Versatile guard Denzel Valentine arrived at Michigan State amid a great deal of anticipation about his unique skills. How good a passer was he? Would he be able to relieve Keith Appling of some or all of the point guard responsibilities? As it turned out, Appling remained in place as the primary one-guard but Valentine opened a lot of eyes and found himself getting mentioned as a breakout player for 2013-14. With his size and skills it's not hard to see big things in Valentine's future, providing he can work on certain parts of his game.
Prior to the season Valentine was already drawing some impressive praise from Tom Izzo, who said he'd "never had a player at MSU who sees the court as well" as Valentine, who reminded him of Draymond Green's versatility and Magic Johnson's skills. That's a lot to live up to but Valentine, who began the season on the bench, was quickly moved into a starting role against Boise State in the fourth game of the season, starting 15 straight games before Izzo decided he was more effective coming off the bench.
He seemed to hit something of a wall midway through the conference season, playing under 20 minutes in 6 straight games and drawing Izzo's wrath for some poor on-court decisions. He ended up bouncing back, however and wound up the season playing every game and averaging 21 minutes per game, respectable numbers for a non-top ten incoming freshman.
At 6'5" Valentine has a height advantage over many of the players he guards, which also makes him an effective rebounder from the wing. But he also, as Izzo noted, has excellent court vision and is a dynamic passer. He ended the season as the team leader in assist rate (22.3%), but led in turnover rate as well (31.4%).
In fact his unique skill set makes him both valuable and hard to evaluate. How many players in the B1G would you guess were in the top 20 in both defensive rebounding and assist rate? When we look at the defensive rebounding leaders we get a bunch of guys like Mitch McGary and Adreian Payne. And Valentine. When we look at the assist rate leaders we get a bunch of guys like Trey Burke and D.J. Newbill. And Valentine. It turns out that only Northwestern's 7-footer Alex Olah joins Valentine on both lists (which is probably a reflection more of Bill Carmody's offense than of Olah himself). Valentine is the shortest guy (along with Rapheal Davis of Purdue) in the top-20 in DR% and the tallest guy (except Olah) in the top-20 in ARate. He does those two things really well, and two other things really poorly (so far): turn the ball over and shoot 3-pointers.
In fact, Valentine ended the season going 1-14 from beyond the arc, making him a 28.1% three-point shooter, a number that will need to improve for Valentine to make the sophomore leap many are anticipating. There were some positive trends, though, notably his performance in the tournament against Memphis. When Appling went down with a shoulder injury Valentine stepped up to help fill the void, playing 25 minutes while logging 9 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists against just one turnover. In fact, there were signs, as the season went on, that Valentine was starting to get the turnover issue under control. With his turnover percentage peaking at around 35% in January, Valentine managed to almost get it down to 30 by the season's end, still not a good number but a good direction.
Chart from StatSheet.com
With only center Derrick Nix leaving the team, the presumed return to health of Travis Trice and the addition of Alvin Ellis minutes are not going to be any easier to come by in the Spartan backcourt this year. For Valentine to take a step forward there seem to be a couple of keys. Primarily he needs to work on making good decisions. He needs to reduce the number of times Izzo feels compelled to yank him off the court in frustration. From a numerical perspective he needs to get that turnover percentage closer to 20% than it is to 30%. This is a tricky problem, since Izzo doesn't want him to lose all of the audacity and creativity that make him such a unique and valuable player.
Decision-making applies to shooting as well. Yes, he needs to work on his outside shot. Even a modest improvement on 28% would really boost his offensive rating. But he probably shouldn't be taking 38% of his shots from three. He was a very solid two-point shooter but he didn't get to the free-throw line any more often than Travis Trice. Shifting his game inside a bit more might make him a more efficient scorer
Writers are not the only ones high on Valentine after a promising first year. His Dad, and former high school coach, Carlton Valentine resigned as the coach at Lansing Sexton after a successful 7-year career. At least part of the reason was so that he could see more of Denzel's games. The rest of us are also anxious to see just how high the ceiling is for Valentine in the coming year. Here's a taste from last year:
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