In Sunday's loss to Ohio State, Derrick Nix out-played a probable NBA lottery pick. Count that pretty high up on the list of sentences I never thought I would write.
There have been so many aspects of this year's Michigan State basketball team that have been amazing to watch. Nothing has been more rewarding for me than seeing Nix turn into a reliably good rotation player.
As a senior at Pershing, Nix helped the team win a state championship and the 2009 Mr. Basketball award. Even this accomplishment, though, was met with its share of backlash. Nix averaged 15 points and 15 rebounds per game his senior season, but Pershing's best player was then-junior Keith Appling. Nix also wasn't even voted the best senior in his league that season -- that award went to Detroit Central senior DeAngelo Hailey.
Not to get too inside baseball here, but the Nix backlash was partially due to a belief that the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan, members of which don't often get to see every Mr. Basketball candidate play up close because they are busy, you know, coaching their own teams, often get swayed by things like an early commitment to a big-time school like Michigan State as a deciding factor. In Nix's case, the award went to the best senior on the best team in the state, not necessarily the best senior player in the state.
None of this was Nix's fault, to be sure. We see flawed awards voting systems at all levels of sports and far too often, rather than targeting silly voting procedures themselves, the anger at the system is often directed at the player. Nix didn't ask for the award, but paid a price for receiving it through unfair criticism simply because there were vocal segments of the high school basketball community who were upset at the lack of oversight in the voting process.
Winning the award did him no favors as a college player, either. Nix was a raw high school prospect whose size and footwork made him an intriguing college prospect, but he needed a lot of work, particularly on his body, before he'd ever be able to realize that potential. Guys who win Mr. Basketball, though, are often expected to be immediate contributors. As we saw, Nix wasn't ready to be an immediate contributor.
The most memorable moments of his freshman season include shooting 27 percent from the free throw line and missing a dunk, hanging on the rim to get the rebound and picking up a technical in the process in a win over Purdue.
As a sophomore, he got a bit better at the free throw line, but also couldn't do much to pull away from the forgettable Garrick Sherman in the battle for minutes at center. Off the court, he had issues that led to speculation he might leave the program altogether.
Thankfully, he stuck it out. He continued to get in better shape. And this season, after a poor performance against Duke in the second game of the season when it looked like he might never fully realize his potential, he just kept getting better.
I've written quite a bit about about how rewarding it has been to watch Green's development at MSU. I've equally enjoyed Nix's, but it has been for completely opposite reasons.
Green is — as Tom Izzo calls him — 'The Perfect Spartan.' He bought in, he played hard, he rarely made dumb mistakes on the court and, that we know of, he never made missteps off of it. We could watch his development unfold clearly because the work Green did behind the scenes resulted in more and more playing time.
Nix, on the other hand, has had a clumsier road. He, like Green, has worked tremendously hard to get in better shape. It has just taken Nix a bit longer. Nix, like Green, appeared to love everything about being at Michigan State — I'll always remember Nix's raw emotion when East Lansing was terrified that Izzo would leave to coach Cleveland in the NBA.
I've always been a fan of Nix, but it was because he was just kind of goofy and clumsy. He looked funny when he ran up and down the court because his upper body is so big and arms are so long. He gave funny quotes — like when he talked trash to ball boys or when he was asked about his lack of minutes and he said this:
"I'm just gonna try to do the best I can do for us to win. If that's clapping on the bench, rebounding, making water for the leaders, that's what I'm gonna do."
Nix "making the water" might be my favorite athlete quote ever.
That missed dunk, mixed with Izzo's reaction, is still one of the funniest interactions between a disappointed Izzo and a player I've ever seen. I've always kind of watched him with low expectations. If he could develop into a useful 15 minutes per game center who could give five fouls and be big, then that's great. That's a role that every team needs, even if Nix had the potential to be much more. For two years, it just didn't look like Nix would be more than that.
Then, by the middle of this season, I'd realized that I don't even think about Nix the same way I used to. I can't really pinpoint when it changed. Since he was in high school, articles have been written about his offseason weight loss. This season, though, the difference in his appearance was striking (I first noticed this summer when he played in the Moneyball Pro-Am and cautiously thought, "Well maybe ... just maybe he's getting it").
Despite the bad performance against Duke, he was working himself into better position in the post consistently from the start of this season. In the past, he'd sometimes allow smaller players to push him off his spots.
He steadily improved finishing around the basket, something else he's had occasional problems with.
He established himself as a consistent enough threat in the post that his presence has allowed Green more freedom to alternate between the perimeter and the post.
Most surprisingly, by the end of the season, he became not only a serviceable defensive player, but a really good one. Few big men in the country defend the screen/roll as well as Nix does. Again, that is up there on the list of top candidates for the 'sentences I never thought I'd write' list.
Michigan State sharing a Big Ten regular season title is undoubtedly a nice surprise this season. The team is full of great stories — Green's ascension, Austin Thornton's improvement, redemption for Izzo after a trying season a year ago are all right up there. But the fact that I've had to drastically alter my expectations for Nix has easily been the most surprising thing for me about Michigan State basketball this year. Nix is a big reason this season and team have been so much fun to watch.