Being a part of one of head coach Tom Izzo’s top recruiting classes during his 18-year tenure, Denzel Valentine is no stranger to the spotlight.
The son of a former Spartan basketball player and a two-time state champion at J.W. Sexton High School in Lansing, Valentine has had eyes on him since he was very young, with expectations far exceeding his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame. It’s that exact pedigree that has allowed for comparisons to be made with Valentine and former Spartans Draymond Green and even the legendary Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
But after a summer of practice evaluating his skills and the talent he brings to the floor, Izzo sees a very different skill set within Valentine.
“I see him more like an Alan Anderson who can play three positions,” Izzo said at men’s basketball media day on Tuesday. “He can play the point position, (and) you can put him in the high post on bigs. But I think he’s more of a guard. His biggest issue is going to be if he can cover Keith (Appling), you know. Can he go against him? Can he cover him? Everybody wants to play a different position than they play on one end of the court, but this not Iowa women’s basketball decades ago; we play two ends of the court.”
Valentine is one of four talented freshmen on Izzo’s roster this season, joining guard Gary Harris and forwards Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski. Although Kaminski is slated to miss four to six months following surgery on his right shoulder, the Spartans still tout one of the most talented young groups in college basketball.
After spending much of the summer learning the ins and outs of the position from veteran guards such as junior Keith Appling and sophomore Branden Dawson, among others, Valentine continues to gear up for his rookie campaign. The Spartans tip off their regular season against Connecticut on Nov. 9 at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — a highly anticipated opener only rivaled by MSU’s appearance on an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego a season ago.
Although accustomed to the spotlight and reportedly transitioning well into Izzo’s system — largely with the help of his roommate and close friend, Harris — Valentine said the biggest challenge of the college game he’s found has been the athleticism of the players around him.
“Our team was pretty good; we were athletic — I’m talking about high school,” Valentine said.
“We were talented, but we weren’t this talented, like everybody is good. Everybody (at MSU) does something to make the team better. I don’t know – there (are) just a lot bigger and faster people. Pretty much everybody is more athletic than (in) high school.”
Valentine and his fellow freshmen have spent a great deal of time in the gym, refining skills deemed necessary to hang another banner at Breslin Center. And it’s an effort that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the upperclassmen on the roster.
After several years being the dominant big man on the Spartan roster, which includes multiple NCAA Tournament appearances, junior center Adreian Payne knows what it takes to be successful under Izzo.
So seeing the freshmen on the team working hard to be able to play at a high level, Payne said it’s a good sign and each of them is in a position to contribute early in their careers.
“When they first got up here and stepped foot on campus, they always (were) up in the gym,” Payne said. “All four of them: Gary Harris, Denzel, Costello and (Kaminski). You know, they’ve just been in the gym a lot. That’s good that you’ve got freshmen like that who want to be in the gym. It’s just a great feeling. I think they’re all going to be able to contribute.”