EAST LANSING, Mich. — After a 10 p.m. ET tip-off in California and a red-eye charter flight across three time zones that hit the ground in East Lansing at roughly 6:30 a.m., Denzel Valentine managed about four hours of sleep. He woke to finish a couple of online homework assignments, followed that with a trip to the weight room for some light upper body and leg work to get his muscles firing again, and finally completed his to-do list with a walkthrough and a film session. Now, in a quiet and empty Breslin Center, the nation’s busiest basketball player looked ready to call it a day.
“I’m all right,” Valentine said, leaning back in a courtside chair about 20 hours after a 17-point, six-rebound, five-assist effort in a win over Providence at the Wooden Legacy event. “Pretty tired, but it is what it is.”
Still, how he felt on the last day of November, just two weeks after his 22nd birthday, wasn’t a concern. Michigan State players are far more interested in how their national player of the year candidate will feel in February and March, when the effects of his workload might begin to show up on the court. As the unbeaten and top-ranked Spartans prepare to close their nonconference schedule, Valentine is doing everything, and doing it well: The 6'5", 220-pound senior is the team’s emotional leader while averaging 18.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.2 assists, all team highs, and ranking in the top four nationally in offensive and defensive win shares.
Meanwhile, the Spartans have spent the early part of the season calculating how they can help. Valentine can take care of it all, but they need to take care of him, too. “He’s carrying a huge load right now, leading the team vocally, having all the media attention, scoring, assists, all that stuff,” senior forward Matt Costello said. “It’s great for him. It’s going to make him an NBA top 10 pick. But it’s tough. Other guys are trying to step up and do little things.”
The primary mission: Finding reliable offensive threats elsewhere.
Michigan State ranks eighth nationally in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, so this is no crisis. Still, Valentine’s 13.5 shots per game are significantly more the player who hoists it at the next highest rate, guard Bryn Forbes (8.3), who is also the only other double-digit scorer on the roster (12.7 points per game). Michigan State had three players average 10-plus points last season: Travis Trice (who averaged 15.3 points on 12.6 shots per game), Valentine (14.5 and 11.4) and Branden Dawson (11.9 and 9.7). They shared the offensive burden to create a little more equitably than this year’s club does, at least so far.
Since the Spartans do their best work in the half-court—they rank in the 41st percentile nationally with 1.011 points per transition possession, per Synergy Sports data—creative and effective shot-making done by someone other than Valentine would be a boon. No one will argue with Forbes’s efficiency so far: he’s averaging a team-best 1.252 points per possession, putting him in the 98th percentile nationally. Yet he has exactly zero official isolation possessions this season. He can be that help Valentine needs, but is he wired to create more on his own?
Eron Harris, a 6'3" junior guard who transferred from West Virginia, is presumably built for that task. Harris is averaging 7.1 points, about 10 less than his rate as a sophomore for the Mountaineers (17.2) in 2013–14, but he may be finding a rhythm. Harris has reached double figures three times in the Spartans’ past five games. “I’m needed to score,” Harris said. “Denzel, he’s not going to have a perfect game every game. So I have to be there to back him up. Even when he does, I have to be there to add on to whatever it is he’s doing.”
Harris can be that third perimeter threat, but he first must be more efficient. In his first year in East Lansing he’s scoring just 0.876 points per possession, in the 51st percentile nationally. He may never be a deadly shooter—he’s made only 40.7% of his field goal attempts this year after making 43.8% from the floor as a sophomore in Morgantown—but he can offset that by working off the bounce. “My shot isn’t falling like I want it to right now,” Harris said. “My driving ability, my quickness, my ability to draw fouls, that’s going to be my way of scoring this year. My jumper is only going to add to it.”
It’s a working theory in East Lansing that it will suffice if the other Spartans simply seem to be offensive threats. Distract a defense from flowing to Valentine, and the offense will open up. “You can do it multiple ways,” Costello said. “Setting a screen where you’re crashing bodies—people are going to pay attention to you. Screaming, calling for the ball—‘Gimme the ball, gimme the ball’—when you know the ball is not coming to you, it’s going to the other side. Being aggressive, driving in there and kicking for a wide-open shot.”
This is the general plan for alleviating Valentine’s basketball-specific responsibilities. Lightening his leadership burden is just as urgent a task.
Costello, the 6'9" senior, already is a prominent voice. Point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn is the next most logical candidate to produce rallying cries. He received an internal award as the team’s most inspirational player after his freshman season, and he was named a captain for the 2015–16 campaign—the first sophomore in that role since Draymond Green in 2009–10. At the team’s media day in early October, Spartans coach Tom Izzo told reporters that Nairn’s approach and work rate were “infectious.”
“I have to be more of a voice for [Valentine], in practice and in the games, because he has so many different things on his plate,” Nairn said. “He has to rebound, he has to lead, he has to defend, he has to score, he has to sometimes guard the best player. Sometimes he may not want to say something because he’s too tired. I just try to help him out in any way possible, understanding that he has so much to do for us. Our job is to take as much pressure off him as we can.”
For all of the Spartans’ concerns about their star, Valentine seems less than worried about himself. He already has settled into a routine to preserve his body—and his sanity—for the long slog to March. He fell ill for about two weeks last winter and developed a throat ulcer, but Valentine deemed that a “fluke,” and he says he is now eating right and has received his flu shot. Not willing to take any chances this season with his health, he makes a daily visit to the weight room to recharge his muscles. He does balance work. He does extra stretching. He takes ibuprofen to relax and recover. And, as difficult as it is to achieve, he aims for seven or eight hours of sleep every night. “All the good stuff you need to have your body feeling right,” Valentine said.
As for the mental strain, he tries to shelve basketball as soon as the gym door shuts behind him.
“When I’m here, I’m focused,” Valentine said. “And then when I’m away, I’m away. I don’t want to be thinking about it all the time. That would make it worse.”
It helps that Valentine doesn’t see things as everyone else does. After the first of his two triple-doubles this season—a 29-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist masterpiece in a 79–73 win over then No. 4 Kansas in the Champions Classic on Nov. 17—he noted that he’s concerned primarily with his rebounds and assists every night, and not about filling the nets himself. And even as he clearly does as much for his team as any player in the country, he does not view his production as compensating for the shortcomings of his teammates.
“I have a complete team,” Valentine said. “I don’t bring the mindset to the court that I have to do everything to succeed. I kind of let the game come to me. Like in the Boston College game, I didn’t have points until seven minutes left (in the first half), and I ended up with whatever I ended up with (29). Then Boise State, it was the same way, it was slow. I didn’t come out trying to do too much and shooting a lot of shots. Things came to me. I’m going to keep that mindset. I have a great team and a great coach that’s going to put me in the positions to succeed. I try not to have a mindset that I have to do everything.”
Costello, Valentine’s longtime teammate, notes that some people are just built for heavy-duty work, even name-checking the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry as he glanced at the Spartans’ own lodestar guard at the other end of the floor. “That knucklehead can do it, too,” Costello said of Valentine.
At the moment, there is no sign that the knucklehead’s production in March won’t match his production in the months before it. There’s a difference between tired and exhausted, and Denzel Valentine isn’t anywhere near the latter, and maybe never will be. But the Spartans want to keep it that way by helping out as much as possible, just in case, because a championship run may depend on it.