EAST LANSING, Mich. — Denzel Valentine was seated high in the upper bowl of the Breslin Center, gazing upon the cluster of banners to his right—seven for Final Fours, a pair for national titles—and down at the court where he has grown and flourished and found so much success, so much in return for all he has given to this place.
He grew up in Lansing, the son of a Michigan State Spartan, a two-time high school state champion who played for his dad and seemingly was destined to wear green. During a senior season in which he stands to become the first Division I player to average 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game in the three-plus decades since the NCAA began tracking assists as an official stat, the Breslin court has been Valentine's domain. The House That Denzel Built? That's quite a stretch, but damned if he hasn't been paying the rent.
"This is home, man," he said. "It's unreal how much that means sometimes."
He's alone in the gym on a mid-February afternoon—"so quiet and peaceful," Valentine called it, which happens to be a perfect way to describe how the 22-year old plays the game. Yet it has been a loud, sometimes chaotic season for the most complete player in college basketball and his dangerous team.
The Spartans, known for stumbling early against top competition and peaking late, had the best start in school history (13-0) and reached the top of the polls. But in late December, the 6'5", 220-pound Valentine sustained an injury to his left knee that required surgery; the Spartans lost one of the four games they played without him, then three more in short order following his return. All four defeats came in Big Ten play, leaving the league's best team buried in the standings and thoroughly threatening the glory of Valentine's final ride.
Yet Valentine kicked in with the finest stretch of his career, averaging 21.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists as the Spartans have gone 10-1 and climbed back into position to grab a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. In doing so, the co-favorite (along with Oklahoma's Buddy Hield) for national player of the year has validated his position as the latest link in a most important chain.
Steve Smith. Mateen Cleaves. Travis Walton. Draymond Green. Denzel Valentine. As Spartans head coach Tom Izzo sees it, all are in the vein of Michigan State hero Magic Johnson; none as good but each as special. The five compose Izzo's list of the players he has coached (Smith when Izzo was an assistant to Jud Heathcote) who most embodied the tent-pole virtues of the program: competitiveness, leadership, versatility, will to win, willingness to sacrifice and devotion to MSU.
Each greater than the sum of his parts. Together, the reason the Spartans never cease kicking in the door to the Final Four.
"They say a program should take on the personality of its coach," Izzo said. "I hope that's what this is. I grew up a small-town boy. You worked for and earned everything. You were not entitled to anything. Denzel has become one of these guys, as much so as any of them."
"Steve Smith was the first kid I recruited. He was 6'5", 165 pounds. But he got bigger in the weight room, bigger in what he ate, and each year he got better. He played three, four positions. He was a very intelligent ballplayer. A lot of NBA people tell me there's getting to be fewer and fewer of those guys." —Izzo
With apologies to Hield, Duke's Grayson Allen, LSU's Ben Simmons, et al., Valentine is the best player in the college game in large part because he has experienced more aspects of it than anyone. He has been too weak and too slow, and defeated those limitations with endless work and ever-expanding intelligence. He has played one position and then another, and another, finding his way and developing wide-ranging skills in the process.
"Watching him progress over the course of the four years we've been together has just been amazing," senior big man Matt Costello said.
Valentine traces this work-reward path back to his sophomore year at Sexton High School—specifically, to a conversation with his father and coach, Carlton Valentine, during a car ride to school the morning after an awful performance in a loss to Lansing Eastern with Izzo in the crowd. These were two of the top teams in the state, and his dad didn't mince words.
"It's not for everybody," he said. "Playing at the highest level, playing in front of huge crowds and showing up in big games—that's not for everybody. And if that's not you, that's OK—I love you. The bottom line is if you're good enough, you're good enough. If you're not, you're not."
Valentine—projected by recruiting services as a small forward but so versatile he would average one assist shy of a triple-double as a senior—dug in and helped deliver a pair of state titles alongside best friends Bryn Forbes, now his senior backcourt running mate at MSU, and Anthony Clemmons, a senior guard now at Iowa.
Still, he arrived here unready to be a top contributor, averaging five points and 4.1 rebounds in 20-plus minutes per game. But the statistical progression since has been steady. As a sophomore, he averaged eight points and six rebounds per game before improving to 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as a junior, when the Spartans reached the Final Four. Along the way, he has played both forward positions and shooting guard before arriving at whatever he is now—officially a guard but really so much more.
Part pure point guard, part point forward, Valentine is all production—as Smith was when he blossomed in the late 1980s into one of the better players in the country, a future NBA All-Star.
"I played with Denzel's dad and followed their team in high school," said Smith, now an analyst for NBA TV. "One thing I've loved about Denzel since then is there has always been kind of a whisper: 'Denzel's a good player, but what position is he?' Well, he reminds me of so many guys who've come out of Michigan State—he can just do it all. You can't put a position on Denzel.
"Everything people said Denzel needed to do, he did that. He needed to get in better shape? He did. He needed to defend better? He has become one of Izzo's best defenders. He need[ed] to shoot better? Look at his percentages now. It's incredible. His work ethic and basketball IQ are second to none."
Valentine has gone from a player who once was barely visible on the NBA's radar to a sure-thing first-round pick—a potential lottery selection—in June. To him, it goes back to that car ride.
"From that point on, I was goal-driven," he said. "I do not want to have a job, a 9-to-5, no disrespect to those who do because they work hard, too. But I feel like this is the job for me. This is my dream. This is my goal."
"Cleaves grew up a Michigan State guy during an era when everybody was [about Michigan's] Fab Five. He embodied incredible competitiveness, with as good leadership skills as anybody I've had. If he scored 30 one night and five the next, in the locker room he was just as happy as long as we won. And, man, did his teammates love him." —Izzo
Valentine was spectacular in the Spartans' second game of the season, a 79-73 victory over fourth-ranked Kansas in which he exploded for 29 points, 12 boards and 12 dimes—and became the fourth player in program history to record a triple-double. After some TV duty on the court at Chicago's United Center, Valentine returned to the locker room and was mobbed by his teammates.
"We're gonna win! That's my team! That's my university!" he shouted, jumping all the while as his adoring fellow Spartans jumped around him.
Izzo's postgame speech was interrupted by Valentine, who was lost—but clear-minded—in the thrill of the moment: "Listen, we can get better," he declared. "We've got to keep battling, keep grinding. That's how you do it."
For Valentine, this last ride began with a phone call to Cleaves, the star point guard and Final Four MOP of MSU's 1999-2000 team, Izzo's only title squad. Cleaves, a college basketball voice on Sirius XM radio, was driving home from the 2015 Final Four in Indianapolis, where the Spartans were toppled by eventual champ Duke, when he got a call from the guy who'd gone for 22 points and 11 boards against the Blue Devils.
"What did you do differently?" Valentine asked Cleaves, whose 1998-99 team lost in the national semifinals, setting the table for a historic achievement.
"That let me know right there he was on a mission," Cleaves said. "I told him, 'Everything from this point forward has to be predicated on you guys winning the championship, whether it be running, diet, whatever.' I told him a lot of things. He just went silent. And then he said, 'We'll do it.' That let me know how special this guy was."
The pair have bonded throughout the season, Valentine having asked Cleaves to call him—and to check him, if necessary—any time he has an opinion to share.
"I called him after one game, just nitpicking," Cleaves said. "I said, 'Great game, but I thought you rushed a shot or two.' I said, 'You don't have to do that. You're a playmaker. If you can't get a shot off, drive and get an assist.' I heard nothing, so I was like, 'Stop me if you want.' He said, 'No, no, no—keep going.' I swear, I think he actually takes notes. He wants it so bad. He's as competitive as I ever was."
Asked about his competitiveness, Valentine laughed, recalling one-on-one tackle football games on 100-yard fields against his older brother Drew, one of the winningest players in Oakland (Michigan) history, when Denzel was five and Drew was seven and Dad was playing quarterback.
"I got the crap beat out of me," Valentine said. "Drew would laugh at me, and I would cry. Ooh, it bugged me so much."
Valentine is similarly bugged by the Spartans' two losses to Iowa this season, the first of which came when he was sidelined by injury. It's fair to say he's dying to meet the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten tournament.
"If we're at our best and we match up against them?" he starts, before perhaps recognizing the foolishness of providing bulletin-board material. "Not only in the Big Ten—but if we're at our best? I don't think anybody in the country can beat us."
"Walton came in kind of idolizing what Cleaves had done and embraced it. Jud Heathcote once told me, 'Recruit guys who are dying to be there over guys you're begging to come.' Walton wasn't good enough to do this and this, but he had an incredible will to win." —Izzo
Carlton Valentine was a lunch-bucket forward at MSU who ended up leading an under-.500 Spartans team in scoring, at 13.3 points per game, as a senior in 1987-88. Sparty-green paraphernalia was all over the house in which Denzel grew up.
Michigan State may have been a tad far-fetched as a destination for Denzel when, as a doughy high school sophomore, he showed up at Oakland for some preseason pickup with Drew and the Grizzlies. Oakland had Johnathon Jones, fresh off a season in which he'd led the country in assists, and a big-time scorer in Derick Nelson. They ruined the youngest Valentine that day—picking his pocket as he dribbled too high and darting around him as he failed to get low enough in his defensive stance.
"They said, 'Man, if your brother comes here, he's not even going to play,'" recalls Drew, now a first-year assistant coach at Oakland after two seasons under Izzo as a graduate assistant.
But Denzel already had his sights set on East Lansing. All those games at the Breslin Center as a fan had left him idolizing the Spartans of Cleaves and Morris Peterson, of Jason Richardson and Shannon Brown and Kalin Lucas. He soon would be smitten with Green. There was no place else to go.
One of the Spartans who inspired Valentine most was Walton, a light-scoring point guard who may have been the best defensive player in program history. Certainly, no one was tougher; no Spartan ever cared more. As a senior in 2009, Walton—a cousin and mentor of current Kentucky star Tyler Ulis—willed his team to the national title game.
Walton couldn't shoot, but he could defend—well. He always had high expectations of Valentine, though he wondered if hardy defense would enter the equation.
"I remember him as an eighth-grader, a ninth-grader, coming to Michigan State and playing in open gyms," Walton said. "Our relationship goes way back. That kid has worked so hard. It's unbelievable. He's a perfect example—like Draymond—that if you work hard and you believe in what Coach Izzo is preaching, great things can happen for you."
Valentine has had his share of realizations about the things he can't do well. Gone from his repertoire are, for example, the sort of high-degree-of-difficulty shots—hero ball, he calls it—that would draw Izzo's ire. His defense, meanwhile, has become better than average by MSU standards, which is saying a lot.
"I've had moments a lot where I've realized what I can't do," Valentine said, "like trying to go up and dunk on somebody—that isn't me. But defense is something you can choose to be good at. You can choose to watch film, to work that hard, to take pride [in it], to care enough. This place is too important to me not to do those things."
"Draymond was as good as anybody at dragging players to the gym. He wasn't afraid to hear his own voice. He'd tell all his friends, 'You need to get better. I do, too. Let's go.' Dray was a worker, a gym rat." —Izzo
After winning the 2015 NBA title with the Golden State Warriors, Green—famous for his infectious positive attitude and work ethic—spent much of his summer working out in East Lansing with the Spartans. He'd done this before and become acquainted with the similarities in his and Valentine's approaches, but this time, he was taken aback by just how hard Valentine was pushing.
Valentine had played much of his junior season in pain and required hernia surgery last April. After a six-week recovery, he had only a tiny window in which to knock off the rust before traveling to Los Angeles to take part in the Nike Basketball Academy. Almost directly from there, he went to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to compete for a spot on the U.S. team in the Pan American Games; he was one of only seven college players to make that squad, which featured five professionals and won a bronze medal in Toronto in late July. In August, the Spartans traveled to Italy for four games, including three against European national teams.
Suffice it to say, Valentine's body was beaten up by the time he was back on campus.
"He went and asked Coach Izzo, 'Coach, our team needs some time off,'" Green said. "Coach Izzo gave him a week off, and the next morning, he's in the gym shooting. [I was] like, 'Dude, you need to rest.' But he's in the gym working out."
There's only one way to go from shooting 28.1 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman to 37.7 percent as a sophomore, 41.6 percent as a junior and 45.4 percent as a senior. That happens when the TV lights aren't on. Likewise, Valentine has made similar yearly improvements from the free-throw line, on the boards and with his assists, and those are just the measurables. His ball-handling, his strength and conditioning—all arrows have pointed upward.
Like Green did, Valentine pulls players into the gym all the time. He did it with fellow class of 2012 recruit Gary Harris, who often needed the urging, and Harris became the Big Ten's freshman of the year and a 2014 first-round draft pick. After Harris left, Forbes transferred in from Cleveland State and found himself being pushed by Valentine on a sometimes-dizzying basis. Forbes will enter the postseason with a hard-earned reputation as one of the most dangerous and productive deep shooters in the country.
"[Denzel] holds up the tradition of Draymond Green, Mateen Cleaves—leaders, guys who bring you life," Forbes said. "Denzel inspired me. He held me accountable and just made me want to be better."
Costello came in with Valentine as a Parade All-American and two-time Gatorade Michigan player of the year, having posted gaudy numbers as a high school senior: 25.1 points and 19.1 rebounds per game. He thought he had a lot of things figured out—until Valentine opened his eyes.
"When I got here, I was pretty content coming in for an hour, two hours a day, getting shots up, looking at film," Costello said. "The summer after freshman year, Denzel made me not think in hours but think in days. From May to the beginning of July, I think, we spent six to seven hours a day working on our game and our bodies. He really pushed me past the point of comfort."
This past summer, with Valentine often out of the mix, Costello and Forbes found themselves paying those lessons forward with younger teammates. This is how a chain finds its next link.
"Every year Denzel has been here, he has gotten better. He wasn't a very good shooter. He had a bad body. He couldn't guard my mother. But he has always had love for the game. He has been an incredible teammate. He has versatility, high basketball IQ, an incredible work ethic. He has the very best values of the people who played here before him." —Izzo
The Valentine men are criers. All three smile at the memory of Drew losing it on his Senior Night at Sexton. The family cherishes the moment they shared after MSU's overtime victory over Louisville in last season's East Regional final—the sons hugging on the court, then Denzel rushing toward the stands to find Carlton and his mom, Kathy, the ensuing embraces leaving Carlton bawling.
Looking down from the stands at the Breslin Center on that February afternoon, Valentine knew his time was coming.
"It's going to hit me on Senior Night, walking out of that tunnel with my family there," he said. "Maybe it'll hit me more after the game: 'Damn, I'm not going to play on this court again.'
"I put my life into this university and wanted to become great. When it's gone, it's going to be sad. I hope I'll move on to bigger and better things."
He expects to graduate in the spring with a degree in communications. Before then, a return to the Final Four—and MSU's long-awaited third national title—sure would be sweet. If all goes according to plan, professional success, fame and fortune await.
"Ten years from now, I imagine myself being one of the best players in the NBA, being an All-Star," Valentine said. "A family of my own, healthy, living comfortably. Coming back here whenever I can to catch a game, working out with the guys playing here, having a good life. That's all I want, just to live a good life and be well-respected at this place."
This place, where he has given and received so much. Valentine soon will be off in pursuit of bigger and better, but he won't get far away. The chain will keep him connected.
Steve Greenberg has covered college sports for nearly 20 years, namely for the Sporting News and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow him on Twitter @SLGreenberg.