East Lansing, MI
Spartan super star senior Denzel Valentine is tearing up the basketball court this year. He not only is a scorer, but he is a shutdown defender and shares the ball as one of the best assist men in Spartan basketball history.
So the MSU athletic communications office led by John Lewandowski and men’s basketball sports information director Matt Larson put their heads together and came up with a great idea to promote is candidacy for National Player of the Year. As you can see in this picture accompanying this story, they sent out a “Utility knife” and a high quality post card to promote Valentine to the media around the nation.
Sending this out to members of the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) like me, is to keep Valentine in the minds of the voters for this prestigious award. There are a handful of great players like Buddy Hield of Oklahoma, but NONE of them can do it all (thus the Utility knife) like Valentine.
I asked Spartans head coach Tom Izzo about the move by the athletic communications mailer and he loved it. “It was something that Matt (Larson) and I am sure Lewie (John Lewandowski) and their whole department came up with and I think it is awesome. It is well deserving, but not, don’t take it just as to like I have stated. There is a couple of really good candidates out there. I think what they tried to do, and I thought it was brilliant on their part, was that expresses the versatility in what he does. That part of it still makes him my prejudice favorite. But I understand the big stages, the big wins, that’s why I still think these last four games are critical for a lot of things. Individual goals are always something we strive for our players to accomplish. I’m not just a team, team, team, team guy, cause I believe those individual goals lead to team success. And sometimes team success helps with individual goals. But if you’re not a player of the year candidate, you can win all your games and that doesn’t mean you’ll be player of the year. But if you are a player of the year candidate and you win a lot of games the two go hand in hand and I think it helps. That’s why I’ve always been big on players having individual goals and I’m appreciative that our media department strictly came up with that on their own. I had no input except to approve excitingly because I thought it was a great idea, great concept. But we’re not trying to buy or trick people into it, we’re trying to let people know that don’t get to see him all the time … and there is a card that will go out with it on just how versatile this kid has been and kudos to our guys. It was awesome.”
I asked Valentine about the efforts behind the scenes to get him the award meant to him. “I saw that and I appreciate Matt (Larson) and Coach (Izzo) for doing something like that for me. It’s big time and I haven’t seen that before, so it’s big time.”
Well if anyone would know and understand big time it would be Mr. Big Time himself in Valentine. Think about this. He has accomplished at least 20 points and 10 assists for a double double in each of the last three games. He is the first Big Ten and only the second player from a major conference to do that in the last TWENTY YEARS! He is tied for the lead in the Big Ten conference with eight double doubles this season and has garnered TWO triple doubles. He has 15 double doubles over his career in East Lansing.
For Tom Izzo he sees what Denzel has become more than just what he is. He loves his young protégé and the way he has improved year to year. He doesn’t want Valentine’s work ethic over looked.
“Everything’s surprised me a little bit on how much improvement he’s made in a lot of areas. His shooting is a big one, you know, and his ball skills I think have gotten better each and every year for sure. But I can’t say surprised, I’m just impressed, that he’s kept getting better each year. A lot of guys plateau. He’s kind of at least taken, you always hope a guy is taking two steps forward and maybe a half back, three steps forward and maybe one back. That’s pretty common. He’s kind of always taken more steps forward than any that he’s taken back. And that’s why he’s constantly improving, and I think he’ll constantly do that. If you look at Draymond (Green), he kind of did the same thing, he constantly improved. And that’s impressive when a guy does that. You start subtracting the poor man’s as I always said – the poor, poor, poor man’s Magic or the poor, poor, poor man – when you start subtracting the poors, and it gets closer to the guys that have done it in the past, it gives you kind of a map or whatever to see. A standard that was set. And Denzel is exceeding some of them because of his variety of ways. Like I said when they asked me who’s my best defensive perimeter guy, when Tum was out I had to go to Denzel. And then, now Eron has really picked up his. And Bryn has improved. All the sudden I’ve got three pretty good defenders and I think our team has gotten better in the last couple weeks because we’ve gotten better defensively. And Denzel has taken on every challenge I’ve given him. And that last game, he was ready to cover everybody from Koenig to Hayes, you know, and that’s what we expect out of him. And in a strange sort of way as I look at these different guys – Melo Trumbull and these different guys who have maybe struggled a little bit, hey they always say there’s a reason why you have an injury. Or trust and faith in why you do this or that. That summer he had was the same one Trumbull had, and maybe that little break he had was a positive for him. I don’t know, I think it’s hurt him in some areas, but I do think he’s a fresher player right now. And he’s a player that I trust. Like I’m trying to get him out of practice some, he doesn’t want to come out very often. But I trust if he tells me he’s a little tired. He’s a little this, he’s a little that, he feels great. Right now the last couple practices, ‘Coach, don’t take me out, I feel great,’ you know. I think he’s at the right place for the right time of year.”
Denzel has about six weeks to finish what could be a magical career. Not only a player of the year award, but a national title, a Big Ten Tournament title and who knows, maybe even still a share of the Big Ten regular season crown. What we do know is that this, “Utility” man that does it all, is the best player in the nation. At least in this reporters mind he is.