Impact Izzone has been handing out performance reviews for each Spartan all summer. The series started with the freshmen and moved up the classes. The series concludes with now-Chicago Bull Denzel Valentine. Check out Bryn Forbes’ performance review here.
2015-16 stats: 33 mins, 19.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 7.8 APG, 46.2% FG, 44.4% 3PT FG, 85.3% FT
Denzel Valentine had a season unlike any other. Literally.
According to College Basketball Reference, no player since 1993 averaged at least 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in a single season. He and Oklahoma stud Buddy Hield dueled fiercely throughout the season for player of the year honors. Valentine missed four games in the middle of the season after undergoing knee surgery, which might have been the deciding blow in the two-horse race for king of college basketball.
With a nagging injuring plaguing guard Tum Tum Nairn, Valentine was forced to shift from the wing to play point guard, and did so fabulously. His versatility carried the team throughout the Big Ten season, and they surely would not have won the Big Ten Tournament Championship without him. Valentine led the Big Ten in scoring and assists, the first time a player has done that since 1996-97.
Despite losing out to Buddy Hield in the Naismith and Wooden Awards, Valentine won his fair share of hardware, including:
Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year
Big Ten Player of the Year
AP National Player of the Year
NABC National Player of the Year
USA Today National Player of the Year
NBC Sports Player of the Year
Sports Illustrated National Player of the Year
Sporting News Player of the Year Runner-Up
Naismith Award Player of the Year Runner-Up
Wooden Award Player of the Year Runner-Up
More than the stats and the awards, Valentine was the unquestioned leader of this team. He was the coach on the court and his presence was felt almost more when he was injured than when he was playing. He had an “unusual” career path of playing four years instead of jumping to the NBA, and the changes were immense.
Valentine had a good chance of becoming the best Spartan basketball player of all-time heading into the NCAA Tournament, but Middle Tennessee had other plans. A crushing first round exit halted those aspirations, but make no mistake: 45 will be in the rafters of the Breslin Center.
Final Grade: A++++
Two academy awards, one Tony award, three Golden Globe’s, and a handful more to boot. This guy personifies excellence, and should be held in the highest of regards for Michi –
Wait, we’re not talking about Denzel Washington? My bad, I get them confused sometimes. I guess we’re talking about that Denzel. You know, the guy who won nine awards for his play on the court, led a perennial powerhouse in college basketball to a two-seed in the NCAA tournament, dropped multiple triple-doubles against teams like Kansas, Michigan, etc., was the most consistent player in college basketball — and missed a handful of games due to a knee injury that required surgery.
Yeah, that Denzel. Valentine.
Where do I begin with him? Should I start with the shooting? Sure, why not. Averaging just under 20 points per game seems pretty solid. But what if I told you that he could have averaged upwards of 25 PPG if he wasn’t such a good teammate?
Averaging just under eight assists per game is unbelievable for a star player who isn’t considered a point guard. However, Valentine did run the point as Tum Tum Nairn’s plantar fasciitis took a turn south, and the senior leader was forced to step into a familiar role on the court: a leader. Valentine whipped around the rock with ease, making difficult no-look behind the back passes look like clockwork. Whether it was to Bryn or Eron, Matt or Kenny, it was a joy to watch.
But it wasn’t all about finesse for him. He still did some dirty work. In fact, a lot of dirty work. He averaged 7.5 rebounds per game. As a star player who also ran the point, you’d think that the mindset would be to score points and let the rest take care of itself. But not Denzel. He made it a point to get in the paint and take loose balls away from taller defenders. It lit a fire underneath himself, his teammates, and his coaches. THAT’s how you lead. By example.
Denzel Valentine will go down in history as one of the greatest Michigan State athletes, and that’s a fact. Like it or not, he’s gone now, and he ain’t ever coming back (on the court, that is). Valentine’s leadership, talent, and skillset will be unmatched for years to come. And as a Spartan fan (and reporter), it was truly a pleasure watching the young man suit up for the green and white every night. And I’m sure going to miss it. Thanks for everything, Zel.
Final Grade: A++++ (Blake stole my idea of 4 +’s, what a jerk)
Alright, alright, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It does speak volumes that Denzel Valentine can elicit even the thought of being an all-time great, because when he came to Michigan State, those dreams were quite far-fetched.
Valentine came to MSU as an overlooked legacy recruit who chose Tom Izzo’s program early in his high school career. During his freshman year, his three-point shot was so abysmal that when it would go in the air, I would shut my eyes in disgust. His 26 percent clip from deep was embarrassing, and all-time greatness was not expected.
Fast forward to his senior year, where Valentine became a household name across the nation. In just the second game of the year, on national television, he dropped a triple-double on the Kansas Jayhawks in an upset victory. Valentine kept up the pace beyond that game and met his own and his fans’ sky-high expectations, day in and day out.
Valentine was an elite athlete and the most versatile player in the nation, playing a multitude of positions and defending all over the floor. He showed dedication both on and off the court, portraying exactly what it means to be a Spartan. His leadership was unmatched, always demanding the most out of his teammates.
I believe the most underrated aspect of Denzel’s game was his perspective. His father went to Michigan State in the 1980’s, and while those teams under Jud Heathcote had solid players, they never really put together big tournament runs like Tom Izzo has. Denzel understood all this and took advantage of his opportunity as a senior Spartan. While the season did not end like he had hoped, his motivation all year was set in part because of his father’s time at MSU.
Denzel Valentine was sensational in his senior year, and he penciled in his name among the all-time greats to ever wear a Spartan uniform. In fact, I predicted he would do so at 47:29 of Impact Izzone’s first podcast of the season, so I will take all of the credit for his rise.
Magic Johnson is obviously No. 1, but Valentine certainly has thrust himself in the conversation with the next spots on the list. He’s up there with the likes of Draymond Green, Mateen Cleaves, Scott Skiles, Greg Kelser and Shawn Respert. All of those but Green have had their numbers retired in the Breslin Center, so don’t be surprised to see No. 45 up there very soon.
Final Grade: A+
There’s a reason why Denzel Valentine is known as “Mister versatile.” He could literally do it all.
Valentine may not have the most polished game in the world, but he gets the job done. His baby hook inside the paint was lethal, while his ball handling skills and crazy assists were off the charts. He did an excellent job of integrating all the key players into the offense, evidenced by his leadership and nearly eight assists per game.
It’s amazing to think that Spartan Nation expected Valentine to post a triple-double in every contest because of his unbelievable skill-set and versatility. The double digits in points, assists, and rebounding raised the bar as high as could be, as those particular standards became the norm in the basketball culture in East Lansing.
Despite him falling just short of winning the Naismith and Wooden awards, he took home multiple awards (Blake Froling has them listed above).
He is undoubtedly one of the best and most decorated Michigan State athletes to wear the Green and White. He’s up there on the list with the all-time greats with Magic Johnson, Greg Kelser, and Mateen Cleaves.
Valentine had his moments of weakness, however, like being too complacent in the NCAA tournament and his streaky shot selection. It seemed like sometimes he forgot that he had a great supporting cast at his disposal, but preferred to take the contested shots.
It pains me to do this, but I can’t award my man an A+ because they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Despite the early exit, I think Spartan fans everywhere can all agree that he is an irreplaceable leader and possesses a one of a kind talent that we will deeply miss.
Final Grade: A