A bad case of senioritis
Denzel Valentine worries his four years of college hurt his draft status
Denzel Valentine will likely be one of the few first round picks legally old enough to celebrate Thursday’s NBA draft with a glass of champagne. With the top picks typically one-and-done college players and teenagers from abroad, the Michigan State star also could be the latest college senior affected by ageism at the draft.
“I feel you can never win as a senior,” Valentine, 22, told The Undefeated. “If you go out early, you are based off of your potential. If you stay four years … I’m NBA-ready. I’m ready to play. But it is the way it is.”
Another former Michigan State player, Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, said he expects Valentine is being overscrutinized just like he was after completing his senior year.
Green was taken in the second round by the Warriors with the 35th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Four years later, he’s an All-Star, an NBA all-defensive first team selection, an All-NBA second-team selection and a member of USA Basketball’s Rio Olympics squad. A member of the 2015 NBA championship team, he can recite from memory each player who was drafted before him.
“Seniors are viewed like, ‘They’ve reached their potential. They can’t do this,’ ” Green told The Undefeated. “But then they will say, ‘This freshman has so much potential.’ What you’re telling me is he didn’t prove anything to you. But this senior has proved everything to you and you say, ‘Oh, he’s reached his potential.’ Seniors are definitely treated unfairly.”
Last year, only four seniors were taken in the first round. The year before, it was five and in 2013, it was only three.
This year, two seniors have the potential to be lottery picks: Valentine and Buddy Hield. There have been only four seniors selected in the last five lotteries combined. There haven’t been multiple seniors selected by lottery teams since 2009.
Still, good luck finding a draft prospect with a stronger resume than Valentine’s.
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound swingman earned 2016 College Basketball Player of the Year honors from the Associated Press, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, Sports Illustrated and others. He averaged 19.2 points, 7.8 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from 3-point range. He was the winner of the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award from the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, given to the nation’s best small forward, and he was also named to USA Basketball’s Select Team this summer.
“He has a high basketball IQ,” said an NBA director of player personnel who asked not to be named. “He is a versatile player who will be able to play a couple of positions. He lacks NBA athleticism, but he’s a winner, competitive and a good teammate.”
An NBA VP of basketball operations was equally complimentary. “Denzel is a highly intelligent basketball player,” he said. “He helps his teammates be better players that helps his team win games. His pick and roll game is as good as most NBA players. He has NBA three point range with a quick release. He has shown leadership abilities that will drive his team to wins.”
The Milwaukee Bucks (10th pick), Orlando Magic (11th) Utah Jazz (12th), Phoenix Suns (13) and Chicago Bulls (14) are teams with Top 15 picks who have worked out Valentine. He was projected to be a late draft lottery pick a month ago. But the NBA team official now projects he’ll be a middle to late first round pick.
Valentine said the lottery teams are making a huge mistake in how they view him.
“I’m going to have a big chip on my shoulder because I feel like I’m in there with the top three players, if not the best player in the draft. I feel like I’m up there.
“However they feel about me, whatever team that may be, I can’t control it all,” Valentine said. “I just have to handle my business and do what I do. Get better every year. Get better every day.”
So why is Valentine dropping?
The NBA scout said there is a “little” concern about Valentine’s knees because he had arthroscopic knee surgery last December that caused him to miss four games. According to Basketball Insiders, there are teams that believe that Valentine has a degenerative knee problem.
Valentine said he’s healthy and was shocked by the recent report on his knees.
“I only missed four games in my career ever,” Valentine said. “You can count on both hands the amount of practices that I missed … With the amount of games I played, I think I was pretty healthy in college. My body is in great shape right now. I feel healthy as ever.
“I am really surprised about everything that is going on. It’s really mind-boggling. I feel like I’m 100 percent and my body is feeling great.”
Valentine is not the only senior being scrutinized closely. ESPN draft insider Chad Ford said Hield, a guard out of Oklahoma and a projected Top 10 pick, could struggle in the NBA because he didn’t succeed until later in his college career.
Using himself as an example, Green believes that NBA teams lose out when they give more weight to talented, but unproven, freshmen over seniors who have actually produced on-court results.
“Everybody sees now that I was better than the 35th pick,” Green said. “ ‘He can’t do this. He can’t do that.’ What about what I can do? They never say, ‘He’s good at this or he can really do this.’ It’s all about what they can’t do … Mistakes will continue to be made by teams worrying more about what older players can’t do than rather what they can do.”
Valentine plans to have his parents, brother, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and agent B.J. Armstrong sitting with him at the draft table in the green room.
“This is something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life,” Valentine said. “It’s finally here. All that work that I put in, my family sacrificed and everything that came with it. It’s hard work.
“It’s going to be a special day for me and my family. I’m going to enjoy it. Of course, I’m a little anxious, nervous, a little excited about it.”