There is one word that comes to mind when you want to describe Marcus Bingham: Long. Michigan State‘s sophomore big man has that seldom appearance that makes him stick out, even in a sport full of tall and lean specimen. When he spreads his arms like a condor broadening his wings it seems as if he could hug the entire world, an impression that often gets backed up by his joyful, boyish smile. He might also look like a guy who could block every shot that an opponent ever dreamed of taking or dunk from wherever it might be humanly possible. But in reality, it‘s not that easy, there‘s more to Marcus Bingham‘s story than just his physical appearance and the skills that should come with it. His modern basketball fairytale is a little longer than that.
Sure, right now he‘s a key rotation player for the Michigan State Spartans and in his second collegiate season has made huge strides in his game, even grabbing a starting position for most of the year. You could actually argue that with his rare physical ability he could become one of the keys to MSU‘s entire season, a campaign that once started with national championship aspirations. But to really figure out – and to project – what is and what could be, there has to be an understanding of what Marcus Bingham was.
Struggles in high school and a growth spurt
Marcus Jerome Bingham Junior was born on July 14 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as the son of Marcus Senior and Jonie Bondon. During his early years he was long ways away from the physical specimen he is today. Actually, his appearance was fairly unspectacular when he signed up for the basketball varsity team at Ottawa Hills High School. Standing 6-2 without any considerable athletic build wasn‘t a problem for young Marcus though as he had other things on his mind anyway. He was almost spending as much time in the principal‘s office as he did in the gym, once even for putting a hand in a teacher‘s face. Rebellious, disruptive and lost, Bingham got kicked out of school numerous times, never did any homework and his GPA dwindled to 1.3 at some point. His future seemed to vanish right before his eyes without him even recognizing it. But then, he started to grow – both physically and mentally.
“I don‘t know how he got so tall,” his mother Jonie remembers of his growth spurt during his early high school years. “Day by day he just kept getting taller.” And apparently wiser too. “I was doing a lot of little kid stuff,” Bingham remembers of the time before he started to grow five inches his first year and a few more his second year in high school. “I would just look at myself in the mirror and see that I‘m all of a sudden bigger than anyone else. I asked myself: Why not change and seperate myself from everybody?” Bingham realized that he had to make drastic changes on and off the court if he wanted to make something out of his life. Following his sophomore season he left Ottawa Hills and applied at Grand Rapids Catholic Central, who first refused to accept him but then let him enter on probation. “Marky” finally started to work in the classroom and improved his grades significantly. “They basically crammed three years of school into two after all the time he had missed his first couple of years,” Marcus Senior recalls and also notes that all of his son‘s previous troubles never made it with him to GRCC.
On the court Bingham‘s star also really started to shine following the school change, even though he was still rail thin following his growth spurt. After missing the first ten games of the basketball season, he impressed scouts immediately with his length and a deft touch that ultimatively sperated him from his high school peers. His impressive handles, vision and three point shot for a player his size made him the number one recruit in Michigan – and naturally a target of the state‘s flagship basketball program. Bingham committed to MSU on June 17th 2017 over the likes of Ohio State, Purdue and Xavier, shortly before a senior year that saw him captain his team to the Class B state championship. For the season Bingham averaged 21 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and two assists per game, making him a finalist for Michigan‘s prestigious Mr. Basketball Award. But despite his teenage success his future was already looming large over Marcus‘ head – even at night. “When I‘m lying in bed I always listen to music but for some reason Tom Izzo pops into my head like all the time,” a smiling Marcus said during his senior year. “I‘m just picturing him. He‘s sitting there yelling at me and telling me what to do.”
No redshirt, no minutes
It wouldn‘t take long for that fantasy to become reality. But Bingham‘s start at MSU proved to be a tough one as his body was just not ready for big time college basketball yet. Standing at 6-11 and 195 pounds, quite a few people envisioned the lanky forward/center to redshirt and work on his body for a season. His coach even thought of it as a good idea but Bingham desperately wanted to play. “For me to redshirt a kid he‘s got to want to do it and I wasn‘t sure if Marcus was there yet,” Izzo recalls of the difficult decision. In the end Bingham didn‘t redshirt and stepped right into a tremendously spectacular year for the Spartans, a ride that included Big Ten regular season and tournament titles and ended only at the Final Four in Minnesota. Marcus mostly filled the role of a cheerleader, impressing more with dance moves and celebrations from the bench than with actual play. He only appeared in 24 games, averaging just one point per game and only playing double digit minutes once. He didn‘t hit a single two pointer that year, mostly spending his time on the perimeter whenever he had a chance to play. Changes needed to be made – once again.
Aside from gaining experience and turning into a more mature player, most of these changes had to come in regard to Bingham‘s slight frame. Point guards regularly outweighed him as a freshman and south of 200 pounds he had no hope of surviving the unforgiving jungle that is the paint in the Big Ten. So Bingham not only started to hit the weights hard, he also ate. A lot. He devoured up to six different meals a day and was rarely seen without go to snack bags, which almost drew some jealousy from his coach . “He should be the happiest guy in America,” Tom Izzo laughs. “He can eat pasta, he can eat pizza, he can eat whatever he wants every day.” Slowly but surely that regimen, which in reality is a lot harder than Izzo‘s humorous words might indicate, was bearing fruits over the summer and Bingham entered the year at 225 pounds. Still far away from his ideal playing weight but a huge step forward from his skinnier MSU beginnings.
With the added weight came the opportunities, none bigger than the chance to play early in the Champions Classic at storied Madison Square Garden. Due to foul trouble for his teammates, Bingham entered the game against the Kentucky Wildcats and for the first time truly looked like the player people had envisioned when he committed to MSU. He challenged shots, he finished alley oops, he rebounded the ball where only he could – and he looked like a player who the opponent just could not deal with consistently due to his length and god given 7-4 wingspan. Even though his seven points and six rebounds in limited minutes weren‘t enough to help the Spartans complete a second half comeback, Bingham showed everyone that he could be contributor this season. A player that will make an impact if given the chance. And a voice to be heard, too.
A young man of few but powerful words
When the news of Zachary Winston‘s suicide, Cassius Winston‘s brother, arrived at the team facility on the fateful night of November 9th, it send shockwaves throughout the lines of his former friends wearing green and white. Assistant coach Mike Garland gathered the team to help them find some comfort during these difficult moments, moments that mostly were defined by sorrow and silence. All of sudden the tallest of the Spartans raised up and spoke. “And Marcus usually doesn‘t say a word,” Tom Izzo remembered later during a teary eyed press conference. “He said that everybody should go to their room, call up their family members and tell them that they love him. I was so proud of the kid, it meant a lot.” It not only meant a lot to his coach, his teammates got the weight of the message aswell. “From Marcus‘ standpoint it was kind of huge to see him say that,” fellow big and Marcus‘ mentor Xavier Tillman says. “He showed us he‘s not just the funny guy but the mature guy we can count on day in and day out. That‘s going to be big for him.”
While he impressed his teammates with his new found maturity, the results on the court were mostly up and down throughout the year. There were still games where Bingham struggled with his stamina, ball screen defense and lack of mass. He also could not find his patented three point jumper as he mostly focused on inside work in practice. At times Bingham still looks like young deer, long limbed, full of potential yet totally unsure of himself and how to move around in the world. It‘s one of the reasons why Tom Izzo always referred to his big man as a “work in progress”. But still, even in limited minutes, Bingham found ways to contribute and to make his presence felt. In no game moreso than against the Illinois Fighting Illini and their freshman phenom, 7 foot, 290 pound behemoth Kofi Cockburn.
Bingham held the star rookie to two for 10 shooting from the field while grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking five shots, MSU won the game in a blowout. Lot of people had lots of praise for “Marky” afterwards. “I was really impressed with Marcus Bingham tonight,” said Illini head coach Brad Underwood for example. “The job he did on both ends of the court in terms of creating space and rebounding was important. His length was definitely a factor.” While all of his teammates seconded Underwood‘s assessment and could hardly hide their excitement for the soft spoken, easy going and well liked Bingham, Tom Izzo delivered his praise with a challenge. “Marcus has made some good progress and next thing everybody will be patting him on the back,” Izzo said. “But me, I‘ll be kicking him in the… because he‘s got to get better everyday.”
As if he needed any prove, the next couple of weeks went rather inconsistent for Bingham. He continued to rebound but the number of mental lapses increased. Stamina, even in short stints, remained an issue. It shouldn‘t come as a surprise considering the 19 year old is playing as many minutes as he does for the first time in a long time and has never done so against the competition he now faces day in and day out. But he tries to stay as upbeat as possible. “I‘m just listening, trying to listen to my coaches and play off my teammates,” Bingham says. “Last year I didn‘t play a lot as you know. The start to this season has been good overall but I‘m just trying to stay consistent with what I‘m doing and see how far it goes.”
The Spartans will closely monitor the way Marcus Bingham develops. With his physical tools he has the ability to raise this team‘s ceiling to another level, give them a different look and a different dimension. That‘s what length, that special type of length does. Even if it is just for 15 minutes, these 15 minutes could mean a lot, especially in March when the NCAA Tournament knocks on the door. But until then, it is a long way. Just as it is for Marcus and his development...