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Freshmen poised to make an impact for Michigan State

Matt Costello, Gary Harris, and Denzel Valentine are all ready to see significant action in their first year at MSU. As the regular season starts, we look at their background and skills to talk about expectations for this season.

Denzel Valentine
Denzel Valentine

Note: Due the high likelihood that he will redshirt this season, I’ve decided to wait on a full preview for Kenny Kaminski until his first season of active duty. It’s no slight on KK; he’s had a rough streak with his shoulder and MSU will miss his shooting this year. His official introduction video is available to watch here.

A lot has already been written about the three freshmen expected to make contributions this season. Matt Costello and Denzel Valentine have been in the Spartan fold for almost three years, both committing before their junior years of high school. Gary Harris waited until the following fall to offer his commitment after one of the most high-profile MSU recruitments of recent memory. With a summer of Moneyball exhibition, the opening of practice, and a couple warm-ups for the regular season, we can start to picture of the how these three players fit into the mix.

Matt Costello

Getting to Know Matt Costello (via MSUSpartanAthletics)

Matt has been slowed after taking a rough practice spill but MSU can’t get him back soon enough. Going back to his high school reputation, Matt was known as a production/numbers guy in a realm where prospects with 6’11" frames and 6pts-11reb statsheets are prized on potential. Games like the Holiday Classic last December during which Matt put up 30+ points, 25 rebounds, and multiple blocks were the regular. He finished his high school career with accolades galore including Gatorade Player of the Year in the state and Michigan’s Mr. Basketball. He was short of being named a McDonald’s All-American but you wouldn’t have to travel far on the Michigan prep circuit to find opinions saying he was worthy. Matt has a shot to be one of the state’s best big men in a number of years.

Costello's game is focused on sticking near the basket. He talked to me during Moneyball about wanting to get more consistency out of his mid-range jumpshot and his strength right now his guarding the rim on defense and finishing close with the ball. This shouldn’t be a problem as MSU needs more post defense, rebounding, and scoring in the absence of Draymond Green. Costello has a large frame with plenty of bulk and already looks like a viable Big Ten PF/C as a freshman. However, don’t mistake him for a plodder. When Patrick watched him this summer, he was beating people off the dribble, hitting a three, and showing his underrated athleticism with a 360 dunk. It’s hard to know how far Matt can go with his skills this season but we may look back at his freshman campaign as very much a Version 1.0.

The admiration may sound like heresy to Spartans fans but Costello has cited UNC great Tyler Hansborough as a model: "He embodies everything that I’d like to be able to do. He fights hard, he can finish and he rebounds. That’s one person I really want to be like." Matt comes from a deeply religious family and has high character but that doesn’t stop him from playing with an edge and using intensity to get under the skin of opponents. Like Hansborough, Costello could end up one of the players opponents loathe yet will admit to coveting for their own teams.

If Costello returns close to 100%, he should immediately push for playing time. Alex Gauna possesses a fine scoring touch and straight-line speed but he still struggles in defending with his lateral quickness and he hasn’t yet shown in exhibition to have the rebounding knack for a typical MSU post player. Playing Brandon Dawson at the 4 and throwing Russell Byrd against larger forwards might not be consistent answers for most of conference play. Despite his inexperience, Costello should be able to help right away and may only see his playing time increase as the season goes on. If Coach Izzo decides to bring one of Adreian Payne or Derrick Nix off the bench, Costello could be a beneficiary as well. It's probable that Matt could find himself starting later in the season.

Gary Harris

Getting To Know Gary Harris (via MSUSpartanAthletics)

Is there anything left to say about Gary Harris? Let’s pretend the answer is "yes." His recruitment was a noisy one. Fans, beat writers, and twitter junkies hung around waiting for any tidbit that might suggest where Harris was leaning. Why all the hype? Harris was a major five-star recruit but I don’t think that was the only element. There was thick regional and conference drama with the family connections to Purdue, the latecoming strike by Kentucky, and the duel between friends/rivals Tom Izzo and Tom Crean. In the end, Tom Izzo did his "shadow" thing and showed up to Harris’s high school gymnasium, AAU contests, and even football games. When he committed last November, the shooting guard was the final piece in a dynamic four man class.

It’s already clear why Coach Izzo, his staff, and the players all worked so hard to bring Harris up to East Lansing from Fishers, Indiana. From the start of practice, Gary has been the focus of a great deal of attention most notably from the head coach. Coach Izzo has offered Harris an unusual amount of praise for a true freshman as No. 14 worked himself quickly into the starting line-up. Izzo told the Detroit News, "I've had him on that first group the whole time," Izzo said. "You can still see he does that illegal thing for 2-guards, he guards people. He can make shots and he can run that lane and he can put some pressure on (opposing players). Gary has been impressive." Harris is part of a growing tradition of guards who enter the Breslin knowing how to check. Travis Walton and Keith Appling were ahead of the curve in that department and Brandan Kearney and Travis Trice showed some defensive ability last year. This willingness to work on the defensive end is something that builds trust from the MSU staff and is a major bonus to Harris’ multifaceted offensive game.

Harris gets the frequent descriptions "smooth" and "fluid" applied to his court presence. He has the high-level athleticism and body control to make the elaborate look easy. He doesn’t usually force things and appears comfortable finding his niche in whatever the match-up needs from him. The result is that Gary doesn’t really strike you as a freshman. Laid-back and cool, he plays with energy but does everything with a calm and poise that masks his inexperience. One thing to watch will be if the strain of MSU’s intercontinental start including Top 25 opponents followed by the grueling Big Ten shake Harris up or whether he’ll stay steady all through the NCAA tournament.

Even with the presence of upperclassman like Keith Appling, Derrick Nix, and Adreian Payne, I would expect Harris to be a significant offensive focal point this season. He’s hit double-figures in each of the exhibition games even when struggling with cramping issues. Because Harris can do so much – attack the basket, shoot from midrange, hit free throws – it’s going to be hard for teams to totally shut him down. I’m looking forward to enjoying his game while he’s here. Despite hype about Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson, probably no one on the MSU roster since Shannon Brown is as prepared as Gary Harris to leave early. At 6’4" with the ability score and defend, Harris looks like a player who might only need a year or two before a first-round draft slot comes calling. If he puts up solid numbers as a true freshman, anything is possible.

Denzel Valentine

Getting To Know Denzel Valentine (via MSUSpartanAthletics)

Denzel Valentine’s story up until now is an interesting one with lots of turns. He’s a Michigan State legacy who suffered a high school ACL injury that lowered his profile yet he catapulted back to catch recruiting fire and numerous offers. He nearly became a Wolverine after being impressed by the pitch of John Beilein yet stuck close to home when an MSU offer proved too sweet to resist. Before and after his commitment, Valentine faced lots of skepticism from scouts and commentators. Where do you play him? Is he really a point guard? Is he even a guard at all? Can he play any position or does he lack a position? The early returns are that these questions are immaterial when Denzel’s game speaks for itself.

This summer at Moneyball, everyone received a glimpse into the future as Denzel took the event by storm. He brought out his arsenal of creative, sudden passes and added a surprising array of dunks, alley-oops, and other great finishes. The free-wheeling, open format of Moneyball was perfect for Denzel but we’ll have to see how he makes the transition in organized, Big Ten basketball. The exhibitions have shown the limitations of Valentine’s game tallying him in each for four turnovers. He’s a playmaker but finding the right balance between lighting things up and doing too much could be a challenge. Also, his teammates will have to adjust to his style of play and always be ready for a pass in their direction. Previous experience with Draymond Green might have been some of the best preparation for how Denzel likes to move the ball.

Questions still remain and Denzel strikes me as the most intriguing of the freshmen because of what an unknown quantity he is. With Gary Harris, fans know they’re getting a do-it-all, prototypical shooting guard. Matt Costello is high-production big who plays hard, can score, and rebound. What exactly is Denzel Valentine and what will be his role? There’s no doubt what he wants to do and Denzel said he prefers "to have the ball in my hands as much as possible" with confidence in his ballhandling skill. With Travis Trice, Keith Appling, and even Brandan Kearney on the roster, Denzel probably won’t see too many minutes playing with the ball at the point so he’ll have to adjust to work his game into a spot on the wing. Denzel’s passing ability could still help a Michigan State program that has improved in recent years in feeding the ball into the post from the perimeter.

If we’ve learned anything new about Denzel in the past week of exhibitions, it’s that he may be able to use his size (he’s a strong 6’5") and athleticism to be a better-than-expected rebounding guard. He’s made solid contributions on the defensive glass and we all know that rebounding the ball is a path towards playing time from Tom Izzo. One less stellar confirmation is that Valentine is a work in progress as a shooter. He’s 2-8 so far and though that’s an incredibly small sample in a relatively meaningless game, no one is going to tell you that DV is a crack marksman. Luckily, with his court vision, rebounding, and ability to get to the rim, he doesn’t have to be that player to be valuable this year.

TOC Links:
2012 Signing Day Welcome Post (minus Gary Harris)

TOC Interviews with Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine

TOC Interviews with Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello

Patrick Hayes' Moneyball Recap

Intrpdtrvlr's Moneyball Recap