OVERVIEW: Denzel Valentine has steadily built his legacy — and his draft profile — during his four seasons at Michigan State. The versatile swingman — listed at 6’5” by ESPN.com and 6’6” by DraftExpress — was a valuable role player for the Spartans during his first two seasons, then exploded onto the national landscape during last year’s NCAA Tournament as a junior. He led the Spartans to an unlikely run to the Final Four, then upped the ante this winter with a spectacular senior season. He’s on pace to become the first player since assists became an official NCAA stat in 1983/84 to average at least 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. His development is reminiscent of two recent Big Ten stars, former Spartan Draymond Green and Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky.
STRENGTHS: The attribute that becomes readily apparent when watching Valentine play is his uncanny knack to make the right read and find the open man. That makes him an outstanding initiator on pick-and-rolls, an extremely valuable skill in the NBA game. Valentine became the Spartans’ de facto point guard early in his senior season and he’s thrived in that role, with his assist average jumping from 4.3 last season to 7.5, while his turnovers have barely increased (2.6 to 2.4) despite having the ball in his hands so often. His creativity off the dribble opens up high-percentage shots for teammates as the defense collapses around him. His shooting stroke is also an asset. Valentine has a very compact stroke, as Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress points out, with deep range and multiple release points. He’s adept at shooting off screens, with his feet set, or off the dribble, Givony adds. Currently, he’s shooting 47.1% from the field while averaging 14.5 shots per game and an outstanding 45.4% on 3-point attempts. Valentine also does a superior job of getting into position for rebounds, averaging at least 6.0 per game in his last three college seasons.
WEAKNESSES: Valentine does not have a defined position as he heads to the next level. ESPN lists him as an undersized small forward. His size and outside shooting ability would suggest he’ll be a shooting guard in the pros, while his passing prowess and floor leadership could make him an oversized point guard. The biggest knock on Valentine, as Chad Ford of ESPN.com examines, is his lack of elite athleticism. Valentine’s defensive intensity has improved throughout his college days, but he could have issues covering players with better foot speed because of his lack of lateral quickness. If his NBA coach utilizes him as a point forward, he’ll be mismatched at the other end and vulnerable to postups by bigger, stronger players. Another concern, as Givony notes, is that Valentine may have trouble finishing in the lane because of his lack of explosiveness. He often relies on his body to create space in halfcourt situations and tends to shoot difficult floaters when the lane closes up and he doesn’t have an outlet.
PROJECTED DRAFT RANGE: Valentine has some work to do during postseason evaluations to become a lottery pick. He’s currently ranked No. 22 on Chad Ford’s latest ESPN.com Big Board, while Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress pegs him at No. 18, so he’s projected as a mid-to-low first-rounder. ESPN lists him as the No. 4 small forward — though it’s a stretch to say he’ll play that position in the NBA — and No. 4 among players that DraftExpress lists primarily as shooting guards.
RISE/FALL: Valentine’s all-around game and maturity could help his draft status. He should be able to step into a team’s rotation, if not a starting role, in his first season. Scouts and front-office personnel will also be impressed by Valentine’s ability to raise his level of play against tough competition. He was the Spartans’ best player during their Final Four run last season, and early this season he lit up Kansas, the nation’s top-ranked team entering conference tournament play, with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. Valentine is arguably the best and most polished passer in the draft, ahead of even the point guard prospects, and he has a well-above average jump shot to complement his distribution skills. The biggest thing he’ll have to prove is that he won’t be a major defensive liability. His instincts and basketball IQ can help him overcome that to an extent, but he’ll have to show he won’t consistently get beaten off the dribble. His below-average athleticism will keep him out of the Top 10, but it’s quite conceivable he’ll end up as a late lottery selection.
FIT: There are plenty of teams that could use another offensive facilitator and shooter at the wing spots. He’d be a nice fit for the Heat, as a backup or even eventual replacement for Dwyane Wade. The Hawks could certainly use a boost in that area, and he would seem to be an ideal fit for the Knicks’ triangle with his ability to read, react and shoot. He’d also be a nice offensive fit for half-court reliant Western Conference clubs like the Mavericks, Grizzlies and Jazz.
FINAL TAKE: Michigan State coach Tom Izzo doesn’t hide his affection for Valentine. As he recently told the assembled media, including Hoops Rumors, “I don’t know many guys that have improved in every aspect of the game like he has. He’s the closest thing to a player/coach that you could have.” I suspect Valentine’s NBA coaches will have similar feelings about him. He may not be a star in the NBA, but he should emerge as a rock solid starter who will have a better career than several of the players picked ahead of him.