First up is my pick for Big Ten POY, Denzel Valentine.
Zel had a fantastic off-season. He started by winning a spot on the Pan American Games team, which was split between college players and non NBA pros. To say the roster was a weird one with some strange choices is to put it mildly…IMO, after watching it, Mark Few should be ruled out of any future USA Basketball coaching opportunities. That said, when Zel got his chances, he produced. He averaged 7.4 ppg, 3rd best among the team’s collegians, on 50/38/100% shooting. Frankly, trying to be as objective as I can, he should have played more than he did. In any event, it was a more than solid showing against pros.
Then later in the summer, Valentine was fantastic playing once again against pros on the MSU trip to Italy. He had huge games against Italy (23 points) and averaged 17 ppg for the 4 games, though he sat out the entire second half against Georgia in the finale (through the first three contests, he was averaging 20 ppg). He shot well with an international line from three and generally was MSU’s best player, as expected.
The growth has been steady throughout his career and I think we’re about to see the final push forward for Denzel. He’s become a very good shooter, maybe even a near elite one (44/42/83 last season). I think he’s right there behind Charlie Bell as the best rebounding guard of the Izzo era, averaging 6.3 per game last season. He’s a dynamic playmaker with the ability to make the spectacular play for teammates. He’s developed into the team’s best overall perimeter defender. In short, Denzel has gotten to the point where every part of his game is at least good. It’s a development that we’ve seen from other guys in the past. Draymond Green did it. Alan Anderson did it. Morris Peterson sort of did it. To an extent, Charlie Bell did it later in his career as well.
The closest comparison point for Denzel to me has always been Draymond. I think for Zel to take the final step in his career as a college player, the one thing remaining for him is the thing Draymond figured out as a senior…judgment. Like Denzel, Draymond always had the ability to see the game develop a step or two ahead of everyone else but sometimes that’s as much curse as blessing, because you have to be able to really read plays and understand when to try something, when to push the agenda, and when to throttle back. That’s what Draymond really improved at as a senior, and it helped take him from being a very good player to an elite one. If Denzel can make similar strides in decision making, he can be the best player in this conference.