Reflecting on Denzel Valentine’s Versatile Career

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 3rd, 2016

In Fall 2012 Denzel Valentine was an overlooked freshman guard in a class defined by top-25 recruit Gary Harris. Four years of growth later, Valentine leaves East Lansing with an impressive skill set and leadership skills that represents an excellent case study in player development. Since his freshman year, his scoring has nearly quadrupled (from 5.0 PPG to 19.6 PPG); his long-range shooting has significantly improved (from 28 percent to 45 percent); and his assists have tripled (from 2.4 APG to 7.2 APG). While his improvement in several major statistical categories over his career is impressive, his ability to do so without forcing his way into Tom Izzo’s system is worthy of discussion.

Denzel Valentine (right) had to carve his own identity after Keith Appling (left) graduated (AP Photo/D. Martin)

Denzel Valentine (right) had to carve his own identity after Keith Appling (left) graduated (AP Photo/D. Martin)

Being the third option in an offense that traditionally highlights only two guards in the backcourt isn’t easy, yet Valentine was that guy for two seasons behind Harris and Keith Appling. When he was on the floor, he had to learn how to both play off the ball and without screens because Appling controlled the offense and Harris was the designated three-point gunner. Despite the lack of offense run for him, he found other ways to actively contribute, such as grabbing six rebounds per game as a sophomore. Valentine’s first two seasons highlight his perseverance and efforts to impact the game despite not having an integral role within Michigan State’s offense.

Once Harris and Appling left campus, it was the junior Valentine’s turn to take the lead. He did so by recognizing that his team needed more than a replacement offensive threat and transforming his game into that of a point guard and facilitator. Travis Trice (90 threes; 36.9% 3FG) and Bryn Forbes (70 threes; 42.7% 3FG) were the designated long-range threats and Branden Dawson cleaned up the glass. Valentine did a little bit of everything, of course, but his biggest improvement was to provide his teammates with 4.3 assists per game. The malleable characteristics of his game through his first three years set the table for an All-American senior season.

Now, with less than two weeks until the start of another NCAA Tournament, Valentine is clearly one of the best players in the country. Watching him create space off the pick and roll this season is like watching a bass player synchronizing with his drummer over a long jam session. The game appears slow to him as he facilitates Izzo’s offense to perfection. His superb season averages of 19.6 PPG, 7.6 RPG and 7.2 APG may turn out to be worthy of the Wooden Award, but regardless of how this year’s team turns out, his career should go down as one of the best in Michigan State’s recent history.

Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

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