Wojo: MSU's Valentine a gunslinger at heart

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo talks to Denzel Valentine during Thursday's MSU practice.

Charlotte, N.C. — He can be inexplicable, in good ways and puzzling ways. Denzel Valentine leads Michigan State in several categories, including the metric known as the "No! No! No! Yes!" plays.

You know the plays, the no-look passes, the alley-oops, the step-back 3-pointers that seem risky, then turn brilliant. Except for the times they don't. He's a crafty, creative, multidimensional player who sometimes pushes the boundaries of his dimensions.

It's what makes Valentine so dynamic, the most important player for the Spartans. It's what Tom Izzo loves about him, and occasionally fears about him.

"He's kind of one of those guys that's the Brett Favre of basketball," Izzo said. "He lives on the edge a little bit with his passes and spin moves. Some of that is what makes him great and some of it causes some problems. You don't want to take it all away because the part that makes him great is there."

It has to be there for Michigan State to go anywhere in the Tournament, starting today against Georgia. It would be trite to say Valentine is the heart of this team, but he certainly controls the pulse. Whether he's pushing the ball, slicing through a defense, lining up a three-pointer or throwing a dangerous pass, Valentine makes the Spartans run and their hearts race.

The 6-foot-5 junior is one of the most versatile players in the country, ranked in the Big Ten's top 15 in scoring, rebounding, assists, three-point shooting, assist-to-turnover ratio and defensive rebounds. It wouldn't be nice to add a "peculiar blunder" category but that's part of who he is.

It's certainly part of what's pushing him now. Valentine committed the turnover with 17 seconds left that allowed Wisconsin to tie the Big Ten championship game, then win it in overtime. It was a crushing loss, and Valentine's 16-point effort was a primary reason Michigan State was poised to win it. Then came one right play — Valentine grabbed a loose ball — and one wrong play — he flung it toward Wisconsin's Sam Dekker.

Play 'haunted me'

It's over and Valentine said he's over it, even inspired by it. And when he took the floor at Time Warner Cable Arena for practice Thursday, he tilted his head back and unleashed a scream, in case anyone wondered whether their loud and loose leader was back.

"It haunted me, naturally," Valentine said. "But I tried my best, and I'm still trying my best not to think about it, just letting it go. I mean, we've been playing our best basketball of late."

The turnover added to the Valentine narrative, fair or not. His misguided foul late at Indiana when Michigan State led by two nearly cost the game, but it didn't. It's weird because Valentine is a wonderfully instinctive talent who played in high school for his father, Carlton, a former Spartans player. Denzel said he models his game after Draymond Green, another versatile Spartan now becoming a star in the NBA.

When you're capable of doing a lot, perhaps you're tempted to do too much. Mistakes get amplified, especially when the player is prone to bursts of flashiness. But those who watch Valentine's development, from NBA scouts to TV commentators, notice something else.

"I love his game," said Grant Hill, the former Piston who's covering the Tournament for CBS. "I'm bullish on Valentine. I love guys that are big and can do a number of different things. I like to think I played like that somewhat, maybe not as good a distance shooter. I told Izzo, I didn't realize he was that good."

Sometimes you have to remind yourself. Valentine leads the team in 3-pointers and is shooting 41.8 percent from long range. He hit a clutch three-pointer to beat Ohio State and is one of the few players who's stellar at the free-throw line (81.9 percent). He also leads the team in turnovers, so you getting the dichotomy here?

Branden Dawson (the rebounder) and Travis Trice (the shooter) are seniors who perform their roles well. Valentine is the guy who has to direct it all, and after Michigan State lost its top three scorers from last season, he suddenly was thrust to the top.

"It's been difficult, an up-and-down year," Valentine said. "Last year I could be playing OK and we'd still be winning. But this year, I gotta play good. You can call that pressure, call it motivation, call it whatever you want. I take it as motivation. This is what I asked for, this is what I wanted, this is what I worked hard for."

Risks and rewards

Valentine's teammates have encouraged him and his older brother Drew — who played at Oakland University and is a Michigan State graduate manager — has counseled him. Former Michigan State players have called, but there's not much else to say. There's so much heartbreak this time of year — just ask stunned three seeds Iowa State and Baylor — it's impossible to let it linger, or you'll be part of it.

Valentine takes risks and earns rewards, a style that's captivating, invigorating and occasionally aggravating. His team wouldn't want him any other way.

"He's an easy guy to deal with, just because of how he works and how much he cares," Trice said. "I don't think there's been a great player who ever played that didn't take risks. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose with him. There isn't anybody I'd rather go to war with than Denzel. Any day."

Any day is today, and with Valentine, the Spartans will take their chances. Not too many, not too risky, just enough to keep their hearts beating.