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Michigan State Basketball: Figuring out the rotation

The Only Colors make an attempt to project how each Michigan State player will fit into the rotation

Brace yourself, basketball is coming
Brace yourself, basketball is coming
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In losing seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, Michigan State lost two of their top three players who combined for 27.2 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 6.8 apg, and 2.2 spg. Replacing them will be done by committee because even though MSU brought in a good amount of talent (#18 recruiting class per 247Sports along with transfer Eron Harris), no single player has the skill set to come in and do what those two players did right away.

Point Guard

With Tum Tum Nairn as the only pure point guard on the roster, the point guard position is the most clear-cut spot on the roster to figure out. While Denzel Valentine will come in and play some point guard while Nairn rests, Nairn will definitely be the starter and play at least 25 minutes per game. Nairn's playing style is extremely pass-first as he's simply not a natural scorer. During the Moneyball Pro-Am this past summer he took on a much larger scoring role, however, that increased scoring came with unremarkable efficiency against underwhelming defense. His main role on the team will be to play good defense, push the ball in transition, and knock down open-shots when the defense sags off on him. While the reports have indicated Nairn's jumpshot had improved over the summer, there hasn't really been statistical evidence to support that. He made just 18 of 70 (25.7%) on 3's in Moneyball and went 0 for 4 during the Italy trip. Simply put, it's much easier to make 3's in an empty gym than against actual players. I'm still skeptical of Nairn ability to be a real offensive threat, but I would be very happy if he proved me wrong on this.

Shooting Guard/Small Forward

With Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Eron Harris, Alvin Ellis III, Matt McQuaid, and Kyle Ahrens on the roster, it's safe to say that their strongest depth is at the wing.

Denzel Valentine has the starting small forward spot locked down and he's probably going to average close to the 33 minutes per game that he averaged last year (might be less due to the depth and the team possibly being better). As Izzo said, Valentine is this team's "star of stars" who will have to lead the team both on and off the court. With Trice and Dawson gone, Valentine averaged the most points, rebounds, assists, and steals last year when comparing him to the other returning players. If he has an excellent year that many are expecting, he could very well be the first MSU player to lead the team in points, rebounds, and assists since Steve Smith did it in the 1989-90 season. Valentine's best attributes are his shooting, basketball IQ, and passing vision while his biggest weakness is his inability to get to the FT line due to his average athleticism.

As of right now Bryn Forbes appears to be the starting shooting guard based upon what Izzo said at media day. Forbes really came on at the end of last year especially on the defensive end and is being rewarded for that (well done to Chris Vannini for predicting this accurately). Izzo called Bryn Forbes the "MVP of the summer" as he put on 15 lbs in the offseason to improve both defensively and to be more able to absorb contact when going to the rim. With it being Forbes' senior year he's likely going to be one of the best shooters in country after coming off a year where he shot 42.7% from deep. The big question how good can he become at creating his own shot and how big of a role will he have in the offense after posting just a 14.4% usage last year. I would guess Forbes will end up close to his number of minutes that he had last year at 26 minutes per game.

Eron Harris seems to be a bit of an unknown right now as we haven't seen him play in over a year and he was suspended for the Italy trip after getting into trouble this off-season. Last time we saw him play he averaged 17.2 ppg as a sophomore at West Virginia on 42% shooting from 3 on over 6 attempts per game. Based on some of Izzo comments about Harris having to find a shot he doesn't like and a great scouting video put together by UMHoops, Harris has to get a better shot-selection. Something that seemed a little odd to me is that he's not currently one of Izzo's projected starters despite saying that Harris is his second-best player multiple times this summer. It's sometimes hard to tell about how honest a player really is during an interview but Harris (along with Izzo and Valentine) said some very encouraging things about how he's going to play this year in an article by 247Sports' Mike Wilson. Some of the comments included Valentine saying that, "he can defend anybody" despite that being reportedly one of his issues during his last year at West Virginia. He also mentioned he was going to create opportunities for his teammates which is different from his role at West Virginia where he was primarily just a scorer. Regardless of whether or not Harris starts, he'll likely take somewhere around 26 minutes per game and one of the more interesting things to watch is how often MSU will go with Valentine at PG with Forbes and Harris as floor-spacing wings.

It seems like only yesterday that Alvin Ellis was finishing up his freshman year and his teammates where saying very positive things about Ellis' potential. After Ellis' injury last year he had a hard time finding a spot in the rotation due to struggling to find his shot. Ellis appears to be somewhat on the outside looking in for minutes and due to Harris coming in to take wing minutes, it's hard to imagine he averages much more than the 8.6 minutes per game he averaged last year. The biggest thing for Ellis is that he needs to be able to come in to defend and make open shots. He's not like one of the previous three wings where he'll be expected to create offense. I saw him at Midnight Madness and while it was an insanely small sample size, he looked far more comfortable than he ever has making 2-3 three pointers. Hopefully he can fit in and become what Austin Thorton was as a senior as a 3-and-D type of player.

Matt McQuaid while also having a great first name appears to be following the trend of recent Izzo's wings in being a great shooter. He shot 45% from 3 at the Nike EYBL, shot 3-8 (37.5%) during the Italy trip, and 7-15 (46.7%) during the Moneyball Pro-Am. What's intriguing about McQuaid is that Izzo is doing a little bit of trial by fire but putting him at point guard at times in practice. While you probably won't see him there much this season, it'll be good for his overall development and the team structure as a whole as MSU is bringing in 2 (possibly 3) recruits next year that will require wing minutes. I think McQuaid will be a role player for this team but due to the depth I think he'll in the same bracket as Ellis at 5-10 minutes per game. He just seems like too good of a shooter with enough height to guard college SF's that he'll be able to crack the rotation to make open 3's. The question of how many minutes he'll get will depend on whether or not he can play defense for how thin he is.

The final wing player for MSU is freshman Kyle Ahrens who I would expect to redshirt this season due to the wing depth and the fact that he's still recovering from his leg injury that ended his junior season in high school. I just think there's  much more upside for him to redshirt this year rather than play very limited spot duty when there's foul trouble and/or injury. Reports say he's athletic (we'll likely hear "deceptively" athletic) and he has a nice frame as a freshman at 6'5" 210 pounds.

Combo Forward

Combo forward for me just means guys who are going to play either at the 3 or as a small-ball 4. Due to the number of wings on the team, Javon Bess at 6'5" and Marvin Clark at 6'6" both fit the bill.

Marvin Clark was expected to be the starter but won't be early on due to a foot injury that won't have him practicing until at least the first game or two. Clark is a stretch 4 with some athleticism who came on strong early on last year before hitting the freshman wall where he lost playing time due to lack of defensive effort and Izzo being unhappy with some of his shot-selection. The good news is that his long-range shooting has been solid over the summer going 2 for 4 from outside during the Italy trip and making 32 of 76 (42.1%) during the Moneyball Pro-Am on a tremendous 9.5 (!) attempts per game. While it's true that there's not a lot of defense being played in Moneyball, it's still encouraging that he shot a very good percentage on that many attempts. When he gets back from the foot Clark might have an uphill battle getting his starting spot back as his conditioning will be behind where it needs to be. Clark's biggest attribute is that he'll probably be the best shooting 4-man on the team but lacks Bess' versatility, and Davis' upside as a rebounder and shot-blocker. Clark probably gets an uptick in minutes to somewhere around 15 minutes  when he's healthy depending on if he can beat out Bess for minutes.

I wrote an article recently saying about as much as I can say about Javon Bess so click here if you want to read that. I'd add that he's much more likely to play some 3 than Clark and I would guess he and Clark are going to split around 25 minutes or so and their minutes will largely depend on their performance.

Big Men

The three true bigs on the MSU's roster are Matt Costello, Gavin Schilling, and Deyonta Davis all of whom bring something different to the table. Because we really only have college data on Costello and Schilling it's much easier to compare those two.

Deyonta Davis was a pretty low rated recruit when he committed to MSU but blew up during the summer between his junior and senior year. His best assets for MSU this year are likely to be shot-blocking and rebounding with some shooting thrown in there. Izzo has called Davis his most talented big man since Paul Davis and while that's probably some hyperbole, I took it more as the most talented big man *as a freshman* since Paul Davis. At the moment it seems that Davis is looking to play mostly at 4 along with Bess and Clark while Costello and Schilling man the center position. However, it'll all come down to whether or not he up to be good enough defensively to justify keeping there. Unlike former MSU big man Derrick Nix, Davis doesn't appear like to be a back to the basket type of big man. Instead it seems as though he'll get his offense from putbacks, alley-oops, and pick-and-pop jumpers. The big question for him will be whether or not he can stay on the floor as many young big men struggle with foul trouble. My minutes guess for him would be only around 15 or so (Payne was at 9 as a freshman) just because the adjustment period might be hard for him as well as competing against two established bigs for minutes.

Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling are the two pure centers for this team and will likely divide up the 40 minutes at that spot (Schilling might take some minutes at the 4 but not too much). Last year I was very much a strong proponent of Costello over Schilling as he had better advanced stats in just about every category. The biggest edge that Schilling has over Costello is that he's a better vertical athlete with better lateral quickness. However, Costello last year was a better shot-blocker, rebounder, outside shooter (15 footers), and post-scorer. Despite that I expect a pretty big leap from Schilling as he played great on the Italy trip with averages of 13.3 ppg and 7 rpg in just over 20 minutes. Schilling's superior athleticism allows him to have a higher ceiling than Costello with offensive rebounding and finishing at the rim and seeing these two battle throughout the year for playing time will be something to watch. With that said, Costello is likely to still be a better shot-blocker due to great timing/anticipation and he's on pace to set the record for blocked shots at MSU (he has 104, the record is 143, he's had 43 and 48 the past two years). He also might end up shooting 3's this year (he made one at Midnight Madness) and that could be extremely useful for MSU to free up the paint for drives. A few people in the media were guessing he'd have a breakout year last year (he mostly didn't) but he was a very solid all-around big man. I'm going to go out on a limb here and my prediction for him this season is that he makes 15-20 three-pointers this year.

Spot Duty/Walk-ons

Colby Wollenman proved himself pretty reliable as a third center when Costello and Schilling were in foul trouble. This year he'll be competing with Davis and Bess early on for the power forward spot while Clark is out with injury. One thing I've noticed about Wollenman is that he does a very good job of going up quick with the ball after rolling to the basket whereas Costello and Schilling usually are slower with that. I also remember him doing a good job defending Purdue behemoth Isaac Haas standing at 7'2" while Wollenman is just 6'7". He'll probably be used less this year just because Davis is now on the team, but it's nice to have him regardless.

Kenny Goins might possibly be the best walk-on and he even had offers from a number of MAC schools. He's 6'6" and since I haven't seen very much of him, I'll let Izzo say more on him.

"Kenny Goins has been the surprise of my team," Izzo said. "I wouldn't say he's the best player this summer, but he was maybe one of the better power forwards over in Italy. He played well. He's athletic. He's long. He's 6-foot-6 but he's got long, long arms and he’s very athletic. Pogo jumper that can get up quick and smooth, and he’s got great hands and shoots the ball decent to 15, 16 feet."

While some of that is probably Izzo being overly complimentary, it's still good news that he's been good and not just a typical walk-on.

Of the other two walk-ons Matt Van Dyk and Conner George, Van Dyk supposedly has the best vertical on the team and George is a very good shooter who is likely to redshirt this year.

Underrated storylines


One thing that I noticed over the summer during my season in review series is that during what KenPom defines as  "Tier A&B games" (Tier A and B represent top 50 and top 100 opponents) Trice's usage increased while Valentine's decreased.

While Valentine became more efficient in more difficult games, that was largely due to him decreasing his usage and being able to pick his spots more. Trice, on the other hand, took on a larger role and subsequently has worse efficiency. The question for this upcoming year is can Valentine (or even someone else) step up and use those extra possessions efficiently during those Tier A and B games. The issue with Valentine is that his somewhat limited athleticism means that it's going to be harder for him to create his own shot on a regular basis when the shot clock winds down.


Something else to watch is that last year Valentine and Trice were great compliments to each other because each shot well from a different side of the floor.

The potential issue for MSU this year is that Eron Harris is also better from the right side during his time at West Virginia

Whether or not it ends up mattering remains to be seen but it is something to watch.

(Also don't worry about the left corner, Forbes has that covered)