Draymond Green’s texts lifted Denzel Valentine to a new level

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CHICAGO — Draymond Green left Michigan State in 2012 and went from second-round NBA draft pick to near max-contract player on the world champion Golden State Warriors. The player commonly known around East Lansing as “Day-Day” still remains a fixture with his former program. Returning to campus during homecoming weekend this fall, Green gifted his former program $3.1 million for a new practice facility. He continually keeps tabs on Michigan State’s current roster.

Sunday night, Green was awake and sweating through a night of the flu and decided to send a group text to the Spartans with the kind of smack-talking encouragement that only a renowned trash-talker like Green could conjure up. With a Champions Classic tilt with No. 4 Kansas looming, the verbal jabs in the group text resonated deeply with Michigan State senior guard Denzel Valentine.

“He said he had the flu and he was in bed and it was, like,  2 o’clock in the morning,” Valentine recalled of Green’s feverish, motivational group text. “And he was like, ‘I’ve got the flu and I was just thinking…’ [Green] named everybody on the team. ‘You’re not going to do this; you’re not going to do this; you’re not going to do this.’ He kind of challenged us a little bit. He went through every player on the team and he challenged us. And I got to thinking, ‘I want to prove Day-Day wrong because he’s always talking stuff.'”

Valentine used Green’s challenges as the fuel of a brilliant triple-double performance that lifted No. 13 Michigan State to 79-73 comeback win over the Jayhawks on Tuesday night. Finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, Valentine became only the fourth player in program history to finish with a triple-double and he joins elite company in Green, Magic Johnson and Charlie Bell. Valentine and Magic Johnson are also the only two players to ever drop a triple-double against Kansas.

The inspired play of Valentine helped the Spartans overcome an 11-point second-half deficit with 9:43 remaining as the senior led his team on a comeback run and eventually willed his team to victory. Competing to the point of exhaustion at around five minutes left, Valentine saved his best for the final few minutes as his multiple go-ahead shots were enough to hold off Kansas as his teammates also stepped up after a sluggish first half.

“He sucked it up. He gives me credit; I give him credit,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said of Valentine after the game. “The kid, he’s like Draymond. There’s a million things that he’s not good enough at. But winning is something he’s good enough at. Work ethic is something he’s good enough at. And basketball IQ is something that he’s good enough at. And those things just won us a big game.”

This year’s Spartans are very clearly Valentine’s team and they’ll go as far as he can carry them. The parallels between this Michigan State roster and the Spartans during Green’s senior season is also noticeable. Both teams had uncertain play from young point guards and featured complimentary scoring options that haven’t been consistent through a full college season. Valentine, like Green, is also a uniquely gifted rebounder and passer from the wing — a regular potential triple-double waiting to happen.

Travis Trice and Branden Dawson have exhausted their eligibility from last season’s surprise Spartans Final Four run and Valentine has a major target on his back as an All-American candidate entering his senior season. Similar to Green during his final college campaign, Valentine lifted Michigan State to a huge win when his supporting cast wasn’t always reliable.

After a rocky first half with poor shooting and a performance that Izzo deemed, “soft,” Valentine wouldn’t let his team give in when things started to look down with a little under 10 minutes left. Coming out of a timeout and trailing 61-50, Valentine snared an offensive rebound and found senior guard — and former high school teammate — Bryn Forbes in the corner for a 3-pointer. That triggered a 22-point Michigan State stretch in which Valentine scored or assisted on every point over an eight-minute stretch. Suddenly, Michigan State was in control, and the final dagger came when freshman guard Matt McQuaid received a pass from Matt Costello and buried a 3-pointer to give the Spartans a 75-71 lead with 55 seconds remaining. 

“I’ll do whatever it takes to win. I don’t care what it is,” Valentine said. “I could be on the ball, I can be off the ball. I’ll check the best player on the [opposing] team. I’ll do this; I’ll do that. I just want to win. That’s my motto.”

“He put all his trust in me,” McQuaid said of Valentine. “When he passed me that one shot [with four minutes left] he said, ‘Shoot it!’ and it gave me a lot of confidence to knock it down.”

Besides filling up the stat sheet and taking over a tight game against a top-5 opponent, Valentine only turned the ball over one time in 38 minutes and stayed the course as the team’s emotional leader. Valentine spent the early portion of the post-game press conference looking around and smiling as he praised teammates and coaches about a great team win. Like any disciple of Izzo, Valentine knows a big win in November is nice, but the important thing is to focus on the next step of the championship picture.

“I’m going to get better, our team is going to get better. I’m not even tripping about [the win] right now because we’re going to get better,” Valentine said.

After the memorable performance was completed, Valentine received an emotional hug from his dad, Carlton Valentine, himself a four-year letterwinner from the Michigan State basketball program. Just like Green and great Michigan State players before him like Magic and Charlie Bell, Valentine is an in-state player who takes an immense amount of pride in making sure his school is performing to the highest of expectations. Valentine said after the game that he never dreamed of putting up a line like 29-12-12. Forbes said it was the best performance he’s ever seen from his long-time friend. If Valentine continues to be a leader capable of regularly filling the box score, the Spartans are going to be tough to beat as they’ll inevitably improve as the season moves along.

“I just like guys that want to compete. I want guys where winning is important,” Izzo said. “Denzel has one of those qualities that not everybody has; where winning is important. Michigan State is important to Denzel. His dad played there, and this whole legacy thing, it’s important to him. No matter what Michigan State does in whatever sport. That doesn’t happen all the time. I like that more than anything.”