Though he’s largely being overlooked by the national publications, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine could be on the verge of a special season in East Lansing.
In September, when the various college basketball previews and predictions started to seep out, a great number of teams and players received national acclaim. In these magazine, posts, and articles, fans have been given an outlook on at least what the experts think is to take place in the upcoming college basketball season.
But one player missing from many of these lists was Denzel Valentine.
For instance, when Sporting News released the site’s preseason predictions for the 2015-16 All-Americans, Valentine not only missed out on the All-American team, but failed to make either the site’s second or third team as well. Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell and Maryland’s Melo Trimble were include among those to make the cut above Valentine.
This isn’t necessarily an extremely surprising turn of events. After all, the players who did make the cut have plenty to warrant their inclusion. Many have done a lot at the college level and the ones who have not, like LSU’s Ben Simmons, are collectively regarded as elite prospects in their own right.
Still, it seems like many could be overlooking Michigan State’s senior forward.
During Valentine’s three year career with the Spartans, he has played in 113 games for the program and amassed 1,050 points, 622 rebounds, and 398 assists. Last season, Valentine averaged 33.2 minutes, 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game while helping to lead Michigan State back to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.
The Spartans had a deep and talented team last season. That’s certainly not surprising given the fact that Michigan State finished near the top of a deep conference like the Big Ten, made the championship game in the Big Ten Tournament, and made the Final Four. However, Valentine was still near the top of this talented roster in total contributions.
(Stats via Sports Reference.)
Now, with several key players for Michigan State graduating like Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, even more is expected to fall to Valentine in this upcoming season. There will certainly be some concerns about how much can reasonably be demanded of Valentine, but there are also plenty of reasons to think that he will capitalize on these opportunities and end up as a dark horse candidate for this year’s Wooden Award.
The biggest advantage Valentine has over many of the other Wooden Award candidates is his diverse style of play. In fact, of Big Ten players who played at least 40 percent of minutes last season, Valentine finished in the top 15 in offensive rating, effective field goal percentage, defensive rebounding rate, assist rate, and three point percentage according to KenPom ($). He was a good offensive player, was efficient, could rebound the ball, pass, and even shoot from outside. It’s pretty rare to see a player with that diverse of a skillset.
This is a major advantage for Valentine because it makes it easier for him to take on a bigger role for Michigan State next season. Even a slight improvement for him would show up in multiple major statistical categories. For example, compare that to a player who relies almost entirely on something like rebounding or three point percentage. If that player is in the Wooden Award discussion, it’s pretty likely that they are already an elite player in the category. Elevating from an elite level statistically is nearly impossible, which leaves little room for improvement.
On the contrary, there are no elite areas to Valentine’s game. Instead, he relies on being really good in several different areas to make his contributions. Even if Valentine doesn’t become elite in any area this season, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. If he is even able to improve his game slightly, that could mean another assist, another rebound, and maybe another three point bucket each game. That may not seem significant, but it’s huge for a player who is already contributing on an extremely high level.
The good news for Spartans fans is that Valentine might have already taken that next step. In an interview with MLive, Michigan State’s head coach Tom Izzo called Valentine’s play “unbelievable” this summer. ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla also added some positive comments on Valentine, providing that he “wish[ed]” one publication could have “been at the Pan Am games” where Valentine played this summer.
Saw where Athlon's Magazine didn't have Ron Baker or Denzel Valentine on any of their 3 AA Teams. Wish they could have been at Pan Am Games.
— Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) September 8, 2015
Even if Fraschilla and Izzo are engaging in a bit of hyperbole and overrating the improvement of Valentine, the signs are all there for an incredible senior year for the Spartan forward. He is not getting the national attention of other Big Ten players like Yogi Ferrell and Melo Trimble or even incoming freshmen like LSU’s Ben Simmons, but perhaps Valentine is on the verge of exploding onto the national scene.
And that’s a scary thought for the rest of the country.