CHICAGO — After the win, after the 29 points and 12 rebounds and 12 assists, after the beaming athletic director held up a smartphone to note the only other player to ever record a triple-double against Kansas, after a call from that guy, who goes by Magic and who dropped his own triple-double on the Jayhawks some 36 years ago ... after all that, Denzel Valentine had a request.
“Can I sit down?” he asked from Michigan State’s bustling United Center locker room, a space buzzing from a 79–73 comeback victory over Kansas at the Champions Classic. To no one’s surprise, Valentine happened to be standing in the middle of everything. Of course he could take a load off, at last.
It is only the middle of November, and we may not see a better individual performance this season than the one compiled by the Spartans’ 6'5", 220-pound senior. It was a night that authoritatively announced his candidacy for national player of the year honors, fledgling as that race is. And still it might be a good thing for Michigan State if we don’t come across such a spectacle again.
The Spartans should be better off in the long term if Valentine is tasked with doing a lot, but rarely too much. And Tuesday was very nearly an example of too much of a good thing. Valentine was at times overtaxed by his responsibilities against Kansas, from initiating the offense to finishing late-clock. He overcame it for one evening, in a crackling performance no one soon will forget.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to win,” Valentine said, before he retreated to the locker room chair and asked for a protein. “I don’t care what it is. If they want me to bring it up, I’ll bring it up. If you want me off the ball, I’m off the ball. I’ll check the best player on the team. I’ll do this. I’ll do that.”
But that’s too many plates for one player to spin during a season, even with a veteran who is as meticulous about preparation and diet as Valentine. The senior’s usage rate is 29.9% through three games, which is not in and of itself a worrisome figure. (Extrapolated across a season, it wouldn’t have ranked in the top 20 nationally a year ago.) More eye-popping is Valentine’s assist rate of 63.9%; he’s setting up nearly two-thirds of his teammates’ buckets when he’s on the floor.
That Michigan State would heavily involve its best, most seasoned player is simply a matter of good sense at this point. But the Spartans will be better off when guards like Tum Tum Nairn or Eron Harris earn enough trust or establish enough comfort to unburden their senior star by creating consistently for others. Thus Valentine can conserve his energy for decisive late-game moments. Indeed, Tuesday’s effort was made more impressive by how worn thin he was during it. “I know he was gassed,” Spartans guard Bryn Forbes said. “He was looking over at the bench, when I was sitting one time, and he just pointed at coach, ‘I’m exhausted, I’m exhausted.’ But he fought through it and finished out. That was big time. That’s what he does. Hopefully he doesn’t always have to.”
You’d figure Harris, who averaged 17.2 points per game at West Virginia two seasons ago, will find a niche he hasn’t discovered yet, averaging just three points and 13.5 minutes in two outings. It will be a relief if he can find buckets on his own with regularity. The development of Nairn may be even more consequential. The 5’10” sophomore and former top-100 recruit played in 39 games a year ago but logged just 15 minutes against Kansas, missing four of five shots from the floor. His usage rate of 16.3% through two games is low for a point guard. In Michigan State’s quest for a title, Nairn needs to be reliable.
Because there is a thin line between relying and over-relying on a star.
“It’s going to be game to game,” Spartans center Matt Costello said. “If he’s getting exhausted doing too much, somebody has to step up and take over. [Freshman] Matt McQuaid came in and hit some huge shots [against Kansas] to cover up for us, and I think that took the pressure off [Valentine] a little bit. As guys grow, as the freshman mature, as Tum gets a little more confident in his shot, it’s going to get better and better.”
It’s important to note that Valentine required 23 shots to get his 29 points, which isn’t the peak efficiency he or Michigan State is after. It suggests he can get better with help, too, even if he doesn’t produce lines that elicit calls from former Spartans great Magic Johnson, as his effort against Kansas did. Valentine flirted with a triple-double with a 13-point, nine-assist, eight-rebound effort against Florida Atlantic in the season opener. (“I was so mad I didn’t get it done,” Valentine said. “I was being lazy at the beginning of the game and didn’t get a couple rebounds.”) And he posted multiple triple-doubles throughout high school. But 29-12-12 is something different. “I never had 29, 12 and 12 ever in my life,” Valentine said.
To escape a game against a top-notch opponent with a signature win, Michigan State needed every bit of it. But it can’t rely on a reprise. The season will be defined less by Valentine ascending into the national elite than by everyone else coming along behind him.
“Coach [Tom Izzo] says I need to demand a little more, and I think I need to, a little bit,” Valentine said. “That’s what all the great leaders do. I’m going to get better. Our team is going to get better. I’m not even tripping right now.”
He was perhaps more concerned with getting in touch with Draymond Green, the current Golden State Warriors standout and former Michigan State star who reached out and bludgeoned the Spartans on Sunday in a group tweet. Green told Costello that he’d freeze up against Kansas. He mocked Javon Bess’s ability to guard Jayhawks forward Perry Ellis. Green was trying to motivate the players at his alma mater, and Valentine had to concede that it worked. But now it was the senior forward’s turn to return the texts and return the trash talk after a job well done.
It was one more thing to do Tuesday, but Denzel Valentine was happy to take care of everything.