EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Magic Johnson, Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine. Just a couple years ago, putting Valentine in the same sentence with the former Michigan State greats would not have made sense.
Several years ago, it would've been really farfetched.
The do-it-all senior guard, though, has earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath with one of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game and a current NBA All-Star.
"Of course he's not Magic Johnson, but he's got some qualities, meaning, he's a winner, worker, high basketball IQ," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "The (Green) comparison comes in because he's not good enough at this, this and this and all he does is win for you."
The 6-foot-7 Green was passed over by a lot of teams in the 2012 NBA draft before the Golden State Warriors took him 35th overall. The forward slipped to the second round because he seemed too small and slow.
Green has proven a lot of people wrong, playing a key role for the defending champion Warriors and leading the league in triple-doubles this season. Green said that should, "absolutely," help Valentine when the league is scouting him.
"If not, teams haven't been paying attention," Green said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press this week. "He's a basketball player. He's going to get it done if you just put him on the floor."
The 6-5 Valentine plans to kiss the green, Spartan head in the middle of the Breslin Center floor on Saturday when he plays his last home game for the second-ranked Spartans against Ohio State.
"It's going to be very emotional," he predicted.
Valentine — named after his father's favorite actor, Denzel Washington — was born not far from campus. He was trained by his dad, former Michigan State standout Carlton Valentine, who coached him when Lansing Sexton High School won consecutive state titles.
When the youngest Valentine was going into his junior year in high school, Michigan — not Michigan State — offered him a scholarship first.
Back then, Izzo told Valentine he needed to work on his shot. And, he did.
Valentine immediately spent "a few hours," according to his dad, hoisting up shot after shot that same day.
After an impressive outing that summer in Las Vegas, with Izzo sitting next to Wolverines coach John Beilein, then-Michigan State assistant coach Mark Montgomery called Carlton Valentine to ask if Michigan had offered a scholarship. After finding out the rivals did, a meeting was set up.
"We weren't going to let him go to U of M," Montgomery recalled this week after leading Northern Illinois against Eastern Michigan.
Valentine didn't accept the scholarship on the spot, but did soon after.
Following a relatively slow start in his career, Valentine is closing his college career by averaging a combination of points, assists and rebounds no one has in college basketball in at least three decades. That has likely boosted his chances of becoming the national player of the year.
Valentine is averaging a Big Ten-best 19.3 points and 7.3 assists and ranks among conference leaders with 7.6 rebounds a game. He will probably become the first college basketball player to average at least 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in a year since at least the 1983-84 season, when the NCAA began recognizing assists as an official statistic. He is the only player in Michigan State's storied history to rank among the Top 10 in career assists and rebounds.
After his first two seasons in college, he was averaging six-plus points, five rebounds and three assists while showing occasional flashes of possible greatness.
"If anybody said they saw him as a national player of the year, they're lying to you because I didn't see that," his dad said.
Valentine improved his shot to become college basketball's best player in the second game this season when he scored a then-career-high 29 points, made 12 assists and grabbed 12 rebounds in a win over Kansas. Three games later against Boston College, he had 29 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds, joining Johnson and Green as the only players in program history to have double digits in points, assists and rebounds in multiple games.
His special season hit a snag in a practice when discomfort in his left knee led to arthroscopic surgery on Dec. 21.
"When he had that surgery, he thought he was done," Carlton Valentine recalled. "He collapsed in my arms. I was the one who took him to the hospital at 5 in the morning."
Valentine, though, missed just four games and has been spectacular during a recent stretch in which the Spartans have won nine of 10 games while he has averaged 21 points, eight-plus assists and nearly eight rebounds a game. Primarily playing point guard, he has unselfishly directed an offense averaging an Izzo-high 80 points a game.
While Izzo said he sees, "bits and pieces," of Johnson and Green when he watches Valentine play, he doesn't want him to strive to be either one.
"I'd like him to just be Denzel because Denzel is good enough for me," Izzo said.
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