The catalyst for #10 Michigan State is 6’5″ senior combo guard, Denzel Valentine. A potential All-American, Valentine has significantly upped his stock with his fantastic play this season under coach Tom Izzo. He has an all-around game that seems very appealing for NBA executives, and Valentine is expected to be a mid-to-late first round selection. 

He’s averaging 18.5p/7.7r/6.6a this season and is on pace to be the first player since 1994-95 to average such numbers. (Note: Sports-Reference’s CBB play index currently only gathers data after 1994-95). From watching him, he seems like the best combo guard in the country and puts up the numbers to back up that statement. 

Point Guard Ability

At 6’5, 220, Valentine isn’t going to play a lot of point guard in the NBA. However, he is capable of running an offense and has demonstrated great playmaking ability and ball handling skills during the 2015-16 season. Even with the shooting guard label, Valentine has an astounding AST% of 41.5, which is tops in the Big Ten. His 126 assists are third in the conference and his 6.6 assists per game average in second in the conference. Moreover, he’s great at not turning the ball over. Since Valentine’s the superstar for the Spartans, he’s going to be a high usage player, 28.1%. Despite being that high usage & dynamic player, he manages to keep his turnover per game average at 2.6. 

Valentine initiates offense, penetrates, draws two defenders, and kicks to the open man
Valentine initiates the PnR, penetrates, draws two defenders, and kicks to the open man.

Shooting 

Like most guards in this era, Valentine shoots a good percentage overall, but a high percentage from behind the arc. He attempts a decent amount of shots, 13.7 FGA/G, but averages over 18 points per game. From three, however, he’s one of the best in the conference. A lot of Valentine’s attempts come from behind the arc — 56% to be exact — but he shoots a remarkable percentage. Coming into the season, opposing teams knew Valentine could shoot because he led the Big Ten last year in threes made (102) and three-point percentage (41.6%). What’s insane is that Valentine’s an even better shooter than last year and the numbers reflect it:

  • 63 3FGM, 3rd in conference
  • 3FG% of 43.1, 3rd in conference

Due to his size and natural positioning, the Spartans have the luxury of running Valentine off the ball, illustrated below. He doesn’t need the ball in his hand all the time and is just as effective in a motion offense, or coming off screens and setting his feet. 

Valentine can shoot over smaller guards because of the height advantage. Notice how Frank Mason, 5’11”, is matched up with the 6’5″ Valentine. Although Mason does a great job fighting through screens and recovering, Valentine is still able to get a high percentage look because of the elevation he gets. 

He can work off the ball because of his natural position of SG.
He can work off the ball because of his natural position of SG.

His ability to shoot helps make up for his mediocre athleticism; defenders close out hard to contest the three, thus making it easier to beat them off the dribble. 

Rebounding 

When you have such a terrific playmaker with a great ability to rebound, your team has an edge. Off a rebound, Valentine can push it up court himself, or advance it with a great outlet pass. His 7.7 rebound per game average makes him the leading rebounding guard in the Big Ten; overall, he’s one of eight players in the conference to average more than seven rebounds a game. 

Off the rebound, Valentine executes a crisp outlet pass to assist Lourawls Nairn on the fastbreak layup.
Off the rebound, Valentine executes a crisp outlet pass to assist Lourawls Nairn on the fastbreak layup. The result is an and-one.

Areas to improve

Although he has great size for both backcourt positions, his athleticism is average. At 220, he has a solid frame and can muscle smaller players, but is going to have a hard to matching up at the next level with players of similar size. Valentine also struggles to get into the lane at times when attacking with no screen. As a result, he attempts a lot of threes and, fortunately, converts a high percentage of them. 

Conclusion

Denzel Valentine is a great college player, and it’ll be interesting to see how he fares in the league. His best case scenario would be to land with a team that has a solid backcourt, i.e., Portland, Boston, Toronto, or Phoenix when they’re fully healthy. Having Valentine come off the bench and play either guard position would present nightmares for opposing backcourts because of his play style. 

If Valentine were to go to a team with a not-so-good backcourt, he wouldn’t be terrible, his efficiency might be impacted, but he’d still be a good player. 

Worse case scenario for Denzel Valentine is that he becomes a lethal spot-up shooter.

Overall, Denzel Valentine has skills that’ll translate to the league. He can shoot, pass, rebound, run an offense, and has a high basketball IQ. Most likely he’s going to fall between picks 19-30, and could put together an all-star season or two if he becomes better of the dribble. However, I wouldn’t be shocked if he was picked in the lottery

*All data courtesy of Sports-Reference*

*Photo Credit: Mike Mulholland / MLive.com*