During his time in Chicago for the NBA draft combine last month, Denzel Valentine made a smart career choice. The Michigan State alum discussed the “versatility” of his game and made reference to his close friend Draymond Green, the Spartan alum who has turned himself into one of the most valuable players in the NBA since being selected in the second round of the 2012 draft.
“I thank him every day,” Valentine said at the time, in reference to the path Green has paved for players like him coming into the league.
The Bulls could have taken Green in that 2012 draft but opted for Marquis Teague instead. (Teague never played any significant minutes for the Bulls and was relegated to the D-League in his second year.) They weren’t going to make the same mistake twice with a player they were obviously high on. With Valentine in the fold after being selected with the 14th pick in Thursday’s draft, the question in the short term becomes where exactly does Valentine fit in Fred Hoiberg’s offense?
“He’s going to have a role,” Bulls GM Gar Forman said on ESPN 1000’s post-draft show on Thursday night. “He’s a guy who makes his teammates better because of his ability to pass and his understanding of the game. I think he’s a guy who can play the system Fred wants to play with some pace. So where he plays, exactly where he fits, some of that will be worked out. But we’re pretty confident he is going to fit.”
A quick look at the Bulls’ in-transition roster after Wednesday’s deal to send Derrick Rose to New York leaves open a good chance that Valentine, who was named the AP’s Player of the Year in March, could play quickly as the Bulls continue rebuilding.
Aside from All-Star Jimmy Butler, the Bulls’ roster is devoid of much consistent talent. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol are likely gone in free agency. Robin Lopez, whom the Bulls acquired from the Knicks in the Rose deal, figures to be the team’s starting center and should be able to produce at a nice level. Respected veterans Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy could be moved in the coming weeks as the Bulls continue restructuring. Jose Calderon, another player acquired from the Knicks, doesn’t figure into the Bulls’ long-term plans at all.
That leaves a group of question marks on Hoiberg’s bench.
Bobby Portis showed flashes of promise in his rookie season; same goes for Jerian Grant, the most intriguing import from the Knicks trade. But neither player showed the consistency that rotational players need in the league. Nikola Mirotic disappointed in his second season after a nice rookie campaign. Doug McDermott improved a bit from an empty rookie year, but also hasn’t shown enough to warrant confidence in his long-term prognosis. Tony Snell played poorly throughout the year and may not be around much longer. Cris Felicio finished the year with a few solid games, but remains a project with a long way to go.
The Bulls also lean toward older prospects with a great college pedigree, but Valentine’s selection makes even more sense when factoring in his ability to hit the ground running. At 23, he is much older than your typical rookie. Forman hyped up his selection’s intangibles after the draft, also noting how important it was that Valentine shot 44.7 percent from beyond the arc during his senior season.
“I think in today’s game, you’re seeing more teams go small and play the small ball with more pace; shooting’s at a premium,” Forman said. “And you even look at the 3-point numbers that just continue to rise, and it’s been something we’ve been conscious of the last couple years. It’s the reason why we’ve brought in guys like Doug and Niko. You’ve got to have the ability to space the floor and give your offense a chance to work … [it’s] important that we got another guy that can knock down perimeter shots.”
After bringing Valentine into the fold, the Bulls now have to find more players who have the ability to shoot the deep ball with regularity. With the likely departures of Noah and Gasol, the Bulls are going to have more than $20 million of cap space to spend heading into free agency. Forman could go in a variety of directions — they need help at almost every position — but the broader issue for the embattled Bulls’ GM is on how to sell the sales pitch to prospective free agents with a team in transition.
“Great city, great organization,” Forman said when asked about his pitch. “A really good, young core of players. I think there’s a lot to sell here. We like the young core of players we have. It starts with Jimmy, who I said is a veteran, but is still 26 years old. The Bobby Portis’ and Felicio’s and McDermott’s and Niko. Now we add a couple more young guys today, Jerian Grant, who we’re high on. So you can kind of see the direction that we’re headed.”
Forman and the Bulls took a step toward a new direction in dealing Rose and drafting Valentine in consecutive days, but now they must sell that vision in the middle of a landscape in which teams all over the league have huge money to throw at free agents. That will not be an easy task given how far the Bulls are from realistically contending for a championship in the near future.