Some NBA prospects evolve more than others during their college careers. Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine is a prime example of a player who dramatically diversified his game, expanded his role and boosted his draft value.
During his senior year, the 6’6” point forward has blossomed into a Swiss Army Knife for Tom Izzo’s Spartans while drawing the eyes of NBA scouts. He’s averaging 18.6 points, 6.7 assists and 7.8 rebounds per game on a top-10 NCAA title contender.
Valentine’s development from a role-filling wing to the program’s primary facilitator has showcased his wide array of skills and versatile future at the next level. He was on the fringes of the draft discussion last year, but he’s now squarely in the fray as a mid-first round asset.
Here’s an in-depth look at how his growth in East Lansing will translate to the Association.
Offense: Scoring Skills
Throughout his freshman and sophomore years at Michigan State, Valentine was a scoring threat, albeit a supplementary one.
He could hit two-point jumpers and splash the occasional corner three, but he wasn’t multidimensionally dangerous like he is today. Valentine struggled to score efficiently beyond the arc, and he couldn’t compensate for his lack of explosiveness when driving.
Each year, he significantly improved his three-point accuracy (up to 44 percent this year) while finding more creative ways to score on and off the ball. Take a look at his shot chart from 2013-14, his sophomore year, compared to this year’s chart (2013-14 was earliest season available from Shotanalytics.com).
Valentine will occasionally get his jumper going off the bounce in the NBA, but he’s especially proficient at getting free with great footwork away from the ball.
The following sequence against Michigan is a great example of his knack for creating scoring opportunities off the ball. Valentine set up his defender by using the down screen, and then he turned around to come off the same screener. His pre-shot maneuvers and shooting mechanics are superb:
Valentine isn’t a shifty high-flyer who will dynamically slash against NBA defenses. However, he’s polished his attack game so that when he does find a crease, he can finish adroitly with either hand.
As you can tell from the shot charts, he vastly improved his in-between repertoire. He can bury short-range pull-ups, convert mid-post moves with his back to the basket and score near the tin with great hands. Over the past two years, he improved his field-goal percentage at the rim from 49 percent to 62 percent, per Hoop-math.com.
Kevin O’Connor of The Sporting News explained how Valentine compensates for his mediocre athleticism:
He can change speeds as a ballhandler and use his elite footwork to sneak into crevices in the paint. He’s a nifty scorer who can shoot from anywhere and use floaters or runners to finish creatively around the rim.
Here Valentine displayed his tremendous body control and off-hand command against Maryland:
In his first three years at Michigan State, Valentine was a wing who handled the ball sporadically but wasn’t a primary initiator. He dished the rock much better than most wings, and Izzo frequently trusted him to make some key passes in the Spartans’ offense.
His usage rate was in the high teens and low 20’s, and he averaged between 4.6 and 5.2 assists per 40 minutes during those three seasons. But after point guard Travis Trice graduated last spring, Valentine became Michigan State’s chief playmaker.
Valentine stepped into the new and expanded role magnificently. He’s averaging a career-high usage rate of 28 percent, 8.4 assists per 40 minutes and a career-best assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.5. Spartans assistant coach Dan Fife explained the progression to Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports:
He had a great feel for the game (as an underclassman), but he was too erratic and he would make silly plays. Coach Izzo has done a great job of curtailing that without causing Denzel to lose any of his creativity. He hasn’t lost who he is, but he now understands some of those plays were hurting himself and hurting the team.
While he’s still prone to over-ambitious passing attempts, Valentine does a better job picking his spots and making calculated gambles. His timing is much better.
He loves to push the ball up the floor and find open scorers, but he’s also willing to reset the offense and initiate a methodical set. While he might not be a point guard in the NBA, he’ll be the type of wing who can alleviate his point guard’s playmaking burden with stretches of solid facilitating.
Defense and Rebounding
Valentine’s 6’6″ frame, 6’10” wingspan and focused energy make for a quality collegiate defender. For the most part, he does a great job hounding his man on and off the ball.
His head is constantly on a swivel, keeping tabs on his man and the action on the other side of the court. Valentine fights over screens, moves his feet well and isn’t afraid to be physical.
However, his size won’t stand out at the next level, and his effort won’t always be enough to thwart the NBA’s electrifying athletes. There will be times when he’s overmatched from a physical standpoint by wings who are agiler.
Fortunately, those aforementioned attributes like hustle and alertness will make him respectable at worst. He’ll pick up schemes, be in the right place on the floor and work hard.
Valentine will also pull his weight in the rebounding department. He attacks the glass pretty well for his position in college, and he’ll do the same in the NBA whether he’s at the 1, 2 or 3 spot. Again, it’s an area where timing and footwork have allowed him to flourish and produce more; he’s averaging 9.8 boards per 40 minutes so far in 2015-16.
A year ago, I would have told you Valentine could contribute at the back end of an NBA team’s rotation. But now that he’s put it all together and exhibits a truly diverse skill set, it’s not crazy to think he could be a top-tier starter in the league. His elite shooting chops, playmaking instincts and end-to-end energy make him a dark horse to flirt with the lottery on draft night.