Ex-Spartan Valentine keeps even-keeled approach in NBA

K.C. Johnson
Chicago Tribune
"The Bulls picked me up to be a confident player and come through when the team needs me and be a winner," Denzel Valentine said. "That's what I preached during my draft interviews. I just keep winning on my mind."

Las Vegas — And now, for Denzel Valentine's next trick, he will be trying to guard Klay Thompson or DeMar DeRozan.

"I'm right back to it," Valentine said of his spot on the U.S. select team that scrimmages against Team USA this week in preparation for next month's Olympics. "It's a blessing to be invited. It's just giving me confidence that I can play with anyone. I know it's going to be a challenge. Those guys are the best in the world. But I'm excited for it."

That Valentine spent as much time looking forward as backward just minutes after hitting both a tying 3-pointer to force overtime and then a buzzer-beating game-winning jumper from 18 feet tells you something about his mindset. That the Bulls' first-round pick from the Michigan State Spartans sank the clutch shots after an 0-for-6 start that featured him not scoring until the fourth quarter of Monday's NBA Summer League championship tells you something about his poise.

Yes, Valentine has miles to go defensively. Sure, the pre-draft questions about his athleticism are valid.

But the first-round pick plays with almost a preternatural calm, rarely too high or low. And his big-shot capabilities, ballhandling skills and court vision scream rotation player, even as a rookie.

"From the day he walked into our facility, he hasn't blinked," said assistant coach Pete Myers, who headed the summer league team. "We knew this kid was confident. He's not afraid of big moments.

"I have this on the board in my office: 'Aggressive failure.' That's what he shows all the time. He's not afraid to fail and I love him for it."

Ex-Spartan Valentine hits game-winner for Bulls

Executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman long have valued multiyear experience in blue-chip programs and the ability to accept demanding coaching in their drafting profile. After four years under Tom Izzo, Valentine checks both those boxes.

Summer league or not, just watching Valentine for several sequences underscores his court presence and fundamentals. He can handle and pass adeptly with both hands. He understands spacing. He stays confident even in moments of duress.

"Just make the next one," Valentine said of his mindset. "I'm here for a reason. The Bulls picked me up to be a confident player and come through when the team needs me and be a winner. That's what I preached during my draft interviews. I just keep winning on my mind.

"I've made so many big shots and I've played in so many different type of games. I've had games like this where I've not scored all game and then hit big buckets. I've had games where I scored all the points and then missed game-winners. It's never over until it's over."

In fact, that's what his father, Carlton, told him Monday night during Valentine's slow start. That Carlton did so with merely a glance from his spot directly behind the Bulls' bench speaks to their bond created when Carlton coached Denzel to two state championships in high school.

"After that one I missed late in the fourth with a minute left, I looked at my dad and he was like, 'Shake it off,' " Denzel said of Carlton, who played at Michigan State in the 1980s. "My Dad always has told me to keep fighting. He showed the way with his work ethic and his talks."

After this week, Valentine said he planned to take a short break before returning to work at the Bulls' practice facility. Training camp, and another challenge, beckons in September.