Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News is only the latest columnist to touch on what has become a familiar topic over the last four years or so of Michigan State basketball: the "where is the leadership?!" meme.
The reality is, these columns are always inevitably talking about the point guard position. Kalin Lucas and Korie Lucious are talented players, even if both have a few noticeable flaws in their game. Their biggest crime, it seems, is something that isn't going to change: neither guy is Mateen Cleaves.
It has been unfair to Lucas, in particular, to constantly be compared to the greatest leader of the Tom Izzo era. But it should also be clear by now that Cleaves-like leadership and toughness are just not in the cards for Lucas. The present of the point guard position at Michigan State should involve being realistic about the strengths and weaknesses of Lucas and Lucious, allowing each to play to their strengths, and seeking the floor leadership and intangibles from other positions on the team.
The future of the position though? There's a simple solution for Izzo if he's seeking a potential leader in the mold of Cleaves: look no further than Flint, Michigan.
Now, full disclosure, as a Flint resident, I do have a certain affection for Flint athletes. Eric Woodyard of the Flint Journal put it best when describing what makes guys who make it out of Flint special:
That’s how we Flintstones roll. We support those trying to make it, rep hard, and we’re confident in our abilities. It can be described as having that "dog" in you. Take Mateen, for example, fighting through that ankle injury in the 2000 National Championship and still leading his troops to victory or (Mark) Ingram gaining more yards after the contact on the football field. That "dog" wasn’t put in them overnight, it was something that was put in them as children from their environment. I understand that it’s a grind to make it from our city, and that only the strong survive.
But that affection aside, the 2012 and 2013 classes should see Flint once again produce a significant number of Division I college basketball recruits, and two point guard prospects in particular are among the best in the state.
Here's a little breakdown of each guy:
Monte Morris, sophomore, Flint Beecher
I covered a lot of Beecher's games last year with Morris starting on the varsity team as a freshman. A few things that stuck out about him immediately were his confidence, his command of the offense and his defense.
Having a point guard that loves to play defense should, of course, be the biggest appeal of Morris to MSU. He currently plays for a coach in Mike Williams who might be the best on-ball defense coach in the state at the high school level. Beecher consistently produces guards who get after it and move their feet extremely well, and Morris is no different.
In fact, Morris is the rarest of species: I caught him playing lockdown defense for his AAU team, and as most who have been to AAU tournaments know, defense is rarely spotted in that setting. Morris, who plays for Team Detroit, along with Beecher teammate Antuan Burks, completely shut down the opposing guards in the second half of a title game last summer and helped their team erase a 20-point deficit to win their age group.
Last season, Morris had his breakout game against Class C powerhouse Saginaw Buena Vista. As a freshman facing BV's talented backcourt of George Goodman (one of the top scorers in the state) and Devante Jackson (brother of former Notre Dame standout Tory Jackson), Morris scored 29 points and helped Beecher close the gap in the second half in a game they were losing big, although BV eventually prevailed.
It wasn't the point total that was impressive, however. It was the fact that Morris only needed 15 shots to get his 29 points, incredible efficiency for a high school guard. When I asked Mike Williams after the game about Morris' performance, Williams was actually shocked that Morris had scored that many points:
"We still got on him (Morris) for passing up shots," Williams said. "He's the most unselfish kid I've ever coached, and he's our best scorer. He doesn't have to put up a lot of shots to score big. He likes to share the ball, and sometimes I think he's unselfish to a fault. He's capable of scoring 30 or 40 points a night when he's shooting the ball, but he's gotta put the shots up."
Morris led last year's Beecher team, which only had one senior, all the way to the state Class C semifinals, where they lost to Melvindale and Mr. Basketball finalist Michael Talley III. Talley had a huge game in that loss, and Morris learned something from it:
"I take like two days a week to re-watch that game just to take stuff out of his (Talley’s) game," Morris said. "Just how he reads the court, scores and how aggressive he is. That’s really what I’m trying to add into my game."
Morris, who is still on the skinny side, will have to get stronger to hold up at a high major. Right now, however, he's extremely long-limbed, suggesting he might get taller by the time his high school career is over. Morris is currently averaging more than 17 points per game, including 21 points in a recent close loss to Detroit Consortium, the No. 1 ranked team in Class C.
His basketball IQ is on par with any high school player in the state, and the confidence, defensive intensity and intelligence he plays the game with, as well as his hunger to get better (several Flint area coaches have said that Morris is the hardest working player at any Flint area school) would all make him excellent fits with a Tom Izzo-coached team.
Denzel Watts, sophomore, Flint Carman-Ainsworth
Watts is a much different style point guard than Morris in both build and game, but he's also displayed intelligence beyond his years starting for Carman-Ainsworth the past two seasons.
Watts' experience as a freshman was much different than Morris'. While Morris was forced into a primary role on a very young team, Watts won a starting job on a team that featured four seniors who are all playing college basketball somewhere right now. Watts also shared point guard responsibilities with Glenn Cosey, a senior last year who also was primarily a point guard. Both players spent time with the ball in their hands initiating the offense and at other times played off the ball on the wing.
As a result, Watts picked his spots last season, often deferring to his more experienced teammates. Although C-A was certainly talented a year ago, it was clear that Watts was often their most efficient player.
Carman-Ainsworth had been known as the most talented Flint area team over the last few years, but also known for playing down to competition and losing to inferior teams. Last season in the district playoffs opener against Grand Blanc, C-A was on the verge of blowing a double-digit lead late when Watts took the reins of the team. His coach, Bob Root, had more confidence with the ball in Watts' hands than any of his seniors:
"He's got great poise for a young person," Root said. "He just has a certain basketball IQ that most, even seniors, don't have. That, along with his skills, make him a very tough player."
Watts' muscular build and unflappable nature at point guard have caused some to even compare him to Cleaves, including Scout.com last year:
Watts has a lot in common and is already being compared to another former Spartan and Flint native Mateen Cleaves. Like Cleaves, Watts is also a football standout at quarterback and has grown fond of working out.
"Cleaves was able to accomplish a lot and for me to only be a freshman it is an honor to be compared to him," said Watts.
Now, there are obvious differences in their games as well. Watts is not yet the tenacious defensive player that Cleaves was. Offensively, however, he's probably more advanced as a scorer than Cleaves was in high school. Watts has 3-point range and uses his body exceptionally well in traffic. He's a good mid-range shooter and able to stop on a dime to pull up with an effective floater in traffic that is very accurate and is hard to block.
Watts has transitioned nicely from role player last year to primary player this year. With C-A hit hard by graduation, Watts is averaging 20 points per game, up nearly 10 per game over last season. Watts, who plays for the same AAU team as Morris, also has the added value of having the size and versatility to play off the ball as well as handle the point guard responsibilities.
There are certainly other point guard prospects both in-state and out-of-state that Michigan State will consider, but if Izzo is looking for a tough-as-nails leader to plug into that position, both Watts and Morris are smart kids who have been raised in the Flint basketball tradition and already display some of the toughness, talent and intangible qualities that many of the best players Flint has produced over the years showed during their high school and college careers.