Almost two full seasons into his NBA career, it’s still difficult to say what Bulls swingman Denzel Valentine is.
Is he a shooter? Is he a playmaker? Can he be a starter?
Maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe Valentine is just a basketball player, and that has to be good enough for now.
What he was Saturday, though, was a force.
With Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen out with injuries, Valentine carried the Bulls on his shoulders, scoring a career-high 34 points, grabbing seven rebounds and handing out six assists in a 114-109 loss to the Cavaliers.
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He was particularly impressive in the third quarter, scoring 16 of the Bulls’ 29 points on 6-for-7 shooting, including 4-for-4 from three-point range.
‘‘Yeah, that was a lot of fun,’’ coach Fred Hoiberg said of Valentine’s breakout game. ‘‘We were running stuff for him every time down the floor. Teammates did a really good job of screening for him, and point guards did a really good job of calling the actions that got him involved for pretty much every play. Denzel either got a good-quality shot up or made the right play, a couple of good passes in the paint to our guys. Just really, really solid all the way around.
‘‘Especially [being short-handed], we needed someone to step up and be the go-to guy, and Denzel filled that in a big way. It was good to see him get it going late in the last game [against the Grizzlies] and then to carry that over to [Saturday]. He’s playing with a lot of confidence.’’
Then again, confidence never has been a problem for Valentine. Athleticism, shot selection and defense have been sore spots for him, but never confidence.
‘‘It just shows what I’m capable of,’’ Valentine said of his showing against the Cavs. ‘‘I believe in myself even when I’m out there playing bad or whatever. But I put the work in no matter what happens.
‘‘Over the course of this year, I’ve gotten smarter with learning how to take care of my body, resting, when to push myself on practice days and when to back off a little bit. So I’m just getting smarter. It’s a whole process that takes you to be a great player, and I’m just enjoying the ride.’’
Valentine was in the starting lineup for most of the first half of the season as the Bulls waited for LaVine to come back from his knee injury. When LaVine returned and Valentine started coming off the bench, he felt some frustration.
‘‘I believe I’m a starter in this league,’’ Valentine said. ‘‘I believe I can be an important piece of a team, of an NBA team. But whatever my role on the team is, what the organization wants me to do, I’ll do. But I believe I’m a starter and can contribute in major ways. I just have to keep working and getting better.
‘‘You just have to keep playing and keep having faith in yourself, and hopefully everything will work out in the end.’’
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