MSU senior guard Denzel Valentine has been around the MSU men’s basketball program since birth. He said he remembers going to MSU basketball games with his dad, and remembers his father showing him and his brother Drew Valentine old tapes of their dad playing as his father’s old MSU jersey hung on the wall.
Carlton Valentine, the father of Denzel and Drew Valentine, played at MSU from 1984-88. Carlton Valentine came to MSU from Washington D.C., thanks in large part to then-MSU assistant coach Tom Izzo, who Carlton Valentine said was “instrumental” in recruiting him.
During his four years at MSU, Carlton, now the men’s varsity basketball coach at Lansing’s J.W. Sexton High School, went to the NCAA Tournament twice and was named captain during his senior year. Carlton led MSU in scoring and rebounding during his senior year, the 1987-88 season, averaging 13.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. Carlton also ranks fifth all-time at MSU in career field-goal percentage, shooting just over 60.1 percent from the floor for his career.
Carlton was a 6-foot-6 forward, which meant he would often get matched up against bigger opponents.
“I was a scrappy player,” Carlton Valentine said. “I would use my lower-body a lot to gain advantages to score — you know, my game was a post game. I had a pretty good jump-hook and I scored on a lot of garbage baskets, that was pretty much my game. I could make the midrange jump shot, I could probably shoot about 16, 17 (feet) and in consistently.”
Carlton went on to have a brief professional basketball career playing in the World Basketball League, a former minor league, as well as a team in Sweden for seven years, but he always knew he would find his way back to the East Lansing area and MSU.
“I was prolonging the inevitable,” Carlton said. “I prolonged the inevitable for about six years, is what I did from about ‘88 to about ‘94, when I gave it up.”
Growing up a Spartan
Carlton said beyond just telling his kids stories and showing them his old film from MSU, he took them all around and inside the program frequently when they were growing up. Carlton said he wanted them to experience the MSU family-like culture and not just hear about it.
“I had a lot of memorabilia hanging around ... different trophies and awards I won at Michigan State around,” Carlton said. “So they were constantly surrounded by that stuff, and I took them to games, I took them to practices, I took them to Midnight Madness, I took them to the banquets. ... I would tell them stuff, but they had a chance to experience it for themselves.”
Carlton said he and now head basketball coach Izzo had a great relationship when Carlton played at MSU and Izzo was an assistant coach under Jud Heathcote. The strong friendship has continued since Carlton left MSU.
Denzel said he knows he was blessed to be around an elite program like MSU growing up.
Drew said he remembers going to the games and going into the locker room after the game, and just how incredible it was for him to be able to have that type of privilege.
“I would say twice a year we would go to the basketball games and then not only get to do that, but get to go in the locker rooms after the games and get to meet the players and hopefully get an autograph from some of our favorite players,” Drew said. “We were just two little kids that were with a former player and (the players) treated us like were the coolest little kids ever.”
Learning the game
Carlton said he always taught Drew and Denzel to not be one-dimensional on the basketball court. Carlton said he sees young players get too caught up in how many points they score and don’t worry enough about other areas of their game. He didn’t want to see that happen to his children.
“I told both (Denzel) and Drew, ‘be multi-talented,’” Carlton Valentine said. “Be able to do everything, don’t know your position, but know all five positions on a basketball court. So that was something I stressed to them, so they would know every position on the floor.”
Denzel didn’t ever necessarily think about being an all-around player, instead he just kept looking for ways to stay on the court and help his teams win games.
The lessons of Carlton show today. Denzel has said several times this season he does not care about how many points he scores as much as he cares about making the right play for his team to put them in a position to win.
Denzel was placed in basketball leagues with players two and even three years older than him growing up, which meant he and Drew could play on the team despite Drew being more than two years older than Denzel.
“He was a hustle guy,” said Drew, who is now an assistant coach at Oakland University. “He could make layups and stuff, he was really just like a hustle guy. Just brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm and just wanted to be out there on the court playing.”
When Denzel started playing at MSU, he knew he was not a pure scorer and if he wanted to get on the court and contribute as a freshman, he would have to focus on other areas of his game, such as passing or rebounding.
Refining his game
After his freshman year, Denzel knew his passing and rebounding wouldn’t be enough. He knew he had to continue to grow his game and start putting points on the board.
Coincidentally, Drew Valentine joined the MSU staff as a graduate assistant going into Denzel Valentine’s sophomore year, and Denzel said his brother played a very important role in the development of his game while the two of them were at MSU together.
“I pretty much talk to him after every game, and he tells me what I need to do right and what I did wrong. He’s one of the biggest parts of my development as a player, especially when he was here. He would teach me how to shoot better, be smart with the work-outs and things like that.”
Drew Valentine’s biggest impact on his brothers play was improving his long range shooting, as Denzel saw his three-point field goal percentage jump from 28 percent as a freshman to 37 percent as a sophomore, and now as a senior he’s shooting more than 45 percent.
Carlton said Drew going to MSU for Denzel’s sophomore and junior seasons was one of the best things that could have happened for Denzel. The respect he has for his brother, in addition to the work and time Drew was willing to dedicate to helping Denzel improve his play.
“I think that was huge because Drew is someone who Denzel has always admired,” Carlton said. “And always Denzel trusted him. ... Drew had played four years of college basketball, scored over 1,000 points, played in the NCAA tournament twice, had a pretty accomplished career. Somebody who you watched growing up all these years, and now he’s on staff with you. I think it was huge because it helped Denzel with his player development.”
Drew also was the perfect person to help Denzel Valentine develop his jump shot because while he was at Oakland, he was roommates with the NCAA Division I record-holder for most three-pointers made in a career, former Oakland standout Travis Bader, who made 504 shots beyond the arc.
Drew said he knew his brother didn’t lack confidence in his ability to shoot the ball, but he also knew from working out with one of the best three-point shooters ever that Denzel needed more consistency in his shot.
“I think one thing (Denzel) already had was the confidence,” Drew said. “As a freshman (Denzel) would take open threes. Sometimes so much so that commentators on the TV would question why he was shooting the shots that he was taking.”
During Drew’s two years at MSU, he said he and Denzel spent a lot of time in the gym, just working on Denzel’s jump shot.
“A lot of people, when they get in the gym they say ‘I want to get up this many shots’ or ‘I want to make 500 shots,’” Drew said. “Well no, we’re going to swish 200 shots. We’re going to have really quality reps that are going to force you to be consistent with your mechanics every time, and he’s really bought into that concept and really helped to become a more consistent shooter because of that.”
Leaving his legacy
Denzel has already, in his three and three-quarters seasons at MSU, accomplished more than many collegiate players will accomplish in their entire careers. He has won a Big Ten Tournament championship and went to the Sweet Sixteen as a freshman, the Elite Eight as a sophomore and the Final Four as a junior.
Denzel and fellow senior Matt Costello now have 108 wins in their career at MSU, just seven short of tying the record for a senior class, set by the 2001 senior class, which enjoyed three consecutive trips to the Final Four and a championship in 2000.
Denzel is now 14th all-time in MSU history in points scored at 1,553 and is fifth all-time at MSU in career assists with 573.
In addition, Denzel is a strong top-two contender for national player of the year this season, which Drew said he thinks is a perfect testament to just how hard and how far Denzel has come.
I’m impressed with the national success that he’s had,” Drew said. “I don’t think anybody, other than the guys that are one-and-done really expect to be the national player of the year. I don’t even think Denzel... I know he wanted to be All-Big Ten, All-American. So for it to be that late in the year and for him to have the success that he had, it’s just incredible. ... It’s due to the hard work, but I knew that he would work hard and I knew he would continue to get better, but I didn’t know it would be on this level.”
Despite all of the personal accomplishments Denzel has earned and the national recognition he has gotten, he and his fellow seniors Bryn Forbes and Costello simply want to help push MSU over the top to take that one last step to be champions — no matter what he has to do.
“We talked about it a lot,” Denzel said about the seniors wanting to take the next step. “That’s something we’ve often texted each other about, talked to each other about is what we can do this year. The sky’s the limit, got a lot of things to accomplish this year so we just try to grind it out everyday.”
Denzel will take the Breslin Center court for the last time Saturday when Ohio State University comes to town for senior day. Following the Spartans’ game against the Buckeyes, the team will travel to Indianpolis for the Big Ten Tournament.