Player of the Week
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
Now that the college basketball season has a couple weeks under its belt, we present to you the year’s first edition of the Big Ten blog. And no one has come close to matching the sheer production of Denzel Valentine in the early going. The marquee performance of the season for Valentine and Michigan State was a 6-point victory over 4th ranked Kansas in which Valentine posted a mind-boggling triple-double of 29 points (a career-high), 12 rebounds (one short of a career high), and 12 assists (a career high). Through 4 games, Valentine leads the conference in rebounds and assists and averages 15.3 PPG, and the Spartans sit at #3 in the nation while looking much less shaky than #2 Maryland, the preseason conference favorite. His shooting percentages aren’t spectacular: he is connecting on 41% from the field and 31% from the arc. But all the things he’s doing all over the court have this team playing great basketball.
Last season, Valentine played the role of remarkable second-fiddle to point guard Travis Trice; this season, Trice is gone, and it’s Valentine’s show to run, and he is running it like a maestro, like a power forward, a point guard, and the bell-cow scorer all rolled into one. Valentine was named a preseason All-American by multiple media outlets, and he is more than showing that last year’s surprise run to the Final Four was only a precursor to the things in store for the Spartans this season.
Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa
I had high preseason expectations for Uthoff, and, through 3 games, he hasn’t disappointed. He’s shooting 55% from the field and 46% from the arc, accumulating a cool 16.3 points a game despite barely playing half of the team’s minutes due to the lopsided nature of the Hawkeyes first two wins. But Uthoff was particularly key in Iowa’s third victory, a lopsided 28-point road win over a Marquette team that just won the Legends Classic tournament. Thus far, the Hawkeyes have played a relatively soft schedule, but things will pick up with upcoming contests against Dayton, Florida State, and, on December 10th, the big one against #4 Iowa St. for state bragging rights. If Iowa continues to win up to that point, then they could enter into that game ranked, but Jarrod Uthoff will play a huge part in that. He’s a versatile scorer and a great rebounder on the wing, and as Iowa continues to look good, he’ll certainly be in the press a lot more.
Caris LeVert, Michigan
The foot injury that sent LeVert to the bench for the latter half of last season is a distant memory. He leads the Big Ten in scoring with 19.3 PPG, and though the Wolverines’ two wins came against weak competition, and they lost to Xavier by 16, LeVert is balling out and is the breakout player he began to be last season as he took the reins of the Michigan program. Through 3 games, he’s shooting 50% from the field and from 3, and he’s averaging 5 RPG and 5 APG to go along with 2.7 SPG. The numbers won’t really mean much until he starts getting Michigan wins against quality opponents, but with upcoming dates against #18 UConn and #25 SMU, LeVert has the opportunity to do just that, and with the way he’s playing, I think he can get the upset in one of those.
Mike Thorne, Illinois
To be honest, Illinois has been the most disappointing Big Ten team so far. Injuries have been a huge factor in that, but regardless, 5 games in and the Illini are yet to have anything resembling an easy win. They have lost 3 games, two of which were against mid-majors, and the 2 games they won both required comebacks from a 14-point second half deficit. But one man on the roster has not disappointed, and that’s the big fella down low, Mike Thorne, Jr. Top 100 freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands was the biggest addition for coach John Groce this season, but the 6’11, 270 lb. transfer from Charlotte was the BIGGEST addition. After posting a respectable 10.1 PPG-7.3 RPG stat line in his final year at Charlotte, Thorne has opened his Illini career with 15.2 PPG on 53% shooting along with 8.8 RPG, good for 3 in the conference. He’s been doing his part to keep the ship on course but injuries and inexperience have plagued Illinois in the early going. Nonetheless, Thorne appears to be a Big Ten-caliber player for sure, and should have what it takes to match up with talented big men like Diamond Stone and AJ Hammons in the conference season.
JaQuan Lyle, Ohio State
If Illinois has been the Big Ten’s most disappointing team, Ohio State has been second. They began the year with two easy wins, but have since lost to a pair of mid-majors: Louisiana Tech, who could certainly be a tournament team, and Texas-Arlington, who isn’t quite as good. In the post DeAngelo Russell era, the point guard duties have fallen on the shoulders of freshman JaQuan Lyle, who was once ranked 42nd in the Class of 2014 before spending last season at prep school. Lyle is the centerpiece of this excellent Buckeyes recruiting class, but he’s still adjusting to the college game. He is shooting 36% from the field and averaging 3.5 turnovers a game, and in the Buckeyes two losses, he went 2-11 from the field with 4 turnovers against Louisiana Tech, and went 4-9 from the line with 4 fouls and 3 turnovers against Arlington. Some of the numbers look good, like the 5.8 assists per game, but part of the struggles have been due to Lyle, and this entire OSU freshman class struggling to adjust to college ball early on. No doubt they’ll turn it around and be a conference contender, but for this week, Lyle heads up this list.
Thomas Bryant, Indiana
If Illinois and Ohio State have been the Big Ten’s two most disappointing teams, then Indiana has easily been third. They went to Maui with high expectations and will come home with only two less-than-stellar losses and a win over an awful St. John’s team to show for it. The toughness and the interior defense were not there, and we saw another hyped freshman show his youth. Thomas Bryant was expected to be the missing piece, the talented big inside that would complete last year’s perimeter-oriented bunch. And he probably will end up being just that. But the blame, which rests fairly evenly on several players’ shoulders, as well as coach Tom Crean’s, may fall most squarely on the young Bryant, who still has some growing pains to work through. Indiana allowed a lot of looks inside, especially in their loss to Wake Forest as they were nursing a 9-point lead, and their big men couldn’t prevent them or grab rebounds. Bryant did look good away from Maui, particularly against a respectable Creighton team, against which he posted 17 points on 7-10 shooting, to go with 7 boards and 4 blocks. But he still has some work to do to really be a consistent player inside. He’ll be there soon enough, but after getting off on the wrong foot, Indiana only really has games against #6 Duke and #17 Notre Dame to prove they are legit before heading into conference play.
Top 5 NBA Prospects
1. Caris LeVert, Michigan
LeVert is back and he’s picking up where he left off as far as draft stock. Once he proves to scouts that he’s not only healthy but also primed to pick up where he left off in his emergence last season, his length and his all-around scoring ability serve to make him a potential lottery selection. Teammates Aubrey Dawkins and Zak Irvin have similar NBA-type skillsets on the wing and both hold spots in our Big Board Top 70, but LeVert has hardly been replaced and should continue to be the guy that the scouts are coming to see in Ann Arbor.
2. Thomas Bryant, Indiana
Tall and strong with fantastic length and a great motor, Bryant already has a fairly NBA-ready body and attitude. Developing his post game will come in time, but his activity level and his 7’5” wingspan make him the kind of player who could, at the very least, join an NBA roster today and carve out a role as an energetic rebounder off the bench. But his development this year could take him into the lottery discussion for sure.
3. Melo Trimble, Maryland
Tall point guards with scoring ability will always get NBA looks, and Trimble is backing up his skillset on paper with dominance on the court. Potentially the best player in the Big Ten, Trimble has NBA size and athleticism, and shoots free throws at a great rate, which is good because he’s gonna earn a lot of trips there. His shooting is generally more of an asset than a detriment, but offensive consistency is still being developed. And if he doesn’t want to be an undersized shooting guard in the NBA, he’ll need to continue to develop his point guard skills because he’s definitely the type of player who operates best with the ball in his hands.
4. AJ Hammons, Purdue
The big man is back from a 2-game suspension from coach Matt Painter to start the season, and he is as dominant as ever. One of the conference’s greatest-ever shot-blockers, Hammons has reinvented his body and developed a nice post game and jump shot. The main issues for Hammons are A) how much the NBA game is or is not tailored to his back-to-the-basket, lumbering style and more importantly, B) whether his issues mentally are cleared up. His focus in-game is no longer an issue, which it was as an underclassman, but this early suspension raises questions that have nagged Hammons about his commitment to basketball throughout his Purdue career. But really, Hammons showed last season that he has worked incredibly hard to be successful and I envision him shooting well into the first round discussion by this summer. His weaknesses are few and far between.
5. Diamond Stone, Maryland
Stone, like Bryant, is another guy who hasn’t shown us much yet at the college level. His minutes have been limited in his first 5 games, but he’s averaging a point per every 2 minutes, approximately. He should be just fine as coach Mark Turgeon entrusts him with more playing time, but what is more concerning about is draft stock is his mediocre length for a center (6’10” with a 7’2” wingspan) and his conditioning, as well as his general unprovenness. Like Hammons, he’s a back-to-the-basket kind of guy, but unlike Hammons, he still lacks polish and college-level experience and his draft stock is based more on potential, which he has a ton of, coming into college as the 6th-ranked recruit. His buzz will almost certainly rise as he gets the chance to play more, but the college game does seem what he’s more suited for, so it will be interesting to see how teams view him as a potential player in the up-tempo NBA.