Denzel Valentine is Incomparable–Seriously, Don’t Try

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Moving on to college hoops, this season’s biggest story is Michigan State’s senior point-forward-heir-to-the-throne Denzel Valentine. What’s about to unfold over the next 90 days is a showcase of Valentine—both prototypical and atypical in comparison to the Spartan greats. 

Written by Kyle Magin

Denzel Valentine is a poor man’s Draymond Green and a soul-crushingly, Kirkland socks darning-ly broke man’s Magic Johnson.

That’s the narrative on No. 3 Michigan State’s senior point-forward and probable best player in the nation this year. It comes–with those comparisons at the forefront–from his coach and teammates. It comes from Magic and Draymond. It comes from writers, it comes from fans.

In my younger, meaner incarnation I’d call the comps lazy. I’d still like fans to discover that Valentine is wholly his own man and an outstanding player, but I understand the need to constantly contextualize him in the specific language of Spartan hoops.

We’re facing the unknown here–a player who has triple-doubled twice in seven games including one against Kansas; a player who went off for 61 points, 20 rebounds and 16 assists in the first two days of the Wooden Classic and had a ‘letdown’ in a title winning effort for that tournament with 17 points–so the urge to categorize him with the familiar is understandable.

But, I’m here to urge my fellow Spartan fans to enjoy ‘Zel for ‘Zel.

He’s been an enigma since joining the team four seasons ago as a freshman from Lansing. Being a big guard with a little flare to his game from Michigan’s capital city is going to draw the Magic comparison. Rebounding in the double digits in MSU’s rugged schedule, in the rugged Big Ten, is going to draw Draymond comparisons, but Valentine is neither.

He’s unique. The gaudy assist totals (rising from 4.6 per 40 minutes to 11.3 this season) ascended as Valentine learned to suppress his natural tendency to wow with something behind-the-back or no-look. He can still throw trickery with the best of them, but Denzel has also mastered the lightning-quick bounce pass on the pick-and-roll, the laser-guided baseball pass off an inbound and the drive-and-kick stuff that finds Spartan shooting guard Bryn Forbes wide open behind the three-point line more often than not. He’s assisting on more than 52 percent of all Spartan field goals while he’s on the floor. The efficiency of his ability to find men on the court is mind-boggling.

His scoring abilities may be the most impressive development in his game. Dogged, unrelenting work on his outside shooting has seen a guy who can’t do a lot off the drive due to his athleticism–he’s a senior still playing college basketball, remember–has led to an increase in his effectiveness even while nearly 30 percent of MSU’s possessions pass through his hands, as opposed to 17 percent his freshman year. He’s asked to do more than ever–consistently leading the team in minutes played over the course of this young season–and doing more with it by hitting 59 percent of all shots taken, up from 51 percent his freshman year. He’s getting to the foul line more frequently than ever before–a full third of his shots are coming from there–and again, this is a guy who doesn’t have the quickest first step and has to work to get his in the lane.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is Valentine’s work on the defensive glass. He’s grabbing 27.6 percent of available defensive rebounds while he’s on the court–30.4 minutes per game–and using many of those to start the fast break the other way. It’s frankly astounding in college basketball to see such a jackknife, a guy who’s clearly a defensive frontcourt piece, guarding men his size or larger and then nearly instantly switching into a distributor with a wicked outside shot (he hits 42 percent of his threes) and a slasher’s mentality. Valentine has so many keys to turn the ignition on his game that it’s incomprehensible (granted, seven games in) to see how you could negate him enough to hamper the Spartans’ chances of winning.

So lay off the comparisons and let ‘Zel be ‘Zel. He has game-changing offensive abilities, like Magic. He’s a creature of the program, a product of four years of labor and an intensive emphasis on rebounding under Tom Izzo like Draymond. Both were true originals and have banners hanging in the Breslin Center rafters to prove it.

But Valentine’s being effective in a way we’ve never seen before, a man we cannot label playing the game with an economy of effort we’ve probably never seen before. Enjoy this beautiful thing for as long as it lasts, because true originals come around only every so often, and I’ll bet history will view him through the rafters, just like those other guys.

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