Denzel Valentine Contributing More than Intangibles for Michigan State

Posted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on December 12th, 2014

After a month of watching non-conference games and nodding our heads at the sloppiness of the action, it is time to evaluate whether certain players will have a significant impact through the remainder of the season. We knew that Michigan State would need to find a leader on the offensive end, but after the departures of Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling, there were no clear candidates for that role. And while Branden Dawson is a monster on the glass, his jumpers are still cringe-worthy. Travis Trice, on the other hand, has a nice jumper but has trouble create space off the dribble to create his own shot. Denzel Valentine’s name, though, was mostly buried within all the preseason analysis because it was tough to view him as anything more than a glue guy. There was no doubt that he would play a key role for the Spartans this season, but his impact was supposed to be felt with the intangibles — things like hustle, grit and defense. But after averaging 14.6 PPG, 5.6 RPG and 4.0 APG through Michigan State’s first 10 games, Valentine has shown that he’s capable of more than being just a nice defender and occasional spot-up shooter. Rather, he is the best scoring option Tom Izzo has, and his burgeoning offensive game could turn the Spartans into a legitimate contender to win the conference.

It is more than clear that Michigan State's main scoring option is Denzel Valentine. (Eric Gay, AP)

It is more than clear that Michigan State’s main scoring option is Denzel Valentine. (Eric Gay, AP)

While it might be surprising that the junior has been more offensively assertive this season, there were signs over his first two years that he always had the ability to step up. Every Spartan fan will recall Appling’s more than occasional disappearing act during key games, and when he folded, Valentine was the off-guard who usually picked up the pieces by handling the ball during key possessions. Between the departed trio’s shot rates (19-29%), Valentine wasn’t likely to get many looks, but the floodgates have opened this year. The combo guard scored 25 points against both Marquette and Notre Dame, as his shot rate has increased from 17% to over 23% of available looks while he’s on the floor. No other Spartan seemed to want to take a shot during the second half against the Irish, and Valentine obliged by seemingly pulling the trigger on every possession. This is not to say that those were forced shots, either; they were good shots coming off screens, pulling up from from the elbow as he moved to the right. 

Valentine’s ability to handle the ball with ease creates better offensive spacing and has helped define Izzo’s rotations. His 48 percent shooting from beyond the arc gives the Spartans the flexibility to add a third guard to the offensive rotation. Trice can share the ball-handling duties and play off the ball to find his three-point range (41%), while Bryn Forbes can be used as a third guard who can also shoot from long-range (49%). Note that these averages will likely drop but it is safe to assume that Michigan State could play three guards, all of whom could average around 40 percent from deep. Another huge advantage from Valentine’s emergence will be felt by Dawson, because the senior forward doesn’t have to worry so much about finding his shot. Dawson is at his best when he picks up offensive boards and cuts to the basket off screens. Consistently averaging a double-double of around 10 points and 12 rebounds per game is not a daunting task for a player who uses his unique combination of size and quickness to dominate the glass. He can focus exclusively on what he does best: set hard screens; play tough defense; be a pest on the glass on both ends. There is no pressure on him to carry the offense because it is clear that the Spartans will go as far as its new rising star Valentine will take them this season.

Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

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