(If you want to read a more traditional scouting report I would suggest looking at Upside & Motor, where some of my own writing is featured, DraftExpress, or Ed Isaacson’s Hoops Habit NBA Draft Blog. This site instead focuses on my personal conclusions on each prospect and my thought process behind those conclusions.)
Denzel Valentine was someone I saw as a sleeper in the draft community last year, and was liked by draft models, but I still did not expect him to burst into the lottery conversation this season. However, after watching him more closely this year, his current placement of 18th in DraftExpress’s mock draft and 25th on Chad Ford’s big board still feels a little low.
At Michigan State this year Valentine has been given the chance to run the show and run the show he has. He’s averaging a line of 17.9 points-7.6 rebounds-6.6 assists and is somehow even more impressive from an advanced stats perspective. He’s rocking a 59% true shooting percentage on 28.6% usage rate, and an incredible 41.1% assist rate with only a 14% turnover rate.
Not many guys can walk into the NBA as above average shooters, ball-handlers, and passers for their position, but Valentine absolutely will. Valentine lacks the burst to create in isolation at the NBA level, but he has every possible skill you could want in a wing spotting up on the weak side. His feel for attacking the game is just fantastic – he plays with a pace that exudes control, and almost never seems to make a poor decision. Having wings who are a threat to shoot, drive or pass is crucial to prevent a defense from overplaying one option or another. My biggest worry with Valentine on the offensive end is that defenses will run him off the line and try and force him to score in the paint. He lacks the explosion to finish over NBA big guys, but he’s got a great floater and is such a good decision maker that I doubt a defense would ever be able to truly neutralize him.
As stated earlier, Valentine’s poor burst means he won’t be a #1 or even #2 option in the NBA, but I just don’t see how he won’t be a positive impact player on the offensive end. If anything, I wonder just how good he could be. He’s not an absolutely elite shooter, but he’s good enough that teams could run some offense through him by running him off baseline screens and giving him the option to shoot from the outside or curl into the lane and make plays. Valentine even could be successful in some pick-and-roll action due to his incredible decision making. He’s not as big or as good an athlete as Nic Batum or Rodney Hood, but his feel for playmaking is so good that I could see him playing a similar role for teams.
I’m not entirely sure how much Valentine’s lack of athleticism will hurt him in his ability to create his own shot in the NBA, but at the very least he’s going to be able to help teams in a spot up shooter role. I’m optimistic that he’ll be able to create some of his own offense, either through off-ball screens or creating in pick-and-roll, because of just how advanced his feel is. If Valentine was just a pure scorer I would be more worried, but his ability to pass and shoot off screens means he won’t need the ball in his hands a lot to be successful at the NBA level. Everyone in the NBA is trying to play pace-and-space basketball that relies on moving the ball around the perimeter and making quick decisions. Denzel Valentine’s well-rounded skill set makes him a perfect fit.
Obviously, questions around Valentine’s NBA future center more on his ability to play defense than what he can do on the offensive end. His athleticism for an NBA wing isn’t just sub-par, but about as bad as NBA wings can be. However, he doesn’t compound his lack of quicks and leaping ability with a bad frame. He’s got a solid 6’10 wingspan and a strong 220 lb body, making it hard to just overpower him. Valentine has a rep as a defensive liability even at the college level, but after watching him very closely, I would argue he’s a noticeably positive college defender.
Tom Izzo prepares his players to play defense at an NBA level better than probably any coach in the country, and Valentine is a great example of how much defense isn’t about raw athleticism. On the ball, he has fantastic anticipation, which allows him to contain opposing players. If he’s forced to slide with a guy for a series of moves he might get beat, but he does a great job of cutting off a player wherever their first move takes them. Fighting through ball screens is also a strength of his. He quickly adjusts his body and fights over or under any time he is put in ball screen action.
As an off-ball defender, Valentine is even better. His understanding of help principles and how to rotate is as close to NBA level as you will see in the college game. Despite lacking explosion he makes plays in the passing lanes, and does a similarly great job of navigating off-ball screens. His lack of athleticism prevents him from pressuring guys with the ball and means opponents are comfortable shooting over him, but he is disciplined enough to make opponents attempt difficult shots over him rather than attack the basket.
At his level of athletic ability, Valentine is never going to be an NBA stopper. He’s going to be someone you try and hide on the opposing team’s weakest offensive wing. However, he’s going to do a good job off the ball, and won’t be so bad on the ball that teams just break out of their normal offense to attack him. Unlike someone like Doug McDermott, it should be possible to play very good team defense even with Valentine on the court.
I would bet the good Valentine brings on offense outweighs the slight bad on defense, and as a result, he could very well wind up an NBA starter. Guys with his incredible basketball IQ and very good skills for their position have a place in the NBA. In a weak draft such as this Valentine is absolutely deserving of a late lottery pick, and will be in the 10-14 range of my big board.