Each week throughout March Madness, DIME is profiling draft prospects from each region of the NCAA Tournament who we deem most intriguing. There’s no real rubric for this exercise. We’ll be be highlighting surefire top-five picks, run-of-the-mill first-rounders, and even guys who may not hear their name called at Barclays Center on June 23. There’s just one rule: Only players still participating in the Tournament will be considered. Read our installments on Duke’s Brandon Ingram, Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham, and Kentucky’s Jamal Murray here.
March, needless to say, can make a prospect’s draft stock. The pressure of do-or-die basketball on the country’s biggest stage can ruin it, too. But NBA franchises will be carefully monitoring the next three weeks’ developments regardless, altering draft boards in accordance with what scouts, general managers, and even the viewing public sees — which could dramatically alter their futures in the process.
The NCAA Tournament is about winning, first and foremost. And not only will the following prospect wield a heavy hand when it comes to his current team’s fortunes, but perhaps those of his first professional one, as well.
The Player: Denzel Valentine, six-foot-five senior guard/forward for Michigan State University.
The Present: Valentine averages 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.6 assists per game. He shoots 48.3 percent from the field, 44.7 percent from three-point range (on 7.5 tries per game), and 85.3 percent from the free throw line. He was named Big 10 Player of the Year and All-Big 10 First Team this season.
The Future: Valentine is a four-year senior. He’s not quick enough to defend guards off the bounce and doesn’t have the length to check small forwards, let alone play extended minutes as a small-ball 4. He lacks burst with the ball in his hands and explosive leaping ability, too.
For all those reasons and the far more obvious one, you’ll hear Valentine compared to Golden State Warriors superstar Draymond Green – another Tom Izzo favorite who beat supposedly long odds of awkward measurables – throughout the NCAA Tournament and pre-draft process. But don’t buy into that lazy talk. Not only is East Lansing’s current icon a much different player than its previous one, but he’s talented enough to forge his own path to NBA legitimacy without invoking names of past Michigan State greats.
Valentine is an excellent shooter. Both the release and arch of his shot are absolutely textbook. This is how the world’s most accurate marksmen look when shooting the ball.
Those aren’t isolated incidents, either. Valentine is equally capable pulling up off the dribble in pick-and-roll play as he is running around screens to catch and splash. If other strengths fail to translate to the next level, he could very well have a lengthy career as a situational sniper off the bench – that’s how good Valentine is as a shooter.
But there’s also reason to believe the traits that make him truly unique will be manifested at the next level. The league values spacing more than ever in 2016, but its premium on players who read the court steps ahead of defenders is at an all-time high, too. And that’s what separates Valentine from others with elite shooting talent: an ability to make plays for himself and teammates by manipulating defenses with the dribble.
He has a keen understanding of timing and angles, not to mention the handle of a player comfortable initiating and creating offense. Valentine knows when to push the ball up the court and take an extra dribble in ball-screen situations to manipulate the floor, and sees help defenders as well as he does primary ones.
And after Valentine inevitably gets to the paint by wrong-footing his man with any type of feint, he also knows how to finish. The Big 10 Player of the Year shot a solid 62.7 percent at the rim this season on a bevy of push shots and unconventional layups that help make up for his lack of vertical oomph.
Valentine’s weaknesses are obvious: He doesn’t have an obvious position to guard in the NBA, and just isn’t dynamic enough to be afforded the keys to a team for 48 minutes. There’s the question of how much room he has left to improve at 22 years old, too.
But make no mistake: Valentine has a place in the league. It just likely won’t come in the role of a star or even a starter, which is why smart franchises – even those selecting elsewhere on June 23 – should be targeting him in the late lottery and mid-first round as a potential draft-night steal.
The NBA Fit: Valentine could function as a second unit’s lead ball handler or a designated shooter in the mold of Anthony Morrow. That versatility makes him an attractive piece for any team, but his ability would only be fully realized playing in an offense that places an emphasis on movement and pace in the half court as well as transition.
The Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, and San Antonio Spurs are the most obvious examples of teams presenting that ethos. The Charlotte Hornets and Boston Celtics do, too. Those teams would have to trade up into the draft to take Valentine, though. The Milwaukee Bucks make sense as a team selecting in or around his potential draft range, as do the Washington Wizards.
But our favorite fit for Valentine is with the Detroit Pistons, who have a plethora of young cogs in place for the future yet still lack ancillary doses of shooting and playmaking to manage a top-tier offense for a game’s duration. The Motor City’s team is stocked with defenders capable of guarding multiple positions, has Andre Drummond wreaking havoc at the rim on both ends of the floor, and just happens to be pretty close to East Lansing.
Make it happen, Stan Van Gundy.
The Bottom Line: March was made for players like Valentine.
Scouts and general managers aren’t immune to the sometimes reckless lure of choosing a player who just led his team on a deep tournament run earlier than his ability warrants. Is it crazy to suggest Valentine could become a surefire late-lottery pick if he leads MSU to the last week of March or first of April? No way.
And should that prove the case, we’re confident Valentine would eventually live up to the suddenly heightened expectations that accompany his draft status, too.