With the 11th pick in the 2016 draft in their pocket, and playoff goals in their sights, the Orlando Magic would benefit from a player that could contribute right away. Enter Denzel Valentine, the do-it-all swingman from Michigan State.
Valentine is a proven winner with an offensive game that few in this class possess. At 6’6" and 210, he can (and did) play all over the court. In his final year with the Spartans, Valentine averaged an impressive 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game. His multi-faceted game leaves analytic algorithms drooling, as his 30.1 PER would suggest.
Valentine is a very "all or nothing" type of player, and he is rarely average at anything. He is supremely confident, almost to a fault. Just as silky smooth as his offensive game can be, his defense and athleticism leave something to be desired. Without further adieu, here is a deeper dive into one of the most enigmatic prospects in this year’s draft class.
Leadership - Denzel Valentine was an archetypal "heart and soul" college player while at Michigan State. The 22-year-old senior started 117 of his 144 games in East Lansing, during which the team won 75 percent of their games. They were also 9-4 in the tournament, including a final four appearance in 2015. Under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo, Valentine became a less animated (but who isn’t?) version of Draymond Green, rallying the troops to perform and calling his own number when they didn’t.
During his senior campaign, Valentine stepped up his game still – earning numerous honors including both the AP’s and NABC’s national Player of the Year awards, a B1G Player of the Year award, and a unanimous All-American selection. All of these qualities were still not enough in this year’s tournament, however, as the heavily-favored Spartans lost to the 15-seeded Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders.
For a Magic team that had a clear lack of leadership last season, Valentine fits the bill. Leadership is a trait often associated with age, but some, like Valentine, come into it naturally. Izzo noticed this in his freshman year, and began grooming the swingman into a floor general for years to come. Even on the second unit, this kind of tenacity and heart can change the game. If he earns the respect of his teammates at the next level, Valentine could be the one to rally the troops and prevent the last second demises of last season.
Confidence - Valentine was the man at Michigan State. He walked with the swagger of champion, and it meant that his teams were never out of games. He dared defenders to guard him, and often pulled up in their faces. Valentine wanted the ball in his hands and the blame on his shoulders. This can be a bad thing, as we’ve seen with fellow college star Shabazz Napier, but it certainly beats the timid brand of basketball that has recently plagued Orlando.
In addition to his leadership, Valentine could be a second or third option to take the shot at the end of a game. These second-tier scorers are key because it allows a player like Victor Oladipo to be a decoy; to draw a double and then kick out to an open, unexpected shooter like Valentine.
Shot Creation - Man, can this guy create. The 6'6" swingman is like a tornado of activity with the ball in his hands, and his multidimensional game forced college defenders to be sucked right into the vortex. His size and skill set, combined with the unpredictability of his game made him a nightmare for anyone tasked with guarding him.
He often used his 6’6" height and 8’6" reach to take defenders to the hole, posting them up with ease or faking them out for an easy layup. When the defense began to bite on that, Valentine would rain down threes, which he hit at a 44% clip as a senior. His herky-jerky offensive game is a bit like James Harden, with sudden stops and hitches that send defenders crashing into him for two free throws. As a senior he took 95 shots at the line, converting a blazing 85 percent.
If it translates to the pro game, the Magic could use every bit of what Valentine has to offer offensively. His aggressiveness on drives and his proclivity for the charity stripe would help an Orlando team that finished dead last in free throws made last season. In an ideal world, he world keep the defense honest. With a player that’s a threat to shoot every time he touches the ball, there would be no more opposing guards drifting into the lane because they would fear an open shot.
Versatility - With new head coach Frank Vogel stating that the Magic will experiment with small lineups next season, Valentine would be a valuable asset. He is truly a positionless player, meaning that gadget lineups would allow him to exploit all kinds of holes in an unsuspecting defense. He handles the ball like a point, shoots and drives like a two, and has the size and physicality to play the three if needed. With long arms and an adept passing ability, Valentine could also be the long-awaited answer as an inbounder in crucial situations.
Last season, Valentine’s 7.5 rebounds per game proved that he has a nose for the basketball, and will fight through larger players to secure it. He will be far from an elite rebounder at the next level, but in a league where possessions equal points, it can only help to have a guard that can hold his own on the boards.
Valentine’s 7.8 assists per game and his ability to run the Sparty offense show that he has a natural feel for the game as well as how to create for his teammates. After watching the point guard by committee that took over following Elfrid Payton’s injury last season, the Magic could use a competent ball handler in a pinch. He may not be Rajon Rondo, but he’ll surely be better than Keith Appling.
Athleticism – Nearly every number that Denzel Valentine posted at this year’s combine proved what many feared: he is a slow, loping, terrestrial player that may struggle to adapt to the NBA’s pace of play. His 32 inch vert puts him on par with most power forwards, not guards. Though his straight-line speed seems to be fine, anything involving lateral quickness makes him look like a dinosaur. Though an NBA weight program will certainly help his case, it is clear that Valentine will never been an athletic rim-runner.
This adds an interesting wrinkle into how he would fit with the Magic’s small lineups. With athletic players like Aaron Gordon, Victor Oladipo, and Dewayne Dedmon potentially in the fold, Valentine could be used to set these players up and run the half-court. As far as the fast-break, he should be able to get by with his brain – though opposing players may catch him in a straight line, his craftiness in those situations over the past few years has shown that he will convert.
Defense - After three years of Izzo hiding the below-average Valentine, he took a major step forward last season toward becoming a serviceable defender. That being said, it will take another few steps to stop his man from going at him as soon as he enters the game at the next level – Mario Hezonja style.
As perceptive and natural as his offensive game is, the opposite is true on the defensive end. His instincts often leave him lost, or committing cheap fouls. Valentine’s lack of athleticism also means that once he’s lost his man, he’s often gone for good. Just as his offensive game created mismatches, his positionlessness on defense means that he’s currently too slow to stay with guards, and not thick enough to defend big forwards in the post.
If anyone could get defense out of a guy like Valentine, it would be Vogel. He was able to coach Lance Stephenson into a solid defender, a feat we haven’t seen before or since. For a player like Valentine, a coach like Vogel would be a dream, and may turn around his natural bad habits.
Decision Making - As I broke down Valentine’s highlights, one of my friends asked me if I was watching a scary movie. His game is predicated, to some extent, on awful shots that will never work in the pros. He takes these half-floater/half jumper things on a consistent basis that will only go in if he is 100 percent on fire. He also takes the same awkward, off balance jump hooks that are cringeworthy on big men.
Watching the tape of his 29/12/12 game against Kansas this year, arguably the best of his career, you could make the case that he only took a few "good" shots at the NBA level. There is something to be admired about guys that take and make tough shots. Valentine, however, looks less like Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving and more like that guy at the local Y that played some college ball.
Patience is not his strong suit, and with such a varied offensive skill set, he often gets caught between doing two things. If he decides to drive and is cut off, you’re either looking at a crisp pass to another shooter or a shot from Valentine so bad that he instantly tries to get the rebound. He’s always looking for a flashy play, and it sometimes leaves him blind to the easy one. All of these flaws came to bare in his final college game against MTSU, where he turned in a 5-of-13 performance with six turnovers.
As a rookie, Valentine will no doubt be on a short leash. As he develops, however, it will be easy to determine how trustworthy he is with the ball. At his best, he will be that do-it-all shot creator; at his worst, his carelessness could cost the team games. It’s very hard to fake something like basketball IQ, and even fans will be able to see if he can’t cut it.
Off-Ball Effectiveness - At Michigan State, the entire offense was designed around talented swingman. As his 26.7 percent usage rate suggests, he was given a long leash, and asked to do it all. He did so with great success, but more likely than not, he will never have that level of freedom again. It is incredibly hard to teach a player to live with the ball in their hands and play effectively, but once they learn it, it’s often just as hard to go back.
Will Valentine be able to adapt to playing off the ball – to setting screens and remaining engaged without the ball in his hands? Last year, he greatly improved his catch and shoot abilities, especially from three. Using Valentine as only a shooter, however, would be misusing him.
Orlando has a logjam at the shooting guard position, and for Valentine to earn playing time over the likes of Oladipo, Evan Fournier, and Mario Hezonja, he would need to bring something new to the table. There are better off-ball shooters in the draft, so if the Magic draft Valentine, he needs to step up and be more than that.
Valentine has one of the highest ceilings, as well as one of the lowest floors in this year’s draft class. The team that offers him his first contract will likely be the reason he booms or busts. The question for Orlando is – do their many offensive holes mean that he’s too risky, or too hard to pass up?