Bulls

Bulls player preview: What can a healthy Denzel Valentine provide?

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USA TODAY

Bulls player preview: What can a healthy Denzel Valentine provide?

NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono | Antonio Blakeney | Coby White | Daniel Gafford | Wendell Carter Jr. | Luke Kornet | Cristiano Felicio | Tomas Satoransky | Chandler Hutchison | Otto Porter

How last year went

Well, Valentine didn't play. Instead, he underwent ankle stabilization surgery that kept him on the sidelines the entire season. What was initially ruled a day-to-day injury wound up costing Valentine upwards of 8 months. It was an obvious setback to a player who would have logged minutes in a backcourt that allowed Antonio Blakeney 14.5 minutes per game.

The last time we saw Valentine healthy, he averaged a modest 10.2 points on 42% shooting and 38.6% from deep for a tanking Bulls team. He added 5.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists, solid counting numbers for the former first-round pick. He's expected to be ready for training camp.

Expectations for this year's role

Whatever he can give the Bulls. The front office addressed the point guard and power forward depth this summer but did very little on the wing. Perhaps it was because they couldn't improve every aspect of the roster, or perhaps they're expecting to get production from Valentine after he missed all of last season. With Chandler Hutchison nursing a hamstring injury, Valentine could have a path to early minutes behind Otto Porter at small forward. More realistic is Valentine seeing minutes at shooting guard, where he'll be taxed less defensively and can focus as a perimeter shooter. In that regard, he should fight with Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaq Harrison for minutes behind Zach LaVine. His expectations are tough to peg because we just don't know how healthy he is or how he'll respond to missing so much time. He hasn't played an NBA game since April 1, 2018.

Where he excels

Assuming he's healthy, Valentine is the Bulls' second best 3-point shooter behind Otto Porter. Consider that in his last 20 healthy games after the 2018 All-Star break, Valentine shot 43.0% on 5.0 3-point attempts, seventh best in the NBA among players who attempted that many per game. Included in that stretch were 3-point shooting nights in which he went 4-for-6, 5-for-7, 8-for-11, 4-for-7 and 4-for-7. He certainly had the green light on a Bulls team playing for Lottery balls and a chance at Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley, but the numbers were nonetheless impressive. Valentine also shot 39.1% on above-the-break 3-pointers. Why is that important? The Bulls were 26th in FG% on those triples last season, and Valentine's mark would have ranked second behind Porter (Markkanen and LaVine were both 36% on above-the-break 3-pointers).

He's also got sneaky playmaking skills. The belief that Valentine could play point guard in the NBA was nixed quickly, but he's been an above-average passer on the wing. In 2017-18, Valentine averaged 3.2 assists on just 27.9 passes per game. Even if he can simply keep the ball moving on the second unit, he'll give the Bulls something they lacked a season ago off the bench. An offense can never have enough good passers, and Valentine is a good one on the wing.

Where he struggles

Valentine isn't going to provide much defensively. It wasn't his calling card at Michigan State and hasn't been his calling card in the NBA, especially not after ankle reconstruction surgery.

And maybe he'll continue getting that floater to go down, but Valentine isn't going to provide much inside the 3-point line. He'll turn 26 during the season's first month, so there's not much optimism he'll improve in either facet of the game. His value will come from beyond the arc, as both a shooter and passer.

Best case/worst case

It all comes down to health. Valentine missed 25 games his rookie season and all 82 last season. Ankle reconstruction is a major surgery and, while there's precedent of players coming back stronger, Valentine is the roster's biggest unknown. His best-case scenario is he's able to give the Bulls 70+ games as a second unit sharpshooter. He probably isn't going to give the Bulls much on the defensive end, but perhaps he'll play minutes with Shaq Harrison or Chandler Hutchison to help cover some of his deficiencies. Any playmaking on the wing would be a bonus, and it'd be a major positive if he can get anywhere close to the 3.2 assists he averaged on the tanking Bulls in 2018.

Worst case is pretty simple: Valentine, who wasn't athletic to begin with, is really hampered by the ankle. It'll be apparent early in the preseason and regular season what Valentine is going to provide. Sure, he'll be rusty, but you'll be able to see his limitations if he has any.

One key stat

Over the last three Bulls seasons, just four players have an individual Game Score, per Basketball Reference, of 31 or better. Jimmy Butler accomplished the feat on 10 different occasions. Lauri Markkanen accomplished it against the Celtics last year. Otto Porter did it against the Grizzlies a week into his Bulls career. The fourth Game Score of 31? Denzel Valentine, when he scored 34 points on 13 of 20 shooting, and added 7 rebounds and 6 assists in 39 minutes against the Cavs in March 2018. The performances are few and far between, but he's capable of really going off. He made 8 3-pointers in that game, which is still the most for a Bulls player since Nikola Mirotic had nine triples against the Knicks in March 2016.

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Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls only score 73 points in loss to Charlotte

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Bulls only score 73 points in loss to Charlotte

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, John Sabine, and David Watson react to the Bulls 83-73 loss to the Hornets.

0:30 - Will Perdue makes a cameo to start the show

1:00 - On only scoring 73 points

4:55 - Is this loss worse than the Celtics loss last season?

6:30 - Viewer comments on the loss and shooting too many threes

8:00 - Discussion on Thad Young minutes vs Lauri Markkanen minutes

12:10 - Viewer comment asking what would the Outsiders say if head coach

15:05 - Viewer comment on Tomas Satoransky

17:20 - Viewer trade idea for Terrance Ross

20:25 - Viewer comment on Coby White struggling

21:25 - Viewer comment on Kris Dunn starting

23:50 - Our ideas for other ‘theme’ nights for Bulls games

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Bulls Outsiders

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Is the Bulls' defensive philosophy hurting their rebounding?

Is the Bulls' defensive philosophy hurting their rebounding?

Jim Boylen opened his press conference with a silver lining.

"If there's a positive in this difficult loss, it's in the past when we haven't been able to put the ball in the basket... We haven't guarded well," Boylen said. "I thought our defense was terrific tonight. I thought it kept us in the game, it gave us a chance."

There's some validity to that. Friday night, the Bulls allowed their adversary, the Charlotte Hornets, only 83 points. The Hornets shot 38% from the floor, 19.4% from 3-point range (31 attempts) and turned the ball over 21 times. On most nights, holding an opponent to those numbers is a recipe for success — even if the paltriness of said figures was as much a result of the Hornets' sloppy play as anything.

Not in this one. The offense will shoulder most of the blame there: The Bulls shot only 30% from the field (they're the only team that's shot 30% or less from the field in a game this season, and they've done it twice) and 20.6% from 3-point range. According to Boylen, they shot 44% at the rim. Crucially, they were also outrebounded by Charlotte 60-45 — a disparity aided by the Bulls missing a whopping 63 field goals on the night. 

"They were crashing a lot of guys," Lauri Markkanen said. "We need to do a better job of boxing out. I feel like we did a good job defensively, but we just need to get the first rebound and limit their second-chance points."

The Hornets entered the night ranked 27th in rebound rate — which measures the percentage of missed shots a team is able to pull in — the Bulls 29th. For Charlotte, P.J. Washington (13 points, 10 rebounds) and Cody Zeller (11 points, 10 rebounds) both logged double-doubles, and Bismack Biyombo (12 points, nine rebounds) came close. As a team, they converted 11 offensive rebounds into 14 second-chance points. 

"They had 11 offensive rebounds. It seemed like they had more," Boylen, aptly, said. "Those plays are back-breakers."

Especially true in such a drudgy game. The Hornets led 44-40 at the halftime break, then 59-50 entering the fourth after outscoring the Bulls 15-10 in the third quarter. It was a game from a different era.

Thad Young rejected the notion that the Bulls were outmatched physically or undersized, relative to the Hornets.

"I think that's about us just going out there and making sure we get the ball, and us gang-rebounding," he said of the disparity on the boards.

Young cited the team's defensive philosophy — specifically, their strategy of blitzing and aggressively hedging in pick-and-roll coverage — as one factor in their inconsistency in this area. Bringing bigs up and away from the basket on those actions can often leave them out of position when the other team's eventual shot is put up (and off) the rim. 

"The way our defense is it kinda crossmatches us a little bit, because the big is generally trying to stop the guard from driving. Then when they hit the big, he's in the trail position, so their big has inside position on us, and then you have a big on the baseline or you have a cutter going baseline," Young said. "So it kinda puts us in a situation where we have to figure out who's gonna be in to get the rebounds, and usually, the guys that's in there to get the rebounds are guards. Because they're sagging in on the weak-side or they're helping trying to get the big into position where he can rebound the basketball."

Wendell Carter Jr. had 11 boards on the night, but the Bulls' next-leading rebounder was Zach LaVine, with eight. Then Young with five.

But Young declined to label it a systemic issue, or even a communication one. 

"It's just something that kinda happens in the flow of the game," Young said. "Some games are gonna be different than others. Some games we're gonna be able to get our bigs back, and some games we're gonna depend on our guards to come in and rebound."

It seems that this is happening often, as of late. The Bulls have been outrebounded in 19 of their 27 games this season — they're 4-15 in said contests.

Of course, making shots would help, as well. Between the two teams, there were 112 missed field goals tonight. That's a lot of chances for rebounds, and the Hornets converted more than the Bulls tonight.

"Imma be honest with you, I don't really see too much they were doing [defensively]. We were just missing shots," Young said. "I had three for sure that just went in and came out, and a couple other guys had some so. I think it was just one of those nights."

It certainly was. Now, on to the next — Saturday night, when they fearsome Clippers come to town.

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