NEW YORK — If the NBA Draft wasn’t always so ass-backwards, what happened with Michigan State’s two draft hopefuls Thursday night wouldn’t have surprised a soul.
Proven veterans of college basketball like Denzel Valentine are rarely rewarded by the NBA for steady development. Tantalizing raw talents like Deyonta Davis are usually too enticing to let slide.
Every once in a while, though, the NBA behaves like the rest of the world — where sweat equity, maturity and cultivated skill pays off, while naiveté and impatience is penalized without compassion.
As one petri dish in the study of one-and-dones versus four-year college players, MSU’s basketball program served as a compelling real-life laboratory Thursday night.
The Chicago Bulls selected Valentine with the 14th overall pick. Concerns about his right knee were either overblown or a smokescreen. Valentine willed himself from role player into one of the all-time greats at MSU and arguably the best last season in the college game. The NBA took notice. And the league trusted him as a player.
As Valentine’s family walked off the Barclays Center arena floor Thursday, with Bulls hats fastened to their heads and joy on their faces, Davis and his people sat glumly in the front of the green room area as the final picks of the first round rolled off the board. A few other families of draftees, drunk on the high of the night, remained scattered around. Davis and Co. weren’t isolated, but they were alone.
Eventually, after leaving the floor briefly, Davis’ wait mercifully ended. The Boston Celtics selected him with the first pick of the second round and shipped the 6-foot-10 Muskegon native to the Memphis Grizzlies. By falling out of the first round, Davis isn’t assured a guaranteed contract — though he’ll likely be offered some guaranteed money — and he might not be treated with the care afforded a first-round pick.
The system and people failed Davis — from Chad Ford’s first mock draft for ESPN last winter and every mock draft that followed, to the NBA execs and agents who perpetuated the myth of Davis as a lottery pick and the folks in Davis’ corner who believed it and advised him that he was ready.
Davis is a 19-year-old kid who if left completely to himself to decide his future would likely be back at Michigan State — and a lottery pick next year. For real this time. He’s a good kid, who in his hour of embarrassment and disappointment, stopped on his way off the arena floor to sign autographs for kids yelling his name. Most of the draft picks on hand — all of them presumably in a better mood than Davis — just walked on by as they were escorted to media obligations.
In Memphis, Davis will have a chance to learn from a terrific veteran frontcourt, made up of Marc Gasol and the previous one-and-done Spartan draft pick, Zach Randolph. Perhaps it’ll be a nurturing environment. Perhaps in a couple years, Davis will be a thriving young player with all the physical tools in the world, racing toward a massive second contract. Perhaps Thursday night will become a source of motivation.
But I’d bet my left arm that at 11 p.m. Thursday, he would have swapped his NBA Draft experience for another year in East Lansing.
“He’s struggling,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said, after spending the second half of the first round huddled near Davis in the green room in front of the stage. “But at least Memphis was a team that really had an interest in him. I know the GM well, I know how excited he is. I said, ‘You should be, because you got a steal.’”
Izzo had heard Milwaukee was close to taking Davis with its first-round pick, No. 10 overall. The Bucks are one of five teams Davis worked out with. The other four — Orlando, Utah, Denver and Phoenix — also passed on him. As did Memphis the first time around with pick No. 17.
“It was (frustrating) because I expected to go early, but the pick doesn’t matter,” Davis said afterward, either trying to convince himself of that or reciting what Draymond Green had told him.
The pick does matter, though. It makes for an easier start. It makes your new team more invested in you from the jump. It comes with cachet — Valentine’s face was above the masthead of Friday’s Chicago Tribune. And more cash — he’ll make an estimated $4.3 million guaranteed over the next two years with the Bulls. And in Valentine’s case, being a lottery pick brings validation of his work ethic, his development, his versatility, his unique offensive game and his adequate athleticism.
The Bulls are in a state of transition. On Wednesday, they traded away point guard Derrick Rose — who shares an agent with Valentine — and are reportedly considering trade offers for their other starting guard, Jimmy Butler. Valentine will have a role in the Bulls’ rotation and make offense easier for whoever is left on the roster. He’ll be asked to guard at least two positions, maybe three. We’ll find out more when he’s introduced in Chicago on Monday.
Valentine was asked Thursday night about being too old and polished to develop any further — an unimaginative but regular question of any senior who finds his way into the first round.
“You can never win in my place, being a senior,” Valentine said. “I just got better every year (at MSU), and why is that going to stop now?”
Actually, Valentine showed Thursday, you can win as a senior in the NBA Draft. And as Davis reminded us, you can be still be duped as a freshman.
Contact Graham Couch @firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.
Couch: Deyonta Davis a tricky one-and-done for MSU
Couch: We won’t see another Denzel Valentine
One last run: Hometown stars Valentine, Forbes chase MSU legacy
Couch: Valentine’s historic performance beyond Magic … or Draymond