Denzel Valentine is beloved throughout the Bulls’ locker room. It takes only a brief sweep around to glean that.
“I love playing with Denzel, that's my guy,” Kris Dunn said. “No matter what, that's my guy. He know[s] that.”
No matter what.
“Man, Denzel is a true professional,” Zach LaVine said. “We're thankful to have him on this team, I think any team would love to have him. He's someone that is beneficial to us because he's gotten put in a tough situation where he came off the bench, and he's a player that's a regular rotation guy.”
Any team would love to have him.
“They show a lot of support, man, it's just crazy. We have a really good, close-knit team,” Valentine said of his teammates. “Zach — he's been a really good help in this situation. Talking to me every day. Coby [White], Kris, I can go down the line of everybody that's a part of it, so. I got blessed, man, I'm on a really good team with really good teammates.”
Let’s rewind. Valentine logged his fourth-highest minutes total of the season (19:06) on Monday, tied his season-high for scoring (16 points) and played crucial, crunch-time minutes in one of these Bulls’ most memorable victories — a 110-109 squeak-by over the San Antonio Spurs on a night the late Kobe Bryant was commemorated from start to finish.
Valentine added three assists, four rebounds and four 3-pointers, and was a team-high +18, as well.
“I thought Denzel was terrific. He's kept himself ready and came in and helped us win a game,” coach Jim Boylen said.
It can’t have been easy keeping the rust off. After missing all of last season due to ankle reconstruction surgery, Valentine is averaging by far the lowest minutes per game of his career this season while shooting 39.5% from 3-point range. He has been phased in and out of the rotation on multiple occasions.
“That's my job as a professional, to stay ready and play when called upon,” Valentine said of how he endures with playing time not a given.
In four games which Valentine has played more than 19 minutes this season, he's averaged 13.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on 50-44-100 shooting splits. The Bulls are 3-1 in said contests.
“Playing winning basketball,” Valentine said on what he brings when given opportunity. “Whether that's scoring, passing, playing defense, rebounding. Just whatever I can do to affect the game. People always want to look at my shots, but I think I impact the game in a lot of different ways. I think my defense is underrated, and I impact the game in a lot of different ways.”
Valentine said he’s excited to continue to prove himself with advanced opportunity likely in the near future. Thad Young’s insertion into the starting lineup with Lauri Markkanen out for at least the next month opens a gaping need for scoring off the bench. Since Markkanen went down, Valentine is averaging 13.8 minutes per game. Before then, he hadn’t played more than seven since logging 16 minutes in a blowout loss to Milwaukee on Dec. 30.
But tonight, he was instrumental to a victory. Of his four 3-pointers, two came in the fourth quarter as the Bulls were clawing their way back from, at one point, a 10-point deficit.
“He brings that. Scoring, another playmaker. You know, when Denzel get rolling, you get to see a different player in him,” Dunn said. “He has that same mentality that I have in the sense of — you know, just go out there and do whatever you can do to win.”
Valentine is beloved throughout the locker room.
“That's not up to him, to play his minutes. He came in, and he's the biggest reason why we won the game I think,” LaVine said. “I think he was 6-for-10, he had 16 points in  minutes. You know, high-IQ player, playing on and off the ball, so it was big and I appreciate having him as my teammate.
“Denzel has some of the highest respect in the locker room, we know who he is as a player, and as a person.”
But are his teammates hinting at something? Or simply sending a message? Trade speculation has swirled around Valentine with the deadline impending and the Bulls’ role for him undefined. Now, though, the team’s need for him is evident, given their short-handedness.
The waters are muddy, but all there is to know for sure is this: All parties have remained and will remain professional.
Time will tell the rest.