The Pelicans ended their abominably underwhelming 2015-2016 campaign with a 30-52 record, the sixth worst record in the league. And although last year's result was an outcome no New Orleans fan pined for, at least it came in a season when the Pelicans had a first round draft pick awaiting them at the grisly end.
To find the last time the Pelicans had a first draft pick (one that they didn't trade), you have to teleport back four years to 2012, when a dyad of picks resulted in Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers. Since then, a trade for Nerlens Noel left the Pelicans bereft of a couple of first rounders in 2013 and 2014. And Omer Asik was bartered for the premium price of one 2015 first-rounder.
In other words, Riley Curry wasn't even born the last time the Pelicans picked in the first round. So maybe it's still early in the offseason, but excuse us if we're stoked for a top pick in a stacked class.
So who to get? Well, the Pelicans will want someone to immediately take the pressure off of free agency pipe dreams while still embodying the theme of youth and excitement that this team is building towards. Additionally, that player can't obstruct the Anthony Davis-Jrue Holiday partnership whatsoever. My fellow TBW writers have already enlightened us to numerous picks for numerous scenarios that could match these criteria, but they saved this one for me.
Without further adieu, here's Denzel Valentine.
Valentine is a gamer. He's the son of a basketball coach, a clutch-time king, and has asserted himself as a winner along every step of his career. He's a professional used to the spotlight, used to the fame. He's a pro if I've ever seen one.
While a terrific leader and motivator, Valentine lets his intangibles shine the brightest on the court. Time and time again this season, Valentine would respond to an opposition score by pushing the ball up court for a pithy response. Furthermore, he assumed the role of point guard (not just point forward) when the need exposed itself for the Spartans, and answered every part of the responsibility. Valentine cut turnovers, countered defensive critics, and we all know about the triple-doubles.
After, Middle Tennessee's upset of Michigan State in the Round of 64, Tom Izzo said this:
When asked what he would say to thank Denzel Valentine, Tom Izzo was nearly brought to tears. https://t.co/xOaVz1JHlE— March Madness TV (@MarchMadnessTV) March 18, 2016
That's a credible source.
Valentine ended the year with averages of 19.2 points per game, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.8 assists a game. Add those to 85% free throw shooting and 44% three point accuracy, and you have an efficient, well-rounded, tactful player.
Valentine stockpiled awards, including the AP Player of the Year award, the first Michigan State player ever to collect that honor. He's been compared to Draymond Green and Magic Johnson, and while I believe those comparisons are far-fetched for different reasons, 'Zel deserves his share of props.
And to really nitpick, Valentine's game has a few irrepressible bonuses. Valentine can squeeze a basketball through a closed window; the 7.8 assists a game cannot represent the vision and creativity that he possesses. In the lane, when he's not helping his teammates get easy buckets, Valentine is adroit at nifty teardrops and impossible finishes while absorbing contact, in perfect proportions.
Nice to have you back, Denzel Valentine. We've missed these kinds of plays. https://t.co/4CrcFNvG7u— Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) January 10, 2016
Last but not least, with the nation's eyes upon him, Valentine usually shows up. His namesake holiday, Valentine's Day, has been the occasion for a brace of Valentine big games. This year, against Indiana, the scorecard showed 30 points and 13 assists, a mirror-like reflection of his dominance. One year before that, he hit a buzzer-beating game winner against Ohio State.
Starting this year, he also notched his first career triple-double against Kansas, an early stake to the nation's title of best team (please don't remind me of what happened later.) Valentine, as a departing senior, brings poise, composure, and readiness to whomever he joins.
It's hard to pinpoint a real minus to Valentine's collegiate career. True skeptics could highlight turnover problems earlier on, but Valentine tightened up his handle senior year. While 2.7 giveaways might not scream "safety," for the amount of time that Valentine touched the ball, he was very good about keeping it on the green.
Defensively, Valentine was also suspect for three, maybe three and a half, years. But in his final hoorah, he was guarding the opposition's best routinely and doing a commendable job.
And physically, Valentine isn't any sort of world-class athlete, but again, he's improved and holds his own. Obviously, it didn't really restrict his effectiveness, either.
The point is, Denzel Valentine wasn't necessarily festered with faults in college. That's why he was a top-two player in the country. Cons are more denotive of potential pitfalls in the pros, and there are a few of those.
All of the previously mentioned "shortcomings" suggest future challenges, opportunities for relapse under tougher tests. Improved defense, ball security, and athleticism are fine and dandy, but improved isn't necessarily not good enough for the pros.
In all of those areas, Valentine still has a ways to go before being ready to even hold his own in the NBA. And for a senior coming out, an NBA team won't have the same level of patience for skill and athleticism development that it would for a teenager.
Most troubling, however, is the confusion surrounding where Valentine belongs positionally. At 6-6, 223 pounds, Valentine is in the shooting guard categorization. But his skill set aligns with much more of a point guard (with his distribution, game management, and on-ball style) or small forward (where his lack of speed wouldn't be so glaring). At the shooting guard position, he'd enable himself to get free for midrange jumpers and corner threes by running off of multiple screens, but that's dependent on the system he's placed into.
Valentine shirks conventionality for his classification, and NBA nomenclature can't really properly mold. Now, that could be a good sign, as Thaddeus Young, Joe Johnson, Draymond Green, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have all made their careers off of exploiting positional mismatches as tweeners. But usually, that experiment of positionless players doesn't work--see Austin Rivers on the Pelicans as a combo guard.
Finally, and this con is tailored for New Orleans, Valentine is most effective with the ball in his hands. He's great on pick-and-rolls, finds a way to score on isos, and makes few regrettable decisions with the ball. However, although he can curl around an elbow screen, Valentine needs the ball in his hands to maximize his effectiveness. That's something that the Pelicans might have enough of, at least in the starting lineup.
Ceiling, Cellar, and Conclusion
So where does that leave us? Plentiful positives plagued by a few questions about adaptation. I detest the Draymond Green comparison. While both are walking triple-double machines, Draymond Green lacks the power to score in bunches as the offensive focus, something that Denzel Valentine regularly displays. On the other end of the court, Valentine will be satisfied with defensive inconspicuousness, while Draymond Green is satisfied with nothing short than a defensive player of the year. Also, although both can play the 3, from there, the proxy positions are in opposite directions.
A better comparison and measurement for Valentine is Joe Johnson. Both possess similar body types, play styles, and versatility. Valentine's ability to consistently knock down contested looks, get to the basket without elite athleticism, and keenly see teammates while driving are reminders of late-2000s Joe-Jo. Also, the late game clutch gene, the swingman style, the defensive questions... I could keep going. And who would be unhappy with that? Picking up someone who at his peak could average 20-plus points and six assists is a solid harvest from any draft.
Let's say I'm fawning with fandom there, though. Maybe he flops, as some seemingly bright prospects do. In this scenario, Denzel Valentine emerges similar to a Reggie Bullock--the ball handling doesn't develop, the shot-making takes some time, etc. It would be a horrible outcome, but that's as bad as it gets.
Overall, I like Denzel, a lot. But only in the right system. If he's pigeon-holed into a starting, restrictive role for the Pelicans as an off-ball 2 or 3, the Valentine project will not work. Period.
A top-eight pick is also too high to select Valentine with; those slots should be reserved for players who could develop into the league's best, especially in this talent-laden draft. Valentine isn't one of those. But still, Valentine possesses versatility, leadership, and on-court attributes that could help out any team.
If the Pelicans chose to trade down and follow some of these scenarios, Valentine would be a terrific late lottery pick to pair with another newly acquired, solid rotation player. Say trade with the Bulls and receive an out-of-favor big and the rights to Denzel Valentine. That would be great. Allow him to come off the bench and serve as floor general and leader of the second unit.
However, if the Dell Demps sees a prodigy at a higher pick, take him. Say Valentine's available but the Pelicans decide they want to use him as an off-ball 2, an Eric Gordon replacement, or anything that he's not, forget about it. You just wasted a lottery pick. Valentine needs an offensive structure that suits his strengths. Otherwise, he busts.
So for the Pelicans, if the shoe fits, wear it. But a perfect valentine needs more than a charming name; he needs to fit the master vision. Only then will you have the perfect match.