Happy (Denzel) Valentine’s Day: Why there’s a lot to love about the 2nd-year guard

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With the likes of the Celtics, Bucks and Timberwolves, among others, both dominating the present and gearing up for the future, the Bulls are often ousted from the conversation of the NBA’s most promising young teams. But this Valentine’s Day, it’s time to discuss why there’s a lot to love about Denzel Valentine and company.

We begin this conversation with Mr. Valentine himself, a former AP Player of the Year at Michigan State, selected with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, who dared take on the pressure of donning the same number as Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

Valentine generated a fair share of hype the summer after being drafted with a Jordan-esque performance in the Las Vegas Summer League, hitting a game-tying 3-pointer in regulation and game-winning shot in overtime to claim the 2016 Summer League Championship.

When it came to games that actually mattered, however, Valentine looked more like the version of His Airness that decided to give baseball a shot — read: not good.

A log jam at the guard position filled by Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo left Valentine with a limited serving of minutes and plenty of DNPs.

For shooters like Valentine, inconsistent playing time spells doom because of the need to establish a rhythm. While he did shoot a promising 35.1 percent from deep, he only connected on an ugly 36.3 percent of his 2-pointers.

With Butler, Wade and Rondo no longer with Chicago this season, Valentine has been thrust into a much bigger role, seeing a jump from playing 17.1 minutes per game to 27.8 minutes per game this season.

Valentine is not a full-time starter for the Bulls, but head coach Fred Hoiberg has given the former Spartan the starting nod plenty of times this season, as opposed to none last season.

This uptick in minutes has, as expected, led to an increase in Valentine’s production, especially with the Bulls running Hoiberg’s run-and-gun offense.

Chicago loves to let it fly from beyond the arc, taking the eighth-most 3-pointers per game this season, and Valentine has been right in the middle of that 3-point brigade.

He’s not just attempting more threes from last season — 3.6 per game last season as opposed to 4.8 this season — but he’s knocking them down at a clip of 37.5 percent.

Valentine hasn’t reduced himself to being a mere catch-and-shoot type either. While he does knock down 3-pointers off the catch at a solid rate, he has shot better, both this season and last season, off the pull-up at a clip of 39.2 percent.

On this play, Valentine shows no hesitation even with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. Robin Lopez’s screen gives Valentine the space to put up the shot, and with his quick release, Valentine has no problem getting a good look.

Valentine hasn’t just improved upon his ability to knock down shots from outside the arc, but inside the arc as well, knocking down 45.5 percent of his 2-pointers. Whether it be at the rim or from midrange, Valentine has been making the strides necessary to become a viable starting two-guard for Chitown.

The true beauty in Valentine doesn’t just lie in his ability to score the basketball. At 6’6”, Valentine uses his height to inhale rebounds; he’s currently averaging 5.4 per contest this season and has recorded four double-doubles this season by virtue of points and rebounds.

But the trait that will especially give Valentine some staying power in this league is his ability as a playmaker — a flashy one at that.

In his Player of the Year campaign as a senior with Michigan State, Valentine averaged 9.4 assists per 40 minutes, and his ability to dish out dimes has translated to the NBA.

Valentine’s usage rate, of course, hasn’t been the same as that of his time at Michigan State, but he’s set up his teammates when given the opportunity, averaging 4.0 assists per 36 minutes while maintaining a relatively low turnover rate.

As a playmaker, Valentine embodies some of the same swagger as fellow Michigan State alumnus Magic Johnson, not just putting his teammates in a position to get the bucket, but keeping defenses guessing and looking fly as hell doing it.

The most remarkable trait of Valentine and the Bulls lies in their youth. Valentine, 24, is relatively old for a second-year player, but he and the rest of the Bulls’ core are all 25 and under.

In addition to their current core, they’ll most likely have a top-10 pick this upcoming summer.

Should the Bulls draft a big man — Mock drafts project the likes of Jaren Jackson Jr., Mohamed Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. falling to Chicago — they could hypothetically roll with a starting unit of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Valentine, Lauri Markkanen and Jackson Jr./Bamba/Carter Jr.

Not only would a squad like that have any NBA futurist foaming at the mouth, but it would be equipped perfectly for the modern game. Jackson Jr. and Carter Jr. specifically, the former playing at Michigan State, are borderline 7-footers who both shoot at least 44 percent from three.

Of those who have actually played in the NBA in that theoretical Dunn/LaVine/Valentine/Markkanen starting lineup, every player can hit from deep. The worst of the bunch is Dunn with a career mark of 30.9 percent in 118 career games, but he’s improved from his time in Minnesota.

There’s a lot to love about Valentine and company this Valentine’s Day. Don’t be surprised to see them making waves in the Eastern Conference in the next couple of seasons.

Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510