By Sam Smith
Perhaps by Valentine’s Day, Denzel will be back.
But for now, the Bulls first round draft pick goes to White Plains, N.Y. with the Windy City Bulls this week for three games in four nights with the Bulls’ D-league team.
“We wanted to give him some game action, some run,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Tuesday about Valentine before the team left for the two-week Western Conference trip. The Bulls open Wednesday in Oklahoma City while the Windy City Bulls will play the Long Island Nets Wednesday in Brooklyn. Then it’s on to White Plains, about 30 miles north of New York City, for a Friday-Saturday back to back against the Westchester Knicks.
Windy City returns home to the Sears Centre Feb. 7 to play Grand Rapids. That’s followed by home games against the Raptors 905 Feb. 9 and the Nets Feb. 11. The Bulls return home Feb. 14 to play the Toronto Raptors. Hoiberg didn’t specify the plans for Valentine for beyond these next three games with Windy City. Hoiberg said if there are any injuries with the Bulls that Valentine would join the team in the Western Conference.
It’s not unusual for rookies not in the rotation to spend a few weeks with a D-league team. Valentine hasn’t played in the last five Bulls games. Because of injuries and then being out of the rotation, he hasn’t played in 22 of the team’s games this season. Valentine played with the Windy City Bulls Saturday and had 24 points with eight three pointers in the 113-100 win over Erie.
“I thought he played a solid game the other night for Windy City, a good opportunity for him to get out there and play in game type action and get him back after a few games with that team and be back with us and reevaluate how things are going with our team and we’ll see where we go with our rotation,” said Hoiberg.
“He accepted it,” said Hoiberg. “He’s a guy who is always going to do what is asked of him. He’s a guy who is going to have a great future in this league and I think he’s excited about the opportunity to go out there and play a lot of minutes.”
Valentine will start in the upcoming three games with the ongoing changes to the Windy City roster, which is typical. Former U. of Wisconsin player Duje Dukan, a former Bulls ballboy, joins the team Wednesday. Windy City also has LSU guard Tim Quarterman from the Trailblazers on assignment. Chicagoans Will Bynum and Alfonzo McKinnie have been exceptional for the 10-15 Windy City team.
Bulls players Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio and Jerian Grant have played for Windy City this season. R.J. Hunter, who was with the Bulls, did as well and is now with the Long Island Nets. Valentine now gets a regular chance during what has been a frustrating, though somewhat understandable, rookie season.
Valentine was the summer league Bulls star for the team that won the title over the Timberwolves. He made a pair of clutch shots to send the final game into overtime and win it. The Michigan State four-year veteran was considered one of the most NBA ready players in the draft after winning college player of the year. He was selected 14th with the final lottery pick last June.
But he suffered a severe ankle sprain in the preseason opener and fell behind so many other young players competing for playing time. And then was mostly unlucky.
He played sparingly, only 10 games with double figure minutes through the end of December, mostly in blowout wins or losses. He failed to score in double digits. He was in 11 games playing fewer than 10 minutes and didn’t play in 13 other games through those first two months. Then he was having his best game against Charlotte Jan. 2 with nine points in 18 minutes and sprained his ankle again. It wasn’t as serious this time as he sat out three games.
He returned against Washington Jan. 10 to have his best game and showed the sort of confidence and talent the Bulls expected. With Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Nikola Mirotic all out, he led the Bulls to the near upset of the Wizards. He had 19 points and was five of 11 on threes, dancing after one in the fourth quarter that John Wall claimed motivated him to make the last two shots to win the game.
Then Valentine caught the flu that had been going around the team. He only played more than 10 minutes in one of the 10 games since as Jerian Grant moved in at starting point guard, where Valentine, theoretically, could have played given Butler and Wade do considerable ball handling for the starting group.
Valentine, 23, has been sanguine throughout. He said the injuries and illnesses were just bad luck and that all he can do is keep working. “It’s tough, but I am staying positive,” he said. He admits he’s been a little mystified, but it has been a fluid rotation all season among the young players. Hoiberg said, “He’ll get his chance again.”
The 6-6, 210 shooting guard is averaging 3.3 points and 1.6 rebounds in 11.9 minutes per game in the 27 games he’s played. He’s shown abilities as a three-point shooter and floor leader with good passing skills, which the Bulls need. But it’s been a mix and match situation all season among the likes of Grant, Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Bobby Portis and now Paul Zipser. So Valentine waits. Players want to play, and he’ll get the chance these next four days with Windy City and perhaps next week.
“He’ll play with his ball in his hands a lot whether he’s bringing the ball down and initiating the offense or coming off screens with a live dribble and play the role of playmaker,” said Hoiberg. “He’s got to take what the defense gives him. We’re not going out there and saying you have to shoot 14 threes every time you step on the floor. It’s making the right play and playing the right way and I’m confident that’s the idea.”