The difference between high school and major college basketball is significant – in more ways than one. While the court‘s measurements are the same (Thanks, Norman Dale) every player starting out his career soon finds out that the stakes are higher, the athletes more athletic, the big men bigger and the coach‘s voice a bit louder than anticipated. You usually aren‘t the top player in town anymore, around here everybody is a former high school star with an abundance of talent. Realizing that you are now a smaller fish in a much bigger pond with countless sharks swimming around you can be a humbling experience, especially early on. Nobody knows that better than Mark “Rocket” Watts, freshman guard of the Michigan State Spartans. Especially since he tried to make the transition from high school to college on only one healthy leg.
The start to Watts‘ career in green and white was in short a disaster. Filling in for injured senior Josh Langford, he started the first eight games next to All American Cassius Winston and looked nothing like the electric combo guard everyone saw in countless highlight videos from his high school days. The confident player who once scored 64 points for the prep giants from SPIRE Academy while hitting 15 three pointers. And who was a consensus top 40 recruit by all the major services. During MSU‘s first eight contests Watts shot 26.9 percent from the field and 20.7 percent from three point range. No need to double check these numbers, there were reality. Just like the countless blocked layups, the lack of explosiveness and an overall feeling that Watts was hundreds of miles away from becoming a real contributor at the college level. Luckily, there seemingly was a reason for it that had nothing to do with Watts‘ talent.
“When I sat him down and watched some film with him, I teased him that he got a North American record for most blocked shots in the history of the game,” Izzo remembers of a conversation he had with Watts at the beginning of December, a conversation in which Watts finally let his coach know that his left leg was bothering him. “Obviously he had no lift and he was leaning on his jumpers. I give the kid credit for sucking it up and not saying anything. But I also give myself blame, maybe the trainer and everyone else too for not seeing it. I was pleased we got it taken care off.” It turned out that Watts had a stress reaction to the bone and needed rest. According to him the injury dated back all the way to the summer and it had bothered him ever since, especially hurting “a lot” during games.
As great a coach and as great a man he is, this isn‘t one to write home about for Tom Izzo, his coaching staff and the MSU trainers. They let a player, a freshman nonetheless, start who was not only injured but obviously not even close to his full capabilities physically. Watts as a 19 year old kid had to be protected from himself and the situation should have never went as far as it did. Even if he never told the coaches about his ailment, then you still have to scratch your head how highly paid professionals seeing the player every day in practice not once wondered if anything was wrong. Obviously, we aren‘t behind closed doors and most of us aren‘t doctors, so we will never know the full truth to the entire story. Yet it definitely was a not a good look for a basketball program that holds itself to a higher standard and has done so for the better part of two and a half decades.
In the end though Rocket Watts finally got his rest after the loss to the Duke Blue Devils on December 4th and judging by the last couple of weeks after his return, it was just what he needed. Five of the six games he has played since his return on December 30th were against Big Ten competition and he still has shot 51.3 percent from the field during that stretch while averaging 7.6 points per game. Those are 1.1 points more than he averaged before the injury, even though he is playing significantly less (first eight games 22.5 minutes per game, last six 16.3 minutes per game). His role has changed from starter to reserve and it seems like he‘s better off for it. Finally healthy, he also has put in more extra work in practice, mostly on his shooting with MSU graduate manager Chris Fowler. The work is paying off. In MSU‘s latest game against Wisconsin Watts exploded for 11 points in three minutes and finally used his devastating jab step like he so often did in high school. A performance that is symbolic for the new and the old Rocket Watts. A player that has grown up quickly.
“I wasn‘t trying to force stuff and just let the game come to me, which wasn‘t always the case before,” Watts said after the game. “I‘m trying to do more things to help my team win.” In his case that means finding a balance between using his god given scoring ability and still doing his job in the great scheme of the team concept. It has not always been easy and it probably will be a struggle in the future aswell. Watts is such a unique player with his world class handle and streetball instincts that he almost has to learn how to make simple plays from time to time. Like just pulling up for a jumper instead of dribbling a couple of times or just attacking the basket instead of holding the ball. He seems to be moving in the right direction though, even if he knows that he is far from where he can go. “Coach wants me at the rim more,” the Detroit native says. “It‘s definitely something I‘m trying to focus on and I‘m not just going to keep pulling up for threes.”
Either way, Watts now has not only proven that he can be an important contributor this season but also that he might turn into the player everyone envisioned when they watched his high school tape. It might take him some time, after all he says that “this is a completely different level” and that it has already “humbled” him - like so many others before. But it seems like “Rocket“ has finally settled in for the Spartans. Or launched for that matter.