14-15 – While it wasn’t always easy or pretty, I think it’s clear that Denzel Valentine had his breakthrough season in 2014-15. After serving as a role player during his first two years in East Lansing, playing alongside future pros like Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, it was immediately obvious that he would have to become one of the main men on this year’s squad. I think overall, he handled that transition very well. Valentine is one of the most complete players to ever suit up for Izzo, or for Michigan State as a whole, really. When you stop to consider everything he does for this team, it’s pretty astounding. He was second on the team in scoring at 14.5 ppg and he got those points while shooting 44/42% from the floor and from three. He was second on the team in rebounding at 6.3 rpg, one of the best marks for a guard in MSU history (Charlie Bell, viewed by many as the best guard rebounder at MSU not named Earvin Johnson, never got close to a number as good as Valentine’s this season, though he played on different teams to be fair). He was second on the team in assists, averaging 4.3 per game. He was third on the team in steals but more than that was MSU’s best and most consistent perimeter defender on the season, usually taking on the responsibility of guarding the opponent’s best scorer. In short, he was asked to contribute in every phase of the game and he did so at a high level.
That doesn’t mean he was flawless. He was under the magic 2:1 assist to TO ratio and though he’s gotten better at it, is still prone to trying to force the issue at times as a playmaker. He had some brainfreeze moments of judgment (Wisconsin in the BTT most famously, but there were others) which were hard to understand from a guy who’s such a manifestly smart player. Every once in awhile, his shot selection got out of whack. I would suggest to readers here that these same criticisms were completely valid several years ago when assigned to Draymond Green as well, just as a point of reference.
The positives far outweighed the negatives, though. In addition to what the numbers tell us, Zel was clearly one of the leaders of this team and a guy more responsible than most for the chemistry which everyone associated with the program acknowledges played a big role in their ultimate success. He also had as many great clutch moments as negative ones, with a massive three pointer to beat Ohio State at Breslin not only being a symbolic moment for a team which needed a feel good story but IMO served as one of those benchmark turning points almost every team needs to happen in order to have a big result at the end of the year.
Going Forward – I think Zel has a chance to be Big Ten POY next season. That doesn’t mean he will win it, but I don’t see anybody at this point I’d put out ahead of him…certainly guys like Trimble, Ferrell (if he comes back), maybe Hammons, maybe Hayes could all get in that conversation along with some freshmen who look to be impact guys. However, when you look at the totality of what Zel gives his team, it’s tough to find anyone in this league who does more things well than #45.
Yet, the more important thing for us and to him I think is what this team does. Denzel is a very unique guy to serve as a team’s Alpha Dog. At MSU, we’ve been blessed over the years to have several of these types of players, maybe more than any other similarly situated program. Magic was the ultimate example but you can look at the way Steve Smith played, and then Draymond Green as well…these were all guys with the physical tools to do just about anything on a basketball court and yet their biggest strength was often making plays for others, finding ways to elevate the level of play from those around them as much as “getting theirs.” I think Denzel fits into that lineage and that’s a hell of a weapon for a team to have going into a potentially big season. When your best player is at heart a facilitator and your hardest worker to boot, that’s tough to beat.
There was some criticism at certain points during the season, suggesting that talk of Denzel in the same breath with leaders like Draymond Green, etc. was ridiculous…I mean, look at the results on the court, right? Wrong. In the end, I think MSU’s performance was an indication of exactly why Denzel belongs in that conversation and so far in the aftermath of the Duke loss, I’m hearing everything I’d want to from him in terms of setting the tone going into this summer. MSU has their leader. He’s their best, most complete player and a guy who is going to keep the standards in place in terms of work ethic, focus and determination. I couldn’t ask for more.