Denzel Valentine has a tumultuous relationship with Spartans coach Tom Izzo, but has known Izzo since he was a small child. (Eric Gay / Associated Press)
East Lansing — For Tom Izzo, now in his 19th season coaching Michigan State, there might not be a player who has elicited more emotion from him than Denzel Valentine.
For every lob off the backboard to a soaring teammate that quiets an opposing team’s arena, there is the behind-the-back dribble that rolls out of bounds in the critical final minutes of a tight game between two top-five teams.
He can mystify crowds with his amazing court vision and no-look passes, then raise the blood pressure of his coach to unmatched heights by missing on a highlight-reel pass that could have been replaced with a more simple approach.
As Izzo conceded after Saturday’s win over Minnesota, some of the mistakes Valentine makes are “head scratching.” Yes, and some have Izzo grabbing Valentine by the jersey and screaming in his face.
That’s what happened in the victory over Ohio State last week, and while some people were surprised by it, Izzo and Valentine understand it’s simply part of their relationship, one that goes back to before Valentine was born and Izzo was helping recruit his father, Carlton Valentine, to Michigan State.
“Denzel really is (like a son),” Izzo said this week. “I’ve known him his whole life.”
And Valentine understands that, even in moments of frustration, Izzo has Valentine’s best interests at heart.
“He cares about me and wants to see me do good,” Valentine said. “You can’t hate on that when someone wants to see you do good and not settle for less. As far as him pushing me, that’s what I came here for, that’s what he’s known for and he pushes guys and makes them their best, so I can’t complain.”
As much as the family history matters, it’s not the reason Izzo pushes Valentine so hard, especially now, as the ailing Spartans depend on Valentine more with several players missing games because of injuries and illness.
Heading into tonight’s game at Northwestern, Valentine has started 11 times and is averaging better than 27 minutes a game for the fourth-ranked Spartans. Those numbers should continue to grow as pressure mounts in the Big Ten race.
“I know what he has to give and I know how smart he is,” Izzo said. “I think that we get caught up a lot because of all these social things, that we get caught wanting to be something else. This kid is maybe the best passer. I said when we signed him that he was a poor, poor, poor man’s Magic. I haven’t changed one bit. Except, he’s a better shooter, he defends better.”
Pretty lofty praise for a player just now midway through his sophomore season, but it seems worthy when he makes plays like he did at Texas when he tossed a lob off the backboard for Branden Dawson. Or when he can grab a rebound and spin in one motion to make a no-look pass to Kenny Kaminski for a wide-open 3-pointer against Minnesota.
“The lob he threw to Dawson, we don’t have many guys that can throw that,” Izzo said. “He’s exceptional in that area. If his eyes are on the floor, instead of spinning where his back’s to a guy, if his eyes are forward he can pick apart a lot of people.”
He has done that plenty, leading the Spartans in assists seven times this season. However, he has also committed 28 turnovers, second-most on the team.
For Valentine, it’s simply about understanding when to and when not to make that type of play.
“Sometimes I get caught up in that and that’s what has hurt me,” Valentine said. “But I’ve just to keep maturing and getting better and hopefully that will go away.”
As senior point guard Keith Appling continues to perform like one of the top point guards in the country and junior Travis Trice works his way back into the mix after being out six days with the flu, Valentine won’t be counted on to handle the ball as much. But that won’t change how vital he is for the Spartans.
He has to rebound and score as much as create for others, and as he said, he’ll do whatever the coaches ask and play any spot to get a win. And possibly drive his coach nuts once in awhile along the way.
But that doesn’t mean Izzo won’t be sticking with the kid he’s known forever.
“You know he’s only a sophomore and I forget that sometimes, too,” Izzo said. “I told him I gave him my most precious thing, I gave him playing time. … That’s how I show you that I trust you. And what do you do for me? You show me that you trust me. That’s the give and take in this business. I think you’re going to see it get better. I really do. I think you’re going to see it get a lot better. That’s the least of my worries.”