Denzel Valentine looked relaxed as he smiled and leaned back in his chair in the lounge of the main office at Macy’s Merchandising Group in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday, where he awaited a photo and video session with Bar III, the clothing company providing his draft day suit. His attire—a blue blazer, white shirt and white tie with uneven black spots—is only a preview of what’s to come on draft night Thursday, he says.
“They hooked me up, it looks good,” Valentine said. “Excited to wear it.”
A year ago, his draft status was uncertain. Following a stellar senior season, the former Spartan is now expected to be picked in the 16–22 range, according to recent mocks, becoming Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s 11th senior drafted by an NBA team in 20 years.
Last season Valentine averaged 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists, numbers that haven't been achieved since the assist became an official stat category in 1983–84. He was named player of the year by a number of media organizations—USA Today, NBC Sports, Associated Press and Sports Illustrated, to name a few—and cemented his status as a proverbial “winner,” a title given to players who have displayed the ability to succeed on more than one level.
Valentine called on a player he's often been compared to, former Michigan State star and current Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, on Tuesday morning to talk about the draft. Valentine avoided talking about Game 7 (“That’s kind of a gray area and you don’t want to cross that line,” he said with a laugh), but Green did have a piece of advice.
“He told me stay true to myself, keep being who I am, don’t change and just keep working hard and you’ll be successful,” Valentine said.
It may be a simple message, but that’s what has enabled Green, who was labeled a tweener, questionable defender and role-player-at-best entering the 2012 draft, to become an invaluable player. Green, who was drafted 35th overall, is the ultimate jack-of-all-trades for Golden State, a rare player who can lead a fast break, bang with the opposing center, and knock down key three-pointers within the same game.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Green’s impact is Valentine, who shares many of Green’s strongest qualities. Valentine played alongside another ballhandler in Lourawls Nairn during the first two months of the season and spaced the court with his three-point shooting (44.4% on 7.5 attempts per game last season). When Nairn went down in January with a foot injury, Valentine took over ball-handling responsibilities for the rest of the season and maintained a 2.84-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, one of the highest in the nation among Power 5 players. He was also the seventh-best rebounder in the Big Ten, despite standing just 6’5”.
It’s normal for players to see significant improvement from their freshmen to senior seasons, but the strides Valentine made stand out, according to MSU assistant coach Dane Fife. Valentine raised his scoring, assist rate, rebounding and shooting percentage last season, while playing roughly the same amount of minutes he received his junior year (33 per game).
“A lot of the improvement aspect is certainly on the program and the program’s staff and culture,” Fife said. “But gotta give some major credit to Denzel and his drive to become an NBA player, his drive to become a champion.
"He’s unbelievably driven to become a great player, a great teammate. A guy that wants to make a career with playing the game of basketball. So I give most of the credit to Denzel’s desire to improve and become a great basketball player.”
Valentine can play four positions in the NBA, according to Fife. Perhaps the biggest similarity between Valentine and Green, Fife said, is their intelligence.
“The one measurement you can’t quantify is the ability to win games, the ability to do things to help teams win,” Fife said. “That was something we sold hard on Draymond, and some teams didn’t figure that out. They’re paying for it now.”
In the age of one-and-done players, Izzo has remained a stickler for developing four-year players. It was seniors Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson who helped lead Michigan State to its first championship in 21 years in 2000, and it will likely be seniors who lead the Spartans back—if Izzo manages to reach the championship game again. Though Valentine couldn’t deliver on his promise to bring the Spartans a championship this year, he says the lessons he learned playing at Michigan State are invaluable.
“Coach really teaches us how to play the right way, how to treat people on the court, off the court, it’s an all-around atmosphere at Michigan State that coach Izzo and the whole coaching staff teaches us how to play the game and bring us into a man,” Valentine said. “By year four, we’re developed, ready to go into the NBA, handle the lifestyle, we’re so much better on the court, we’ve been in the gym grinding, handling a lot of things. I just think it’s something Izzo and the coaching staff brings onto us.”
Like Green, Valentine is facing his share of questions entering Thursday. A major concern is if he will become an impact defender in the NBA. Green has emerged as one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA, but it’s less likely that Valentine will be able to effectively guard big men. As a result, he will be tested on the perimeter far more often, and scouts wonder if he has the foot speed and lateral quickness to keep up with better NBA athletes.
There is also last week’s report, from Basketball Insiders, indicating Valentine may have a knee issue that could scare off teams.
“How good of an athlete is he, and how much better will he get? And then how are his knees?” an anonymous NBA scout told SI’s Seth Davis. “I don't think he has a really high ceiling but he's smart, he can play pick and roll and he can shoot the hell out of the basketball. One-on-one defense is going to be a struggle at times for him.”
Valentine, who missed four games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last December, downplayed the knee concern at the NBA Draft Media Day on Wednesday. He said he hasn’t had any additional issues since the surgery.
“I’m healthy right now, I only missed four games in college,” he said. “It’s really a surprise, it’s really funny to me because I’m healthy now, it’s only going to get better going forward because I’m going to get time to focus on me.”
A case can be made that Valentine should be a near-lottery lock like former Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield, who’s considered the best pure shooter in the draft. The two players were neck-and-neck for the Wooden Award last season, which Hield eventually took home. Though Hield was a better scorer, averaging 25 points per game on 50% shooting from the field and 46% from behind the arc, Valentine was more well-rounded overall. Hield struggled to set up his teammates, averaging two assists and three turnovers per game, and projects more as a pure wing in the NBA.
“Knowing Valentine, the way he scores the ball and the way he passes the ball, he’s great at what he does and that’s what makes him special,” Hield said. “He can play point guard, he can play the two guard, and he can play small forward.”
Valentine said Hield deserves his draft projection, pointing to his role in Oklahoma’s Final Four run. Though Valentine said teams haven’t knocked him for Michigan State’s first round exit at the hands of MTSU, he thinks his college accomplishments, which include a Final Four run during his junior season, are being overlooked.
“They’re totally being disrespected,” Valentine said. “I accomplished a lot in college. Only thing I haven’t pretty much done is won a national championship. There are other guys who accomplished a lot in college. But I definitely think what I accomplished is undervalued. But it is what it is, everyone has their own opinion, like I said, and everyone has to play at the next level.”
Valentine, once again, finds himself in a position where he has to prove himself. But that’s been the norm for him. He didn’t garner any significant draft buzz until his senior season. He wasn’t always sure his NBA draft day would come. Now that it’s around the corner, he understands the road ahead will be paved with more hard work.
“In today’s era it’s one-and-done’s, two-and-done’s,” he said. “When you’re a senior, you’re almost out of luck it seems like in today’s society. I just stayed true to the game, kept working and hoped everything worked out.”