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.”