If you’re picking a National Player of the Year as this first stanza of the college basketball season wraps up, there’s really only one guy nobody can argue with:
Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine.
It’s crazy to think Valentine’s torrid early-season pace — averaging nearly a triple-double for a 7-0 Michigan State team that’s ranked third in the country –will keep up come Big Ten play. And it’s crazy to say anyone is even close to a sure thing so early in a college basketball season that feels as wide open as this one. This is a year with neither an Anthony Davis-like transcendent talent nor a runaway favorite to win it all. Come March, I expect the AP Top 25 will only vaguely resemble what it looked like in the preseason, and I feel the same way about the national player of the year race.
Article continues below ...
But at this point of the season, pretty much any way you slice it, there hasn’t been a player in college basketball better than Valentine.
Look at the traditional stats: He’s averaging an utterly bonkers 19.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 8.6 assists after seven games. And these weren’t all cupcake November matchups. He’s had two triple-doubles, one against Boston College and the other in a furious comeback in the Champions Classic against Kansas, the team I picked to win it all this season. On Sunday night, he played the only other national player of the year candidate who could make a winnable argument against Valentine – Providence point guard Kris Dunn – to a draw in Michigan State’s comfortable 13-point win.
Only three other Spartans have recorded triple-doubles. You might have heard of them: Magic Johnson, Draymond Green and Charlie Bell. Valentine’s triple-doubles weren’t flukes, either: He had two more in exhibition games before this season.
Now look at the advanced stats: Valentine leads the player of the year rankings on KenPom.com. (Other guys in the top 10 who have a chance at being the player of the year come March: Duke sophomore Grayson Allen, Oklahoma senior Buddy Hield, Providence junior Dunn, Gonzaga senior Kyle Wiltjer and Virginia senior Malcolm Brogdon.) Valentine leads the nation in offensive rating, per KenPom.com. He’s second in the country in assist rate, and he’s making 42.6 percent of his 3-pointers despite attempting more than nearly anyone in the nation.
And then there’s simply the surprising storyline with Valentine and the Spartans. Michigan State was ranked only 13th in the preseason. After Sparty’s shocking Final Four run last year, Tom Izzo lost that team’s engine (senior point guard Travis Trice) and top NBA talent (senior Branden Dawson, who was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans then traded to the Los Angeles Clippers). This season’s Spartans brought in a top-notch recruit in Deyonta Davis and a top-notch transfer in elite scorer Eron Harris, but there was plenty of preseason uncertainty around how this group would work together.
“We are more talented,” Izzo told me, correctly, just before the season. “Whether we’ll be a better team, that I don’t know.”
They are, and the bulk of the credit for that goes to Valentine, a player whose versatility matches that of another four-year Michigan State player, Green.
What I love about Valentine establishing himself as the cream of this year’s crop of college basketball players is this: In the age of one-and-done, when John Calipari pulls off a near-undefeated season on the backs of four elite freshmen and Mike Krzyzewski wins his fifth national title starting three one-and-done players, Valentine is a throwback. He was barely considered a top-100 recruit out of high school, ranking behind former teammate Kenny Kaminski (who transferred to Ohio University) and Georgetown commit Stephen Domingo (currently averaging 2.7 points after transferring to Cal). Valentine is an extraordinarily versatile player who has a little bit of that Green Swiss-Army-knife-type of skill set. Depending on the opponent, he can guard three, even four positions. Last season, the 6-foot-5 Valentine was primarily used as a small forward (75 percent of the time, per KenPom.com). This season, he’s a point guard (73 percent of the time, per KenPom.com).
He’s the type of inspirational, from-the-bootstraps story we turn to college basketball for: A just-OK athlete who was off the radar of most schools and who worked his tail off in college, especially at shooting; his 3-point accuracy has increased every season, from 28.1 percent as a freshman to nearly 42.6 percent this year. Through sheer will, Valentine has turned himself into an NBA player – at least according to his coach, who has had a few.
“I think he is an NBA player,” Izzo told me just before the season. “I knew how hard he worked on his game. I knew he had some skills (during the recruiting process). (But) there were some question marks. Is he fast enough? Can he shoot it well enough? He was kind of a poor man’s version of what Draymond Green turned into. Very high basketball IQ, very high. Incredible work ethic in the offseason. And like a Magic (Johnson) and a (Mateen) Cleaves and a Draymond, winning is more important to him than scoring points. There aren’t many of those left.”
We all are way too excited about the next group of elite freshmen who’ll use college hoops as a stopover to the NBA. Meanwhile, we forget about the guys we’ve been watching develop over the past three years.
In the age of one-and-dones, Denzel Valentine is a rebuke to the way we think about college basketball. We all are way too excited about the next group of elite freshmen who’ll use college hoops as a stopover to the NBA. Meanwhile, we forget about the guys we’ve been watching develop over the past three years. And though it’s undeniably impressive how Calipari is able to get his teenagers to reject their AAU egos and play team basketball, and though it’s amazing how Coach K has in a few years shifted from a non-believer in one-and-dones to a guy who is recruiting as well as Calipari, the stories I prefer in college hoops are the ones about the players whose games are made in a slow cooker, not a microwave.
And remember: The past three times there’s been a consensus player of the year in college basketball – and by that I mean winning all seven of the various national player of the year trophies – it’s been a senior: Jimmer Fredette in 2011, Doug McDermott in 2014 and Frank Kaminsky in 2015. (In 2012, when Kentucky started three freshmen for a team that won the national title, Michigan State’s Green won one award while Anthony Davis nabbed the other six.)
I fully expect that’s what we’ll have this season. With apologies to LSU superfreshman Ben Simmons, and Duke sophomore Grayson Allen and Kentucky sophomore leader Tyler Ulis, this year’s player of the year is going to be a senior.
Come March, maybe the consensus pick will be Gonzaga’s Wiltjer. Maybe it’ll be Providence’s Dunn – yes, I know he’s officially a junior, but that’s only because one of his college seasons ended early after an injury, and he took a medical redshirt, so he’s a de facto senior. Maybe it’ll be Iowa State’s Georges Niang. Maybe Oklahoma’s Hield, or Virginia’s Brogdon, or Michigan’s Caris LeVert.
But if the test were today, there would be only one right answer, and that’s Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine.