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.”

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

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USA TODAY

New-look Mavs looking to make big jump this season

Outspoken Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban conceded his team was playing for draft lottery position last season, but insisted it would be a one year only strategy.

Dallas finished tied for the league’s third worst record, but fell to fifth after the lottery.

So, Cuban and the Mavs’ front office decided to make a bold move on draft night, trading their 2019 first round pick to Atlanta to move up two spots for a chance to select international sensation Luka Doncic.

Early in the season, Doncic has more than lived up to the hype, showing the creativity and flair that made him such a fan favorite on the European professional circuit. Through the Mavs’ first two games, Doncic is averaging 18 points, 7 rebounds and 3.5 assists while giving Rick Carlisle’s team a much-needed boost in transition.

Doncic and second-year guard Dennis Smith Jr. will give opposing teams nightmares in the open court all season long. They led the offensive onslaught in the Mavs’ 140-136 win over Minnesota Saturday night, combining for 45 points. Doncic finished with 26 points, while Smith scored 10 of his 19 in the 4th quarter, including a tie-breaking three-point play with six seconds left.

Veteran swing-man Wesley Matthews added 19 against the Timberwolves, and his 3 point shooting helps the Mavs maintain floor balance in half-court sets.

The Mavs also strengthened their front court in the off-season, signing veteran center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Dallas was overmatched in the middle last season, with future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell giving up size in the post, but Jordan will provide rim protection and an alley-oop threat when Doncic, Smith Jr. or veteran point guard J.J. Barea drive to the basket. Jordan had a big game in the home opening win over Minnesota, scoring 22 points, pulling down 10 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.

Nowitzki, starting small forward Harrison Barnes and backup guard Devin Harris all missed Saturday’s game because of injuries, but Barnes and Harris are considered game-time decisions against the Bulls.

Here’s what the Bulls will need to do to get their first victory of the season Monday night.

1. GET BACK ON DEFENSE! Doncic and Smith Jr. are deadly in the open court, capable of making spectacular plays to bring the home crowd to life. The Bulls’ players have to sprint back on defense after missed shots to cut off transition opportunities, or it’s going to be a long night. The Mavs are averaging 128 points through the first two games.

2. CLOSE OUT ON 3-POINT SHOOTERS This will be a familiar theme in my keys until the Bulls start doing a better job of matching up in transition and closing out on three point threats. Detroit’s win at the United Center on Saturday came down to the Pistons’ 18-40 shooting from three-point range, and Dallas has even more players capable of doing damage from beyond the arc.

3. LET DUNN DO IT Getting Kris Dunn back from paternity leave should make a big difference on both ends of the court. Dunn has the athleticism and physicality to match up with either Doncic or Smith Jr., and his defensive skills will be critical in keeping the Mavs from turning this game into a track meet.

On the offensive end, Dunn need to be patient and get the ball into the hands of the Bulls’ top scorers, Zach LaVine and Bobby Portis. Even though Fred Hoiberg wants his team to play at a fast pace, they’ll need to pick their spots on when to run against the explosive Mavs.

As always, turn to NBC Sports Chicago for the very best pre and post-game coverage. Kendall Gill and Will Perdue join me for Bulls Pregame Live at 7 p.m/, and we’ll have expanded post-game analysis when the action goes final in Dallas. You can also stream the shows live on the brand new My Teams by NBC Sports app.

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

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USA TODAY

Bulls defense costs them late but showing 'competitive spirit' a step in right direction

The Bulls defense is nowhere near where it needs to be, and it cost them dearly on Saturday night. But in a season that’s still about seeing progression both individually and collectively, the Bulls took a step in the right direction with their effort and what Fred Hoiberg called “competitive spirit.”

That won’t change the standings when they wake up Sunday morning, now facing an 0-2 hole in the early season. And while better effort and tougher defense helped them stage a second-half comeback they weren’t able to manage on Thursday, it was a defensive miscue that cost them the game.

Ish Smith split a double screen at the top of the key and sliced his way past Jabari Parker for a wide open go-ahead layup with 5.4 seconds left. Zach LaVine, who 20 seconds earlier had tied the game with the last of his 33 points, was unable to get a shot off after a timeout. Better than Thursday for 47 minutes and 50 seconds. But still costing them when it mattered most.

“We can’t give up a layup for the last play,” said LaVine, who was guarding Smith. “We just got to get our defense right. That’s why it’s really upsetting because we played so well, we came back but we can’t give up a layup. We at least have to make him take a tough one. That was as easy a layup as you can get. It’s really upsetting.”

Fred Hoiberg defended his decision to leave Parker in the game instead of inserting rookie Wendell Carter Jr. He opted to ride the group that helped the Bulls erase a fourth-quarter deficit when it appeared the Bulls were spiraling toward another double-digit loss.

But the Pistons were ready to find the weak link in the Bulls defense and expose it, like they did much of the fourth quarter while attacking Parker with Blake Griffin. As the screen was set Parker jumped outside to cut off Smith, who then made a cut inward and made a dash to the rim. Parker was a couple steps late, allowing the 5-foot-9 Smith to score with ease to give the Pistons their lead and the eventual game-winner.

Bobby Portis, whose shot wasn’t falling but played admirable defense against a talent like Griffin, was on the other side of the double screen and didn’t have a great view of the play. But he said allowing a layup with the game on the line is inexcusable.

“It’s a tough play but at the same time you don’t want to give up a layup at the end of the game,” he said. “You want to make him take a tough shot. That’s something we’ve got to work on, is late game execution on defense.”

But again, it’s about baby steps. The Bulls will want that final possession back, and Hoiberg might also want it back after leaving Parker in the game over Carter. But from where the Bulls were on Thursday, this was better. Granted, allowing 118 points and 18 3-pointers to the Pistons isn’t a recipe for success, it’s improvement nonetheless. Detroit got a career-high five triples from Griffin, four from Reggie Jackson (a career 32 percent 3-point shooter) and a pair from Stnaley Johnson (a career 29 percent 3-point shooter). The Bulls will be able to live with some of those makes.

On Thursday the Bulls trailed by just six early in the third quarter before the Sixers ripped off a 19-3 run to put the game out of reach. On Saturday the Pistons got out to a six-point lead on two different occasions, and then a seven-point lead with just 2:01 to play. All three times the Bulls came roaring back, using timely spots and clutch baskets from LaVine, Park and even Cameron Payne, who tied a career-high with 17 points.

Ultimately it wasn’t enough, but it’s a positive sign that they were able to battle back and show some fight defensively. They’ll certainly need that when they travel to Dallas to take on a Mavericks team that scored 140 points on the Jimmy Butler-less Timberwolves on Saturday. They should get Dunn back, which will help,  and now have a close contest under their belt on which to build. It didn’t result in a win, and the late-game cross-up was the cause, but the Bulls finished Saturday in a much better place than they were in on Thursday.

“Yeah but obviously we want to get the win. I feel like we fought hard,” Portis said. “Even when adversity hit everybody stuck together. We did our thing tonight. You want to win the game but I felt like we did our job tonight. We just gave up a bad play at the end of the game.”