By virtue of two straight middling regular seasons, the Bulls’ 2016 summer league championship —complete with "Victory in Vegas" T-shirts — became a punch line in some circles.
"The people who are saying that have never won summer league," Denzel Valentine said last summer, shortly after hitting both a tying 3-pointer to force overtime and then a buzzer-beating game-winning jumper from 18 feet to down the Timberwolves.
Though all performances and observations come with the defacto qualifier "it’s only summer league . . .," it’s still competition. And it’s not overstating matters to say this summer is more important than most for the Bulls, who began a full rebuild centered on largely unproven players when they traded Jimmy Butler to the aforementioned Timberwolves last month.
Valentine is one of five players with plenty to prove on this summer’s roster that opens play Saturday in Las Vegas against the Mavericks. And not merely because he had the left ankle he severely sprained twice last season scoped in mid-May.
Much like last summer, Valentine must show he can play-make off the dribble, a role the Bulls envision him in this coming season. In the stretches he did land in the rotation last season, Valentine basically served as a stationary spot-up 3-point shooter.
Valentine sank five 3-pointers in a game twice, at the Wizards in January and versus the Suns in February. But he came out of his season-ending player exit meeting — before the Butler trade — knowing his role must evolve.
"Go over and steal the ball from Jimmy? Nah," Valentine said in late April, laughing. "I think in the future what I do best is playmaking and getting people involved. And then obviously I can do other things as far as shooting and scoring ability. It was sort of confusing with me just standing over in the corner sometimes just shooting."
Beyond Valentine, these are big summers for Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne, Lauri Markkanen and, to a lesser extent, Paul Zipser.
The Bulls know they have a serviceable rotation player in Zipser, last year’s second-round pick. He’s physical enough to guard some power forwards, attentive enough to guard some small forwards and hits the open 3-pointer.
But Markkanen will be making his NBA debut. And while he and the Bulls are confident his shooting will translate to the next level, he must show progress in defense and rebounding to earn trust from the coaching staff.
"Lauri’s ability to stretch the floor and play both frontline positions is where this league is going," coach Fred Hoiberg said last month. "With his ability to shoot, play-make and put the ball on the ground, he’s a sneaky athlete."
Dunn missed most of last season’s summer league with the Timberwolves after suffering a concussion and then endured an underwhelming rookie season. But the Timberwolves’ coaching staff remained extremely upbeat about his future despite well documented shooting woes.
"Kris has an ability to impact the ball defensively," Hoiberg said. "He has good instincts. He’s tough. He’s also a playmaker who can push the ball in the open court."
And then there’s Payne, who has been working out at the Advocate Center regularly after executive vice president John Paxson publicly declared his need to get in better shape. Payne, who has broken the same bone in his right foot twice, needs to prove he can be a regular rotation player after the Bulls dubbed him the centerpiece of the Taj Gibson-Doug McDermott trade to the Thunder.
Shortly after the trade, Payne often looked overmatched and shot-happy before Hoiberg pulled him from the rotation.
Payne’s progress, like those from the other four projected rotation players, is more important than defending a summer league title.