Comparing Denzel Valentine and Buddy Hield

Posted: 06/10/2016 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

 

I believe that there are three college seniors who will be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft. Taurean Prince, who I expect to go late in the lottery or maybe a little after that, is one of those players. The other two are Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine. As you might expect from seniors who may go high in the draft, the two were among the best players in college basketball last year. Hield won the Naismith award for the best player in college basketball, but he just barely edged out Valentine, who won the AP Player of the Year. But while both of these seniors were great college players at marquee programs, they are far from safe prospects. Time after time, we’ve seen great college players become poor NBA players for a variety of reasons. So, which one of these players is more likely to be a reliable player at the next level, and which of them will be out of the league in five years? Let’s get into it.

I love Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine. I just know he’s going to be a good NBA player. First of all, he’s a great leader and locker room presence. That isn’t a huge factor for me, but it’s a nice thing to have in a player. More importantly, I think he’s a very good player. The stats are jaw-dropping: 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per contest with 44% three point shooting on 7.5 threes per game. He didn’t put up those numbers due to off-the-charts athleticism, because he’s probably one of the least athletic players in the draft. He’s pretty slow and not very explosive, which leads to all kinds of problems on the defensive end. On that side of the ball, I don’t expect much out of Valentine. In fact, he might be one of the worst defensive players in the draft, although Henry Ellenson, a player who is expected to go higher than Valentine is in the draft, is probably worst. When you’re as slow as Valentine (especially laterally), it’s really hard to defend guards. And while Valentine, who’s 6’6″ with a 6’11” wingspan, does have the length to guard small forwards, he’s just 210 pounds, which means that quicker small forwards will be able to run by him and stronger ones will be able to back him down. The great thing about Valentine, though, is that drafting him probably won’t cost a top-10 pick, at which point the poor defense becomes much less palatable. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen a 6’6″ guy with the court vision and playmaking ability that Valentine has. There’s a reason that he’s the first player over 6’5″ to average more than 9 assists per-40 minutes since 1988 in college. Maybe LeBron would have done that if he had gone to college, but I don’t think anybody else would have had much of a shot. Valentine’s ability to both read and see over a defense is invaluable and probably would be enough to make him a solid NBA player by itself. So the fact that he’s such a great shooter is just icing on the cake. Valentine didn’t take many open threes; those were left to his teammates. But his quick release and ability to get his feet set allow him to make shots even when a defender is bearing down. It’s going to be really scary to close out on Valentine. He won’t blow by you, but, if you come out too quickly, he’ll find an open pass. If you stay back and clog the passing lanes? He’s going to drain a three. And that’s why I think he’s a lot better than Evan Turner, a former #2 pick who put up similarly great stats in his last year in college but has been somewhat disappointing in the NBA. If you look at the career Turner’s had, you’ll realize that, if he had been drafted at #10 instead of #2, he’d be considered a pretty good pick. I think Valentine is better than Turner, and a team’s going to be able to snag him after #10. I’m all in.

On the other side of the spectrum for me is Buddy Hield. It’s not that I don’t understand Hield’s allure. Who doesn’t want a 25 point-per-game player who also happens to be the best long range shooter in college basketball? I definitely want that guy on my team. But I don’t want to take that guy at #5. He’s going to be in the NBA for a long time, because his shooting is money in the bank. When you hit difficult shots at the rate that he does in college, you’re going to be a good shooter in the NBA. Hield’s value has only gone up as the three point shot has become more and more prominent in the NBA. Getting Stephen Curry comparisons is never a bad thing, but it’s especially profitable when Curry is the most popular player since Michael Jordan. Everyone wants to get the next Steph Curry. Unfortunately, there never will be another Steph Curry. Hield is the closest guy to Curry in this draft, but he’s still nowhere near as electric. Curry’s shooting is in another area code, and he’s also a far better distributor than Hield is. Last season, Hield averaged just two assists per game with 3.1 turnovers per contest. That’s one of the worst assist/turnover ratios among guards who have any shot of being drafted. When Hield’s on the court, he’s looking for his own offense. That’s exceedingly valuable in a sixth man who you can plug in when your stars are out of the lineup, but it’s not going to make him a star on a good NBA team. Hield’s a better athlete than Valentine, but his defense isn’t much better. He became an average defender in his time at Oklahoma, but that won’t be the case at the next level. That backs up my intuition from just watching Hield that he’s not particularly athletic. He gets a lot of easy finishes at the rim, but that’s more because of defensive letdowns and the threat of a long shot than it is an indication of Hield’s ability to blow by defenders. So Hield’s not meaningfully better defensively, and he’s both less versatile (definitely a shooting guard, while Valentine is a combo guard) and much less of a playmaker than Valentine is. And yet he seems to be ranked ahead of Hield by everyone. If Hield joins the right team, he’ll be a good player as a 20-25 minute sparkplug off the bench who can pour in 15 points without much help. But if he’s a starter, I think he’s going to get exposed, which is why I don’t think he should be drafted in the top-5.

Verdict: Most people’s answer to this question would be that Buddy Hield is more likely to be a positive contributor than Denzel Valentine, which is why Hield will almost certainly be drafted ahead of Valentine. I happen to disagree with most people. Valentine’s not athletic, but he’s an incomparable 6’6″ guard who seems to make his teammates better. Think about it this way: both Hield and Valentine are unafraid of taking the big shot down the stretch, but Hield needs to take that shot (no matter how difficult it is), while Valentine is adept at creating a better shot for someone else. That paid dividends for Michigan State last year (in the regular season), and it’s going to pay dividends for Valentine’s future employer.

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