regular season, Jordan never made more than three 3-pointers in a single game. In fact, the most 3-pointers he had in any two-game stretch that year was four. So when he began burying triple after triple in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, even Jordan couldn’t believe it, giving a shrug toward the NBC announcers as if to say, “I don’t know, either.” Jordan finished the first half with six triples and scored an NBA-record 35 points. The Bulls cruised in the second half, so Jordan finished with only 39, but his shrug remains one of the most iconic NBA Finals moments in history.
 
3. Jordan battles the flu, scores 38 in Game 5 on his way to fifth title, June 11, 1997

The Flu Game. Jordan was battling a nasty illness in the lead-up to a pivotal Game 5 in Utah, and there were concerns about whether he would even suit up. Hours before tip Jordan got out of bed and made his way to the arena, looking to halt Utah’s momentum after it had taken Games 3 and 4 to tie the series. The Jazz came out red-hot while Jordan looked sluggish, but he responded with 17 points in the second quarter alone to give the Bulls a halftime lead. Jordan then keyed a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter to erase a Jazz lead, and he hit a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left to give the Bulls a three-point lead. The Bulls hung on, and Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen’s arms walking off the floor. His final line? 38 points, 13 of 27 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. Two days later the Bulls won the title in front of a sellout Chicago crowd.

2. Jordan scores 63 points against Celtics in playoff loss, April 20, 1986

Jordan had just turned 23 years old when he took to the Boston Garden floor to face Larry Bird in his prime and the Celtics. These Celtics had gone 40-1 at home, led the NBA in field goal percentage defense, started FOUR future Hall of Famers and had a fifth come off the bench. They would ultimately go down as one of the all-time greatest teams, and Jordan made them look absolutely silly. He played 50 minutes in the double-overtime thriller, shooting 22 of 41 from the field and making 19 of 21 free throws, including the last two with no time on the clock and the Bulls trailing by two at the end of regulation. He scored 54 in regulation, added five in the first overtime and four in the second. He also led the Bulls with six assists. It still stands as the NBA record for most points in any playoff game. Twenty-three years old. Twenty. Three.

1. Jordan scores 45 in final game with the Bulls, securing sixth championship, June 14, 1998

Jordan’s final game with the Bulls was iconic. Like so many of these moments, die hards know exactly where they were. The 45 points were majestic, and while he only had one rebound and one assist he affected just about every possession on both ends. But what we’ll remember most is the final 37 seconds. Jordan drove to the basket for layup that cut Utah’s lead to one, then stripped Karl Malone from behind on the next trip down. That gave the ball back to the Bulls with 20 seconds left. Jordan let the clock tick down to around 9 seconds before making his move from the left wing, driving right on Bryon Russell, (maybe pushing off) and pulling up for a jumper at the foul line. The shot was good with 5.2 seconds remaining, and John Stockton’s ensuing 3-pointer was off the mark. It gave Jordan and the Bulls their sixth NBA title, and marked the perfect ending to his Bulls career: getting it done on both ends, in the clutch, and finishing with a victory. Because it encapsulated so much of his 14-year career in Chicago, it’s our top Michael Jordan moment.