Denzel Valentine has been down this road before.
When he was coming out of high school at J.W. Sexton in East Lansing, Mich., where he played for his father Carlton, Valentine was regarded as a nice college prospect but hardly a blue-chipper.
“I was at the bottom of the rankings list,’’ Valentine said the other day during a phone interview from Los Angeles. “I was 99 or something like that.’’
Valentine has a good memory. ESPNU had ranked him 98. Rivals.com gave him a little more love by rating him the 81st best player in his class.
Suffice to say, Valentine blew those rankings to smithereens during his decorated college career at Michigan State. By his senior year, he was arguably the No. 1 player in the land. He was chosen the Player of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and The Associated Press.
And it’s easy to see why they bestowed Valentine with the honor. The 6-foot-6 Valentine had a season for the ages, averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists. He shot 46 percent from the field, including a white-hot 45 percent from beyond the arc.
He was LeBronesque.
“LeBron was one of my idols growing up, along with my dad and brother (Drew),’’ Valentine said. “I watched him a lot. I loved LeBron’s all-around game. He could do everything.
“He did a lot of things for his team and I really admired that.’’
Yet, despite his phenomenal senior season, Valentine hasn’t won over the so called-draft experts – just like he didn’t win over the critics when he was a senior in high school. Most mock drafts don’t even have Valentine in the lottery (a top 14 pick), projecting him as more of a middle-to-late first-round selection.
Some draft analysts contend Valentine has two distinct flaws to his game: his defense and his athleticism. The skeptics contend he doesn’t play defense and will struggle defending the more athletic shooting guards and small forwards in the Association.
Valentine has heard about his supposed shortcomings and is seemingly letting it roll off his back.
“The people who are saying this, are they watching my games? Or are they going off what others say,’’ Valentine said. “I think my defense is a little underrated, actually. It might not be great, but I can get out there and guard people.’’
An NBA player personnel director echoed Valentine’s sentiments. He scouted Valentine on several occasions this season and totally dismissed his alleged defensive liabilities.
“I don’t ever remember writing down anything about him being a poor defender,’’ the NBA official said. “That’s a bunch of crap. He played for Michigan State, right? Michigan State players guard people.’’
A much more concerting issue facing Valentine as the draft approaches, some NBA officials say, is the status of his knees. There are some NBA teams that are legitimately concerned about whether Valentine can withstand the rigors of an arduous 82-game regular season and then postseason play. They contend he could possibly have a short NBA career.
Valentine said he had knee surgery in high school and then last December for torn cartilage. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo declared the latter to be “very minor’’ surgery. It was; Valentine missed only four games.
Told that some NBA officials are weary about his knee, Valentine said nobody had brought up the subject to him before.
“This is kind of catching me by surprise,’’ Valentine said. “I’ve had knee things throughout my career, but I never really missed many games.
“My injuries were very minor. I don’t have to do any more surgeries; I don’t have to take any precautions. There’s not anything holding me back. I’m healthy now, and I’ll continue to strengthen my legs and continue to take care of my body.’’
A veteran scouting director insists Valentine’s knee issues are legit, but it wouldn’t personally deter him from choosing him in the top half of the draft.
“There are some (in the NBA) who think he’s slipping (in the draft) because of the knee issues; they’re worried about that,’’ the scouting director said. “Would I still take him? Absolutely?’’
Added another player personnel director, whose team is picking late in the lottery: “You have to check the knee stuff out, but I think he’ll be fine. He’s a ballplayer. He’ll be able to come in and play right away. He can play small forward, shooting guard and be a secondary ballhandler. And he plays both ends of the floor. I like the guy a lot.’’
Valentine, who has worked out for Utah (12th pick) and will work out for Milwaukee (No. 10), Orlando (No. 11) and Chicago (No. 14), said he doesn’t have a clue where’ll be drafted. Nor does he care. What he cares about is what transpires after the draft.
“I really don’t know where I’ll go,’’ said Valentine, who has been working out in L.A. “I want to accomplish things right away. I want to be an NBA All-Star and be an NBA champion.
“I just want to be the best player after the draft.’’
Just like he was the best college player after high school.