The 9th Annual Moneyball Pro-Am began last weekend at Pattengill Middle School. Area hoops fans gathered to watch local stars, college players, and retired favorites but especially to check out the summer progress of the Spartan basketball team. All four of MSU’s incoming freshmen were in attendance for both days as was a skill-dedicated Adreian Payne. Derrick Nix showed up for one day on Sunday to face Matt Costello while Draymond Green was the surprise (non-active) guest on Saturday to the delight of the crowd. As the event continues this summer, more Spartans will make appearances at this casual summer basketball exhibition.
Because of its informal format and All-Star game level of defense, it’s hard to reach for too many conclusions from watching a Moneyball game but it isn’t impossible. Attendees last summer would have seen an aggressive, slimmed-down Derrick Nix, an NBA-ready athlete in Branden Dawson, and a confident, skilled Brandan Kearney, all descriptions that ended up on display during the 2011-2012 season. With that noted, I’m going to give a recap on the MSU players who took the court over the weekend. If you want to see the players in action for yourself and can make it to Lansing, the series ends on Sunday, August 5th.
Player commentary after the jump...
There’s no one I’d like to talk about more than Denzel. If you only know him from scouting evaluations, you’ve heard descriptions like "old man game" and "a player without a position." It only took a few moments of his Moneyball performance to abolish that. He was a star on Saturday, igniting the crowd with alley-oops, dunks, and passes to set up others for big plays. Denzel is a dynamic athlete and elevated with ease to play above the rim. On day two, he probably had the play of the weekend when he split defenders in the lane with some feints and finished with a rising slam. The display of both subtle ball skill and athleticism was impressive.
Of course, Valentine lived up to his reputation as a distributor. On multiple occasions he passed up a contested lay-up for himself to dish off to an open teammate. He played a heavy amount of point guard while comfortably initiating that offense for his team. His teammates will have to grow accustomed to playing alongside the former Sexton star because many of his passes bounced off the hands of ill-prepared teammates. When DV has the ball in his hands, other players need to be ready for a hot pass at all times.
Flat-out, Denzel is a playmaking guard who can attack the rim and pass. He’s not merely some crafty player who uses basketball IQ to compensate for lack of skill or athleticism. There’s no question about a position here (he’s a guard, period) and he might be the surprise of this year’s Spartan basketball team. His challenges will be on the defensive end. Though fast, Valentine may struggle when switched on to ultra-quick point guards. If he can play as more than an adequate wing defender, his potential at MSU will be huge.
Kenny was the first MSU player to take the court on Saturday as the sole scholarship Spartan in the Team Orange vs. Team Light Blue match-up. Kaminski was patient on offense and I noticed his defense as much as anything. He played smart, using his feet and hand position to stay in front of opponents without fouling. He had a particular knack for disrupting the drives of smaller players but that could be a one game phenomenon. It left me wondering how much of a hybrid wing forward role he could play at MSU. When originally recruited, KK was thought of as a 3/4 forward who coaches could give significant minutes to on the wing. It’s probably quickness and defensive ability that would make that possible as he’s grown to 6’8" and almost 250lbs.
On the second day, Kaminski was teamed with Derrick Nix so it was Nix who received the assignment to play against Matt Costello down low while Kaminski had more freedom as a forward. He still found himself confronting Costello on a few plays and it solidified how Costello possesses more height and frame to play bigger than Kaminski. While not completely overmatched, it was clearly a "tall" order to defend Costello. Kaminski did display strength and was able to fight through both Costello and Drew Valentine for a tough defensive rebound.
Kaminski's shot was solid over the weekend but it wasn’t "lights out." The summer is way too young to make any comparisons but he didn’t shoot as well as other Moneyball players like Keenan Wetzel, Travis Bader, and Melvin White. Kenny is still recovering from a shoulder injury that cost him much of his senior season and set back his conditioning. With more months of important work ahead, the October Kenny Kaminski might not resemble the summer version.
In the same way that Matt Costello must have been hazed at his first Michigan State practice, he was welcomed to Moneyball by a Saturday contest against Adreian Payne and then a Sunday sizing up Derrick Nix. Grading him on that curve, he was very impressive. He has as much size and stature as one could hope for to face those two and I left imagining him as not just a power forward but also a potential center as his career and time in the weight room continues. Even right now, Costello by no means looks small and already has developed himself beyond the high school player you may have watched in old highlight clips.
Credit to Costello that his demeanor in the post brought out some of the most intense basketball of the weekend. He and Adreian Payne kept things friendly but were playing each other hard. On Saturday, Payne drove and charged into Costello sending him to the floor with a slam that was probably the biggest collision of the two days. "Welcome to Moneyball, Mr. Costello. Meet Adreian Payne." In another moment, Payne saved the ball by bouncing it sharply off of Costello’s front. Watching closely, I could see the momentary flash of shock and ire on Matt’s face before he took a breath and broke into a big grin at his MSU teammate. Matt plays with a fire and Cody Zeller, Jordan Morgan, and Trevor Mbakwe won’t get that grin during conference play.
Aside from holding his own at the center position against two of the Big Ten’s best, Matt did all the things you want to see out of an Izzo player. He hustled for a loose ball as it was headed out of bounds and played alert defense in blocking Gary Harris at the rim. The one thing you didn’t see under the circumstances is him step out for much mid-range shooting. I asked him about that in the interview I’ll run tomorrow and he spoke about his range as something he wants to work on. Despite his own numerous strengths, Matt might be behind Kenny Kaminski and Alex Gauna in executing the pick-and-pop role.
Adreian Payne spent the weekend going squarely after the job of incumbent point guard Keith Appling. When grabbing defensive boards, Payne would bring the ball up himself and avoid dishing off to a guard. His handle is surprisingly strong and quick though it’s curious how well it will hold up against practiced D1 opponents. In an amusing role reversal, AP tried to set up Gary Harris for an ambitious lob that didn’t connect. Payne also wanted to work on his shot. He offered flurries of long and mid-range jumpshots which fell unevenly. On multiple possessions he would square up his man at the top of the three point line and fire away. Overall, the shots hit more consistently when he played naturally in rhythm. He had a beautiful turnaround fadeaway that made Payne look like a giant Kobe Bryant for a single play.
The promising skill he demonstrated that could help Adreian immensely if he continues to develop it was the ability to drive from the high post. Payne worked on catching the ball away from the basket and setting up the defense to drive to the hoop. Unlike his long-range shooting, he was consistently successful with this. His quickness and handle allowed him to catch defenders off balance and then his size and athleticism took over to easily finish the job once he made his move. Even if the point guard job is out of his reach, he may be gearing up to take a shot at that "4" forward role next to Derrick Nix.
One more note - if you followed other reports or twitter, you may have already heard about the near 40 points he put up on Sunday. While Payne was impressive, there are no tempo-adjusted stats at Moneyball or usage statistics. For the amount of time he handled the ball and number of shots he took, scoring big wasn’t surprising. His teammates, even Gary Harris to some extent, were semi-captive participants in the Adreian Payne Show. No problem with that under the circumstances but it puts his statline into some context. It’d be great to see him produce for MSU in that capacity next season. Not only would it help MSU’s offense but a big year would write AP’s ticket to the NBA Draft.
As a senior, I’m not going to over-analyze Nix or say a lot about his game. He looks like the player we saw last year and demonstrated his established set of post moves, although Matt Costello was not fooled when he swatted away one of Nix’s underhanded dips. He flashed a few moments of Derrick "Magic" Nix and hit Kenny Kaminski with a behind the back pass. Overall, I got the impression he was still warming up and he should be a dependable force by the time the season approaches.
The MSU walk-on was lightning hot during Sunday play at Moneyball. I lost track of his 3’s after he hit his third in a row. His shooting stroke was beautiful and playing against some of the nation’s best in practice has apparently removed any fear. He shot confidently and without hesitation. I’m not saying he’s poised to be a contributor at MSU in the near future but Wetzel's shot was unquestionable for that day. Even on the scout team, it must be valuable to have someone who can punish lax perimeter defense.
The other MSU players didn't make it to start the summer but that's common and Spartan attendees will probably ebb and flow based on schedules and availability. Everyone except Branden Dawson is listed on a roster which suggests that no one else is currently battling an injury that would prevent summer competition. That's a good sign for MSU.
I was able to talk for a few minutes each with all the MSU freshmen on the team and we'll run transcripts of those conversations over the next couple of days.