Chicago Bulls shooting guard Denzel Valentine vaulted the NBA’s “rookie wall” in 2017, thanks to a top-notch strength and conditioning program and college-bred maturity.

Statistics don’t always tell the whole story of an NBA player’s rookie year. They certainly didn’t for the Bulls’ Denzel Valentine, who was selected by Chicago in the first round and was 14th pick overall in the 2016 Draft. The 6'6", 212-pound guard’s numbers for the
2016–17 season don’t really jump off the page: 5.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game, in an average of 17.1 minutes.

But we’re looking at the wrong numbers.

Valentine didn’t play in 13 of the first 34 games due to minor injuries and the simple fact that most teams ease their rookies into their first NBA season so as to not overwhelm them with too much, too soon. Furthermore, his playing time (minutes per game) — and therefore his production in points, rebounds and assists — increased every month until April, dropping off only because the playoffs were approaching and the Bulls rested their rotation players the last few games. By the end of the season, Valentine was practically playing starter’s minutes.

If the stat for finishing strong and playing your best ball during your team’s playoff push showed up in a box score or player profile, Valentine might have gotten a few votes for NBA Rookie of the Year, but he was not indignant. “It was overall a pretty good rookie year for me,” says Valentine, who at the time of this interview was in Las Vegas playing for the Bulls in the NBA’s Summer League. “I wasn’t playing much early in the season and I was hurt, as well. When things aren’t going your way, you’ve still got to be prepared and do things in a professional way. I think I did a good job staying the course, and I think I made the most of my opportunities when I got into the game.”

Scaling the “Wall”

In college basketball, teams play between 30 and 40 games per year, and each game lasts 40 minutes; in the NBA, the schedule jumps to 82 games per season, each lasting 48 minutes, and a player’s first season is commonly broken down into two phases: before the “rookie wall” and after it.

Most new players hit that wall around game 30 on the NBA schedule, the point at which their collegiate season would have ended. Up to this stage, most first-year players are still going strong physically and have that youthful bounce in their step. But after game 30, that youthful exuberance starts to wane as their bodies wear down, fatigue sets in and production drops.

To enumerate exactly how many players hit that stalling point is impossible; in fact, many NBA insiders believe the notion is overstated. What we do know, however, is that Valentine did not hit that wall. Case in point: Valentine’s 31st game of the season came on February 24 against Phoenix. In that game, he played a considerable 34 minutes and scored 15 points, his second-highest scoring output of the season.

Why was Valentine impervious to this hypothetical wall when so many others slam into it full force? It comes down to two factors: first, having played four years in college at Michigan State prior to the NBA (most elite players only spend a year or two in school); and second, his high-level strength-and-conditioning program administered by the Bulls staff.

“Denzel went through four years of collegiate strength and conditioning, so he didn’t come into the league like some 18-year-old who is completely raw physically,” Matt Johnson, the strength and conditioning coach for the Chicago Bulls. “He had good physical development at Michigan State; our job is to take it to the next level. We really pushed max strength work this past season to get him as strong as possible, especially with his limited minutes early in the season. And from there, we were able to progress into power work and even develop some linear and lateral speed as the season went on.”

Making significant strength gains during one’s rookie year is easier said than done, even though, as Valentine says, “You don’t have to wake up for classes in the morning, which is good. You can rest and get extra treatments that help you take care of your body and recover.” Still, recovery is a challenge in the NBA, partly because of a schedule that has teams playing three or four games per week, versus twice weekly in college.

“The unique challenge in the NBA is the schedule,” says Johnson. “Training is a stressor just like any other, so our job as strength and conditioning coaches, with 82 games in a season, deals a lot with managing that stress — knowing when to push a guy, and when to back off and focus on recovery. A lot of times we dictate that throughout the season by simply listening to and watching our athletes. How are they moving in their lifts? How is their body language? Are they beat up from last night’s game? We’ve got to know when to push them and when to back off based off those observations and conversations [with the players].”

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Muscle Maturity

Valentine isn’t one to peak early, and at Michigan State, he saved his best for last, playing in Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo’s system for three years before breaking out and winning the Associated Press College Basketball Player of the Year award his senior year. Izzo is known for developing athletes for long-term success, and “making his players into better men on and off the court,” says Valentine himself. Johnson noticed this maturity right away from the rookie.

“Denzel’s mental maturity level was outstanding from day one,” says Johnson. “He came in with a great attitude, accepts coaching really well and knows how to work. He was part of a prestigious winning program at Michigan State, and he definitely came in with those high character attributes.”

Valentine will need to maintain that attitude and work ethic to have a successful career; he may be mature for a second-year player, but going forward he’ll be playing against the most athletic basketball players in the world. “NBA players are definitely bigger, stronger and faster than what I was used to in college,” says Valentine. “There are some strong guys in the league. And they’re wiser, too.”

Wisdom will come with time for Valentine, but he already possesses the skills and intangibles needed to be a very good NBA player, perhaps even an All-Star someday: He’s an excellent outside shooter, a good passer, has great court vision and rebounds well for his size. As he continues to hone those talents, all that remains is maximizing the “bigger, stronger, faster” part.

“We’ve had a full year to work with Denzel, and we’ve been able to establish a good training base,” says Johnson. “Now he’s really getting into the fun part of training. He’s learning to attack the Olympic lifts for greater force development. We’re doing linear speed work to get him faster. We’re doing various med-ball throws, various plyometrics. We need to get him more powerful, more explosive, and faster. And he’s laid a really good strength foundation to get there.”

Whereas Johnson’s goals for the second-year player are weight room-based, Valentine’s bottom line is more time on the court, filling the box score night after night with points, assists and rebounds, and hitting big shots to win ballgames. His first step in that direction heading into year No. 2: cracking the Bulls’ starting lineup.

“I’m trying to become a starter and make a big-time jump this year,” says Valentine. “I want to become one of the main players and go-to guys on the team. I think I have a big opportunity to do just that.”

Dressed for Success

When you look good, you feel good. And when you feel good, you play well. At least that’s the sentiment of many professional athletes, the Bulls’ Denzel Valentine included. That’s why he’s happy to be the face of the Macy’s Bar III line — an affordable collection of men’s suits, dress shirts, pants, ties, shoes and other accessories. With Bar III, any guy can look the part of the successful career man, whether he’s already arrived or is still working his way up.

“Macy’s has been great for me with the Bar III line,” says Valentine of his endorsement deal. “They handle my suits and anytime I dress up — shirts, ties, pants, all that — for appearances or banquets. They’ve done a good job of making sure I look good. And that’s important to me, especially nowadays in an age of social media, when you’re constantly in the public eye. I think it’s important to look professional off the court by wearing nice clothes. And the great thing is, those nice clothes don’t have to cost a fortune.”

VALENTINE’S (TRAINING) DAY

The Chicago Bulls strength and conditioning staff regularly employ circuit-style training with players during lifting sessions to target multiple areas of development, namely strength, power and mobility. 

According to Matt Johnson, the strength and conditioning coach for the Bulls, one format in particular he uses with Denzel Valentine and his teammates is a “triplet” (supersetting three different exercises). Here are two triplets — one for lower body and one for upper body — Johnson offered up for anyone looking to improve performance in basketball or any other comparable high-impact activity.   

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