This piece will be about Denzel Valentine, one of the most unique prospects in the 2016 Draft, and beyond that, one of the most unique we’ve seen in the last 10 years.
But before we get to Valentine, I’d like to share this very interesting piece from Nick Restifo on Nylon Calculus about different statistical variables and how they predict future success.
It’s an interesting read, especially when it comes to interpreting just what being good or bad at individual statistics might mean in isolation. Of course, a potential next step in the research as pairing statistics together. For instance, what is a player’s likely growth curve if he passes and rebounds at elite rates? If he rebounds and shoots threes at elite rates? If he shoots threes and passes at elite rates?
Or beyond that, if the player passes at elite rates, rebounds at elite rates for his position and shoots threes at elite rates, despite being of less than stellar athleticism?
ie. What happens to a player like Denzel Valentine? As we’ll see below, we’ve seen a lot of guys on this continuum, which is to say, relatively unathletic Wings who can pass AND do at least one other thing really well. The problem is, we’ve probably never seen one as good as Denzel Valentine. Which presents a unique problem since he rates at the upper echelon for this kind of player in terms of just how good he is, while also rating on the lower echelons, even for this kind of player, of athleticism.
Some notable players to whom we might compare Valentine range from outcomes to Andre Miller, Francisco Garcia and Evan Turner to Reece Gaines and Luke Jackson.
Good News and Bad News for Valentine
The good news for Valentine. Besides perhaps Andre Miller, he’s the best college basketball player on the list you’re about to see. This sets him apart and makes a 1:1 comparison with any college player basically impossible. All of the players who were as good as Denzel Valentine were much more athletic.
That’s the bad news, it’s just difficult to find truly successful players with substandard athleticism. There are a few and they tend to be really smart (as Valentine obviously is), but they also tend to be better athletes than Valentine. Just imagine a guy like OJ Mayo, if he stayed in college, through his Age 21 or Age 22 season. Isn’t it relatively likely we’d have seen a 40% from three and 85% from the free throw line season from him? And with 5 to 8 assists per 40 and 6 to 8 rebounds. Plus better athleticism and defense.
Which is to say, part of the reason we haven’t seen very many players like Valentine is that the guys who can get this good in college also tend to leave school earlier. That’s something we shouldn’t forget. And if we’re going to project Valentine as a possible star on offense, it’s something we have to keep in mind. His passing value isn’t going to go away completely. He’s smart. He can see the floor. But since assist opportunities are not just generated by vision and the willingness to pass, but also by the ability to distort the defense and/or the ability to put the defense in mismatches, it’s unlikely his passing is going to translate to the degree we see in college.
When you’re talking about guys with below average athleticism who can do this, we’re talking about all-time greats with all-time great ball skills and handle. Mark Jackson, Steve Nash, Andre Miller, post-microfracture John Stockton, post-microfracture Jason Kidd, guys like that. The fact that late career Jason Kidd is probably the closest comparable to early career Denzel Valentine should tell us a lot. Late career Jason Kidd was still a very good player but when we’re comparing a 22-year-old kid to a 35-39-year-old (post major-knee surgery), even an all-time great, and saying that might be his athletic baseline, we’re talking about a career without a lot of margin for error.
A Look At Late Career Jason Kidd
1) As per freaking usual, all data is from Sports-Reference.com. They are awesome. Everyone say, “Thank you”, sports-reference.com.
2) Post-microfracture Jason Kidd was very good, despite being relatively slow and unable to stay in front of his man on defense. But let’s not forget, he also had tricks and old-man skills on that end that Valentine is unlikely to have or acquire in the next few years. Expecting Valentine to carry the late career defensive value of a player like Jason Kidd is probably a stretch since Valentine is unlikely to take the ball away nearly as often as Kidd. And late career Kidd was still a good defensive rebounder.
3) Denzel Valentine is, however, a much more natural Three-Point shooter. We can see that Kidd’s best late-career offensive seasons are pretty clearly tied to makes and misses from Three. If we’re going to play this comparison out, that’s a factor that might bode well for Valentine. Especially when it’s perhaps possible that Valentine could add volume to Kidd’s efficiency.
4) My favorite possible destinations for Denzel Valentine are probably Boston, San Antonio, Dallas (Carlisle clearly knows how to use players who can both pass and shoot), Milwaukee (playing off Giannis and Middleton), Golden State and Cleveland. Though almost none of those teams will get a shot at him without some kind of trade.
5) With these Dallas teams, we’re also talking about teams with multiple guys who can initiate in Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, JJ Barea, and in the earlier incarnations, Josh Howard. And also one of the games best erasers in Tyson Chandler. Jason Kidd was still their primary creator, but he wasn’t always doing it off of penetration or pushing the ball in transition, a lot of his offensive impact came from his ability to play off of other players. If Valentine is going to be successful at the NBA level, there are many worse players to model and few better.
6) Of course, it’s not a perfect comparison. But it’s one example of a guy adding big value without big-time athleticism. Late career John Stockton is another. I wouldn’t expect Valentine to carry those kinds of Assist Percentages forward since he’ll probably settle into an off-ball role, but 18-30% would be a good baseline for such a player if his skills do play.
7) The problem with comparing Valentine to players like Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, John Stockton is that none of them, as young players, were particularly comparable. They were either far more advanced from an athleticism perspective or from a dribbling perspective, or both. Valentine is a good dribbler, but he’s not Steve Nash, nor is he currently what Steve Nash was in college, who basically played college basketball the way Steph Curry plays the pro game.
8) I thought of the comparison after I wrote the whole article, but slightly shorter and less athletic or middle-to-end-of-his-career Mike Miller is perhaps another decent comparison for what we might expect from Denzel Valentine on the offensive end. Mike Miller is a player I believe WP48 does a better job of judging than BPM. And I suspect RPM would have likely thought more of his contributions on defense than BPM as well, though there’s no way of knowing.
BPM says he’s a borderline all-star in his best seasons. WP48 says he’s a legit all-star on two or three occasions. The thing he gets dinged for is his good shot selection. Mike Miller could have shot more, made more (at slightly less efficient rates) and raised his scoring averages significantly. However, it wouldn’t have been better for those Memphis teams for whom he was such a primary player.
(Gasol, Battier, Miller was a pretty good core to build around. Even without a legitimate starting PG. 49-33 to 22-60 is what happens when you trade Battier and replace him with rookie Rudy Gay. Imagine how potentially the different the league is right now if Memphis doesn’t make this trade and instead of drafting Lowry, who clearly needed a little time to grow on offense, they draft Millsap, who the computer models loved and who would have fit perfectly next to Pau. Battier-Miller-Millsap-Gasol is a team missing a go-to perimeter player. It’s also pretty damn good on most other fronts.)
9) Regardless, if we consider late career Kidd and Stockton along with the careers of players like Evan Turner, Matthew Dellavedova, Greivis Vasquez, Andre Miller, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Danny Green and Kyle Korver, we get some idea of what an upper bound for Denzel Valentine’s offense might look like.
10) Of course, three of these names are not like the others in terms of Evan Turner, Matthew Dellavedova, and Greivis Vasquez. These would be much more moderate outcomes for a player like Denzel Valentine, so it might be instructive to consider his college career alongside theirs. And let’s add Francisco Garcia, Reece Gaines, Julius Hodge, Nate Wolters, Fred Hoiberg, OJ Mayo, Andre Miller, Anthony Parker, Aaron McKie, Coby Karl and Luke Jackson as well.
More Bad News For Valentine, Potentially
Though before we get to our Denzel Valentine Comparisons, I wanted to point out one other factor that’s probably going to hurt Valentine’s career. I mean besides the fact that he’s almost certainly not as good as late career Jason Kidd or John Stockton. The team that drafts him.
Or beyond just the team that drafts him, but the area of the draft in which he’s likely to be selected (10-20) and the unlikelihood that any team will change their offense to the extent needed to suit the strengths of any player drafted in that range, while trying to mitigate his weaknesses. The most likely scenario for Denzel Valentine is that he’s going to be set up on the weak-side of the offense, either standing in the corner or the Wing, waiting for the ball to come to him so that he can either take a shot or progress the play in some other way. Tasks he’ll probably be able to accomplish. However, from this position, it’s difficult to add a lot of value with the passing skill Valentine possesses, which is kind of a waste.
Or we might see him being instituted as a primary ball-handler, where the best case scenario is that he’s Andre Miller with a jump shot, and the worst case scenario is that the defense switches everything, that Valentine can’t beat players like Bismack Biyombo off the dribble and that his team doesn’t have a Center who can take advantage of a small guarding a Big. (A way to solve this particular problem is to have Bigs that can exploit Big-on-Small mismatches.)
I don’t think either of these options is particularly well suited to Valentine’s strengths. (Which is unfortunate, since it’s highly possible this is what his first coach will ask him to do.) The goal for Valentine’s next coach is going to be to put him into situations where the offense creates the advantages he needs to be successful, which is to say, to put him on the move, have him run off of screen after screen until there’s an opening for a catch, which will either end up in an opportunity for an open jumper, or the possibility for a drive.
Offensively, it’s perhaps best to think of Valentine in the lineage of Reggie Miller, Rip Hamilton, Klay Thompson, or Kyle Korver. He’s likely going to need the same kind of help to find openings. Not just to shoot, but to probe. And if we don’t see Valentine in motion a decent amount of the time, it’s very possible that Valentine’s passing skills will suffer the same fate as those of talented players that came before him. Guys like Luke Walton and Francisco Garcia, who were difference makers with the ball in their hands in college and merely solid off-the-ball players in the NBA.
Denzel Valentine Comparison Table: Per 40 Passing
1) Here we see a number of Denzel Valentine’s closest comparables from the last 15 or 20 years. Mostly average to below average athletes to could either really shoot, really pass or in the case of Denzel Valentine, both. Guys who make 100 three-pointers in a season, shoot nearly 45% from that range, 85% from the free throw line and dish out over 9 assists per 40 minutes don’t exist in college basketball, except for Denzel Valentine. You can add 9 rebounds per 40 as well. He’s a really unique player.
2) This is not directly related to these two tables though it should be noted that while Valentine has sometimes struggled to make shots vs. athletic and or lengthy defenders, he always manages to affect the game with his passing. (Virginia in 2015 is an example of a bad shooting game for him. Foul trouble. Only 6 shot attempts in 21 minutes. Only one make. That was a Virginia team with Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon as the top two Wing defenders, ie. NBA quality defenders that college players rarely are matched up against. But Valentine still managed 4 assists and 4 rebounds against only one turnover. And MSU won, so it wasn’t like he did nothing.)
3) In these tables, we can see the progression that Valentine has made as a player. We should keep this in mind when judging Freshman too harshly. Young players do improve.
4) We should also check out the accompanying list of names and note that most of them were not nearly as good in the NBA as they were in college. Nate Wolters was a poor man’s Valentine and didn’t last even the length of his first contract.
5) Reece Gaines was more athletic, though also not quite as good. Similar fate.
6) Francisco Garcia had a very good and very long career. Also, the kind of guy that switched teams, and one whose passing skill was never as good in the pros as it was in college.
7) We should note that Valentine has become a better passer than any of them, besides perhaps Andre Miller and Kyle Anderson. That doesn’t mean he won’t befall a similar fate. Even Kyle Anderson’s passing value is greatly diminished in value in his current role in the Spurs offense, though still useful.
8) One thing that we’ll notice here is that many of the best players here, in terms of NBA success, are generally the knockdown shooters like Kyle Korver, Khris Middleton and Wally Szczerbiak. Luckily for Valentine, he seems to have that skill in abundance.
1) Just to highlight how impressive passer Valentine has become. He’s not only become the best in terms of dishing out assists, he’s the best in terms of making such passes without turning the ball over.
2) Though the others who are close, Nate Wolters and Matthew Dellavedova, show two very divergent avenues such a player’s career might take. The lesson, Denzel Valentine’s shooting skill better translate or he’s probably not long for the league. A guy like Evan Turner has been able to overcome a lack of shooting success from distance and turnovers, but he’s also now a back-up, on his third team, and was almost certainly on his last contract if he didn’t show the improvement he has in Boston.
Denzel Valentine Comparison Table: Shooting The Basketball
1) Now we see what potentially sets Denzel Valentine apart from a lot of the other less than athletic players on this list. Not only does Valentine possess the passing ability and vision of a player like Andre Miller or Kyle Anderson, he possesses the shooting ability of a player like Fred Hoiberg. Not quite as good as Kyle Korver, but Korver’s historically great, even amidst a group of great shooter. Regardless, Hoiberg was a legitimate sharp shooter in the league, retiring at near 40% overall and after a season in which he shot a Korver-esque, 48% from three. (He also had a late career peak like Korver, which is interesting.)
2) Like Korver, Hoiberg also got to the point where he played decent defense, despite athletic limitations. So it’s possible to get to average or near average for a player like Valentine, so long as he’s put into the correct match-ups. With rebounding, maybe even above.
Put him in the wrong match-ups though . . .
3) Like Korver and Klay Thompson and some others on this list, Valentine has also displayed an ability to shoot in motion. As I stressed atop, if Valentine is going to be a big-time player, finding an offense that puts him in motion will likely be critical. Were he on OKC, standing around stagnant like Andre Roberson or Dion Waiters might work to a good degree, since he’d be playing off of Durant and Westbrook, but it also will probably greatly mitigate Valentine’s ability to influence the game through his passing.
If a team is drafting Valentine with a mid-to-high pick, it’s because they believe in his passing as well as his shooting, so it’s not necessarily the right move.
4) We also see another notable theme play across with Valentine. Improvement. He’s continued to improve at almost everything as he’s gotten older and to vast degrees. This is rare and suggests something at least about the work Valentine is willing to put in off the court. Perhaps also about the player’s ability to solve problems on the court. (It was also a common theme with Draymond Green’s career.)
Given how good he’s become, it’s a little surprising just how not very good Valentine was as Freshman.
5) We should also point out that shooting and passing success are by no means a guarantee of anything at the NBA level. I forgot to place Nik Stauskas on this list. But let’s imagine that Stauskas, who shot 44% from three as both a Freshman and a Sophomore were still in college.
Wouldn’t he have likely put up a season that would have rivaled Denzel Valentine’s? Possibly from a passing perspective and at least from a three-point shooting perspective.
That’s a potential problem for Valentine since almost no one views Stauskas as a potential target. (Coach Bud seems to like guys like this, who’ve been worse in the pros than we might expect them to be, at least if they could consolidate their jump shot. And he did really well by both DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore in this regard. Tim Hardway Jr. even occasionally showed some signs of life, showing lots of improvement from the Free Throw line, in the mid-range and with his shot selection, in somewhat limited minutes.)
6) Though this is also a problem of how we perceive prospects. Stauskas was a dreadful defender and offensive player last year. He’s likely going to remain a dreadful defender going forward, which should have been expected. Now, after failing for two years, in ways which should hardly be surprising, a lot of us have completely given up on him.
And yet he’s also still likely to become at least a decent offensive player and possibly a very good one.
Stauskas’s problem is that he hasn’t yet started to hit three-pointers at the rates he hit them in college. He may never do so. However, he would hardly be the first player to take 3, 4, 5, even 6 years to adjust to the range and speed of the NBA game. (Check out Chauncey Billups college numbers vs. his NBA track record. Or even Fred Hoiberg, who came into the NBA after his senior year, not a college Sophomore. Some guys take time.)
It’s not like there aren’t positives to the Stauskas profile. The main one. He’s been very good on mid-range jump shots his first two years in the league, averaging 38% from 10-16 feet and 38% from 16 feet to the 3 point line. Now imagine, if instead of shooting 32.6% from three, he shot 38%. A not unrealistic jump to expect. Then, instead of a 51.7% TS% player, we’re talking about something like 57% True Shooting.
Which is also possibly a conservative estimate, since better shooting from three probably opens up more opportunities to drive off of bad close-outs and even more shot opportunities off of plays drawn up to get Stauskas open.
Stauskas wasn’t good at all this year. He wasn’t a whole lot of fun to watch. But there’s still a decent chance of his improvement. Really, he should be a senior in this draft class.
7) Part of what I’m talking about is Denzel Valentine’s floor. Let’s say he’s a -2.5 defender before considering his ability to rebound the basketball. Let’s say his passing ability doesn’t translate. Let’s say his three-point shooting success is somewhat mitigated. That he’s not a 42% or 44% shooter from three, but a 37-39% guy. Then we’re still talking about a player probably skirting league average overall in terms of value. Maybe slightly below. (ie. a Back-up.)
That’s not a particularly unlikely outcome, but it also should be somewhat encouraging, for teams worrying about a player they drafted not being in the league four or five years from now. That’s probably not Valentine.
8) However, what I am also talking about is that Valentine actually is a senior in this draft class. Those who have question marks are perhaps right to have question marks. There are reasons Valentine could fail. I personally am going to bet on his intelligence and effort, but I’d also be willing to structure a lot of what I did on offense around putting Valentine in advantageous situations. (Bringing him off the bench to get him time vs. inferior players. Putting him in motion, etc . .) Any team that can’t see itself doing this should stay far away, as a benefit to themselves and the player.
9) One reason I am going to bet on Valentine’s intelligence is because I’m confident that I can get Valentine in situations where he can use it, despite his athletic limitations. Why? These tables below are part of the reason.
9) Shot volume. I don’t place huge stores in a three-point shooter being able to replicate the shot volume they had in college. This is the single place where almost everyone fails to properly account for regression. And a major reason why college shooters just aren’t as good in the NBA game.
Good three-point shots come off the catch, unless you’re Steph Curry, and thus they have to be manufactured by the offense.
What shot volume tells us here, though, or at least suggests the possibility of, is that Valentine can shoot on movement and/or on-the-ball. And that’s suggested by the huge number of threes that Valentine is able to take per 40 minutes. Since the only way to get that many threes off is to be in motion or to be responsible for creating the opportunities oneself. If one watches enough, one also sees that Valentine is capable of shooting on movement. One also sees that Valentine is capable of taking and making heavily contested shots.
11) We also see Free-Throw success:
12) This a combination of mid-range, deep shooting and free throw success we often find in guys who are future 40% plus guys from three. Which, if it happens, could place Valentine as a +1.5 or +2 point offensive player even without great shot volume and even without accounting for his potential impact passing the basketball.
That’s what Valentine’s supporters are banking on. They are banking on him being Buddy Hield with passing and with rebounding since both are very possibly negatives to some degree on defense. (Any team that drafts Hield will also want to get him in motion.)
13) I’ve haven’t done the math, but from looking at patterns, I’d also guess that this combination suggests that it would be unlikely for Valentine to end up less than something like a 36% guy from three at the NBA level. As a floor, such a player still provides decent spacing, though much of his offensive value will have to come from areas other than just shooting.
Defense and Rebounding Per 40 Comparison
1) Will Denzel Valentine take value off the table as a defender? Very possibly, but it’s pretty evident that he’ll at least partially mitigate his defensive deficit with his ability to finish possessions. The players who are at the top of these lists all are or were at least average to well above average defensive rebounders at the NBA level.
2) It’s a good start, because if we look at the overall defensive results of these players, we find guys who are significant negatives like Wally Szczerbiak or Evan Turner to guys who worked to make themselves average like Kyle Korver or Fred Hoiberg.
3) The other players, the guys like Khris Middleton, Francisco Garcia, Matthew Dellavedova, and Aaron McKie work more as offensive comparisons than defensive ones. Either because they have better frames, more athleticism, better feet or all of these.
4) I should bring it up at some point, but you’ll also notice I’ve left off Brandon Roy as a comparison. Despite similarly impressive statistics, Denzel Valentine is not Brandon Roy:
4) We see some evidence of this in Valentine’s ancillary defensive numbers. He’s just not very good at creating defensive events. Regularly below 2.0 Stocks per 40.
5) Funnily enough, he’s regularly paired with Khris Middleton in these tables. And like Middleton, he did play on good to excellent defensive teams in college. But Middleton is himself an outlier, and would be an overly optimistic expectation of defensive upside.
Even if we say Valentine has the head and the knack for doing little things that might translate, Middleton is an extreme case. I think it would be foolish to bet on such an outcome from most guys at the college level.
So Where Does That Leave Valentine?
It’s possible that Denzel Valentine has some Andre Miller, Evan Turner and Matthew Dellavedova in his game, in that he might be able to initiate some offense at the pro level, especially vs. second units. However, it would be wise to view Denzel Valentine as a prospect in the same continuum as guys like Kyle Korver, Fred Hoiberg, Rodney Hood, Wally Szczerbiak, JJ Redick, CJ Miles, and Nik Stauskas. (Also, where we should view Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray.)
It’s not that we should wholly bet against the fact that his passing will play. It very well might, especially if he gets a coach who puts him into advantageous situations. It’s just that it won’t likely play to the extent of guys like Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Lebron James or even Manu Ginobili (whose passing success is kind of an upper bound for a player like Valentine). These guys create not just because they have vision but because their dribbling ability and athleticism (yes, even at nearly 40, Ginobili still gets to his spots) allows them to get to wherever they want to go.
That doesn’t appear to be Valentine, not that he’s necessarily a non-factor, but players far more athletic than he has trouble when matched up against Tony Allen or Kawhi Leonard or Chris Paul. So it’s not necessarily wise to ask Valentine to take these players head-on.
Then what are we looking at in terms of value?
In his best seasons, we’re looking at a +2.5 to +5 point offensive player if his shooting (both efficiency and volume) and passing play, but probably a player more likely to settle in that +1 to +3 point range. That’s even in the case where everything plays to some degree. +3 seasons are just very rare. Even most great shooting seasons fail to hit that mark. It’s what Klay Thompson and Kyle Korver do in some of their best seasons.
We’re also probably looking at a -2 to +1.5 defender, being very generous on the upper end of the spectrum.
Valentine’s rebounding very well may allow him to stick in that -0.5 to +0.5 range for a decent portion of his career. Even in that case, there are still potential trouble situations when teams can dictate that Valentine matches up with a player capable of taking him on the ball, or putting him into positions in which he has to defend screens.
Let’s say we’re back in 2012 and OKC has Westbrook, Durant, Harden while Miami has Lebron and Wade, what do you do with Valentine on defense? You might have to play him vs. Bosh and Ibaka, and pray that those guys don’t destroy you.
Vs. certain teams, Small-ball PF might be a way out of Valentine’s foot-speed conundrum if he can learn to play with leverage. He might be able to shoot a lot of the opposing teams PF off the court, and it’s not like most teams are going to want to initiate offense through players like Patrick Patterson or Marvin Williams. Even if so, that’s probably to one’s benefit. I kind of love it if Minnesota traded down and decided to go this route, since Thibodeau worked his magic with Korver, and also because Minnesota has Karl-Anthony Towns whose going to erase a lot of mistakes his teammates make in future seasons.
The Conclusion of Our Conclusion’s Conclusion
It’s difficult to tell exactly where Valentine will end up. He has three strengths (Shooting, passing, rebounding) that should allow him to add value to almost any team. That’s not to say that he might not end up as a slightly negative rotation guy. Though I’d be very surprised if he’s not an NBA player. Beyond that, there are a few reasons to be much more excited about what Valentine did this year than what a guy like Evan Turner did in his junior year. Namely, the three-point shooting ability and the assist-to-turnover ratios weigh heavily for Valentine. (Evan Turner heavily wins in the defensive stats categories, besides perhaps DRtg, where Valentine does decently.)
It’s also difficult not to bet on a guy with Valentine’s intelligence and with his ability to improve his game year after year. You could make an argument that the numbers suggest he’s the kind of player, like Kyle Korver, who’s going to work on his weaknesses until they become playable. If he can do, there’s considerable potential, especially if on a team for whom he won’t have to generate his own advantages. If he can’t, Valentine’s unlikely to ever be anything more than slightly better than average. And perhaps not even that, though still an NBA player.
The key with Valentine is in how we view him. It’s possible we should be viewing him as a potentially elite three-point shooter who can pass and rebound, rather than a potentially elite passer who happens to shoot three-pointers really well. Though I’d definitely give Valentine the opportunity to play on-the-ball, since it would make him a far more valuable offensive player, in the long run, a team is going to have to have a plan in place if Valentine fails in such a scenario. If there’s no back-up plan, that’s when a Kendall Marshall type career becomes possible. A Rich Man’s Kendall Marshall is still most likely a journeyman.
That’s one of the problems with such rankings. Sometimes you have to know which team is going to pick a player in advance.