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Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine are proof of what college basketball can do for you

Four years later, the two best players in college basketball get the victory lap they deserve.

All pictures courtesy of SB Nation and ESPN
All pictures courtesy of SB Nation and ESPN

LOS ANGELES — Denzel Valentine's mom appeared momentarily hesitant to run onto live TV when SportsCenter motioned to her from backstage to tell the story of how Michigan State's star guard got his first name. It's a question Valentine was asked repeatedly throughout his breakout senior season, and there was no better place to go than the direct source.

The name Denzel immediately conjures up exactly one person, and Valentine's parents confirmed he was named after the famous actor because of his father's love of films like "Mo' Better Blues" and "Glory."

"And we knew he would be handsome!" mom beamed.

Buddy Hield jumped on SportsCenter next, and was asked about his rise from a likely second round pick as a junior to the No. 7 player on DraftExpress after an incredible senior season.

"I always dreamed of hitting the lotto," Hield said flashing his famous smile. "And this is the closest I'll ever get."


Valentine and Hield were in LA to put a bow on their college careers at ESPN's College Basketball Awards. Their families accompanied them through the preceding press tour, from SportsCenter to ESPN Radio to the awards show itself at the end of the night. This was the lull between the NCAA Tournament and the buildup to the NBA draft, a brief period of reflection in the middle of the craziest stretch of their lives.

Both players are likely lottery picks in June, but they have more in common than that. Each serves as living proof of What College Basketball Can Do For You. As recently as 12 months ago, neither was projected as a first rounder. Go back to when they entered college, and their NBA odds were even more of a longshot.

You have to scroll all the way to No. 96 to find Valentine's name in the 2012 RSCI. Go down a little further and you'll see Hield at No. 111. Their NBA futures are so much brighter than many of their more highly touted peers in the class of 2012 because they stuck around four years and let college basketball shape them as players and as men.

Anthony Bennett was No. 6 in that class, Grant Jerrett was No. 10 and Ricky Ledo was No. 11. Each have essentially already crashed and burned in the NBA. They aren't bringing their moms to SportsCenter or accepting trophies from Jerry West and Julius Erving.

Instead, Hield and Valentine were the beneficiaries of patience, hard work and the type of marketing, coaching and leadership the D-League could never dream about. Both players feel like they're just getting started.

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Hield and Valentine are ready to move on. They can't wait. You can tell by their faces at the start of every interview.

"Denzel, how many people have told you you busted their bracket?"

"We ran into a tough opponent, and they had a good night."

"Buddy, what happened against Villanova?"

"One of those games, man."

Valentine spent his senior season growing into the most complete offensive player in the country. Hield was a supernova, shooting threes better than anyone since Steph Curry and attracting attention from no less of an authority than Kobe Bryant in the NCAA Tournament. Both are also an example of how cruel college basketball can be.

Valentine's college career ended with the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. Hield shot 4-for-12 for nine points as Villanova beat Oklahoma by 44 points in the Final Four, the biggest blowout the final weekend has ever seen.

"I'm ready for all that to pass," Hield told SB Nation. "The reason they ask you is because we made a big influence on college basketball this year as seniors, and what we've done. When the NBA draft comes, I'll be happy it goes away."

* * *

Just weeks removed from the end of their college careers, advice for how to handle the impending adjustment to the pros has already started to roll in.

During a guest spot on ESPN radio's Thompson and Trudell Show on Friday, Mychal Thompson lectured about the hazards of spending time in the club.

"There's Buddy Hield, maybe he can buy us a bottle," Thompson mimicked as a parable for dealing with newfound money and fame.

"I'm on a budget!" Hield interjected before he could finish.


Hield and Valentine each took home hardware on Friday night. Valentine was named the Julius Erving Award winner as the nation's top small forward. Hield won the big one, the Wooden Award, handed out to the country's most outstanding player.

Neither had to be here. They could have left the college game early and secured a paycheck by this point, whether they were trying to cut it on the end of an NBA bench, grinding in the D-League or playing abroad.

"Best decision I've ever made in my life," Hield said on returning to school.

"I strongly suggest it," Valentine said for future players in a similar position. "If you're on the border and you're not for sure locked in in the lottery or the first round, might as well come back and work on your craft and soak in the college experience. You can only do it one time."

Denzel Valentine and Buddy Hield are the best possible ambassadors for college basketball because the relationship was so mutually beneficial. College basketball thrives because of stories like theirs, and those stories only exist because of the structure Michigan State and Oklahoma helped prove.

"It just shows that you don't have to go to the NBA to get better," Hield said of his senior success this year. "You can stay in college and get better, too. If you trust yourself, trust your coaches and put in the work in, it can happen. But not everyone is going to be Buddy Hield."

For four years, Valentine and Hield used everything available to them to get better. Now each are leaving college with little question that they're ready for what comes next.