Bulls player preview: What can a healthy Denzel Valentine provide?

Mark Strotman
NBC Sports Chicago

NBC Sports Chicago will preview a different Bulls player every weekday leading up to the start of training camp in late September.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Ryan Arcidiacono | Antonio Blakeney | Coby White | Daniel Gafford | Wendell Carter Jr. | Luke Kornet | Cristiano Felicio | Tomas Satoransky | Chandler Hutchison | Otto Porter

How last year went

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Well, Valentine didn't play. Instead, he underwent ankle stabilization surgery that kept him on the sidelines the entire season. What was initially ruled a day-to-day injury wound up costing Valentine upwards of 8 months. It was an obvious setback to a player who would have logged minutes in a backcourt that allowed Antonio Blakeney 14.5 minutes per game.

The last time we saw Valentine healthy, he averaged a modest 10.2 points on 42% shooting and 38.6% from deep for a tanking Bulls team. He added 5.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists, solid counting numbers for the former first-round pick. He's expected to be ready for training camp.

Expectations for this year's role

Whatever he can give the Bulls. The front office addressed the point guard and power forward depth this summer but did very little on the wing. Perhaps it was because they couldn't improve every aspect of the roster, or perhaps they're expecting to get production from Valentine after he missed all of last season. With Chandler Hutchison nursing a hamstring injury, Valentine could have a path to early minutes behind Otto Porter at small forward. More realistic is Valentine seeing minutes at shooting guard, where he'll be taxed less defensively and can focus as a perimeter shooter. In that regard, he should fight with Ryan Arcidiacono and Shaq Harrison for minutes behind Zach LaVine. His expectations are tough to peg because we just don't know how healthy he is or how he'll respond to missing so much time. He hasn't played an NBA game since April 1, 2018.

Where he excels

Assuming he's healthy, Valentine is the Bulls' second best 3-point shooter behind Otto Porter. Consider that in his last 20 healthy games after the 2018 All-Star break, Valentine shot 43.0% on 5.0 3-point attempts, seventh best in the NBA among players who attempted that many per game. Included in that stretch were 3-point shooting nights in which he went 4-for-6, 5-for-7, 8-for-11, 4-for-7 and 4-for-7. He certainly had the green light on a Bulls team playing for Lottery balls and a chance at Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic or Marvin Bagley, but the numbers were nonetheless impressive. Valentine also shot 39.1% on above-the-break 3-pointers. Why is that important? The Bulls were 26th in FG% on those triples last season, and Valentine's mark would have ranked second behind Porter (Markkanen and LaVine were both 36% on above-the-break 3-pointers).

He's also got sneaky playmaking skills. The belief that Valentine could play point guard in the NBA was nixed quickly, but he's been an above-average passer on the wing. In 2017-18, Valentine averaged 3.2 assists on just 27.9 passes per game. Even if he can simply keep the ball moving on the second unit, he'll give the Bulls something they lacked a season ago off the bench. An offense can never have enough good passers, and Valentine is a good one on the wing.

Where he struggles

Valentine isn't going to provide much defensively. It wasn't his calling card at Michigan State and hasn't been his calling card in the NBA, especially not after ankle reconstruction surgery.

And maybe he'll continue getting that floater to go down, but Valentine isn't going to provide much inside the 3-point line. He'll turn 26 during the season's first month, so there's not much optimism he'll improve in either facet of the game. His value will come from beyond the arc, as both a shooter and passer.

Best case/worst case

It all comes down to health. Valentine missed 25 games his rookie season and all 82 last season. Ankle reconstruction is a major surgery and, while there's precedent of players coming back stronger, Valentine is the roster's biggest unknown. His best-case scenario is he's able to give the Bulls 70+ games as a second unit sharpshooter. He probably isn't going to give the Bulls much on the defensive end, but perhaps he'll play minutes with Shaq Harrison or Chandler Hutchison to help cover some of his deficiencies. Any playmaking on the wing would be a bonus, and it'd be a major positive if he can get anywhere close to the 3.2 assists he averaged on the tanking Bulls in 2018.

Worst case is pretty simple: Valentine, who wasn't athletic to begin with, is really hampered by the ankle. It'll be apparent early in the preseason and regular season what Valentine is going to provide. Sure, he'll be rusty, but you'll be able to see his limitations if he has any.

One key stat

Over the last three Bulls seasons, just four players have an individual Game Score, per Basketball Reference, of 31 or better. Jimmy Butler accomplished the feat on 10 different occasions. Lauri Markkanen accomplished it against the Celtics last year. Otto Porter did it against the Grizzlies a week into his Bulls career. The fourth Game Score of 31? Denzel Valentine, when he scored 34 points on 13 of 20 shooting, and added 7 rebounds and 6 assists in 39 minutes against the Cavs in March 2018. The performances are few and far between, but he's capable of really going off. He made 8 3-pointers in that game, which is still the most for a Bulls player since Nikola Mirotic had nine triples against the Knicks in March 2016.

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Bulls player preview: What can a healthy Denzel Valentine provide? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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