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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Thomas Kithier - A Way Forward

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NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Kithier has become something of an enigma...

As a junior in high school, at Macomb Dakota, and leading into his senior year playing on the All-Ohio Red AAU team, Kithier’s game and trajectory were much clearer:

Kithier had a great frame that could take on more weight, he moved very well, handled the ball solidly for a power forward, could shoot into the mid-range (around 16-18 feet or so), was a very good passer, finisher, and rebounder. Kithier could read offensive plays pretty well, move his feet and was a solid positional defender.

But his senior year was horribly disrupted; when his transfer to Clarkston was deemed impermissible or untoward, the MHSAA ruled that Kithier could not play, which forced him to the sidelines for an entire season. This is neither the time nor the place to describe and explain the various ways in which this was idiotic or unfair to the young man, who clearly wanted to play with Foster Loyer and continue to build his rapport with his fellow future Spartan.

When Kithier arrived on campus it was clear that he was a bit rusty, and needed to relocate his form and rhythm before he could accelerate his development. Once he did, however, Kithier had a fine freshman season contributing increasingly as the season progressed, eventually culminating in a trip to the Final Four. Heading into his sophomore season, with Nick Ward off to play professional basketball, Kithier looked poised for a much bigger role. And he began the season as a starter with Xavier Tillman. But Kithier’s season foundered a bit in the non-conference portion of the season, and he appeared to plateau as a player: he did not appear to have progressed physically in his development, and his skills, confidence, toughness, and impact, which he had flashed so promisingly as a freshman, waned as the season progressed—he was supplanted in the starting line-up and rotation by Marcus Bingham Jr., Julius Marble and Malik Hall — before a bit of a resurgence just before the season was abruptly halted.

Heading into his junior season the picture has somehow become even more murky. Kithier now finds himself in an insane seven-man group in the front-court; battling for a place in the rotation with Joey Hauser, Malik Hall, Marcus Bingham Jr., Julius Marble, and freshman Mady Sissoko, and that does not even include the possibility of Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry possibly playing some minutes at the four-position. At this point, barttorvik.com does not even list Kithier as a projected contributor on the season, and even I, in previous articles, have mused that Kithier looks to be on the outside of the likely rotation looking-in, at this point, and possibly even a candidate for a late-career redshirt or as a player who might consider transferring to seek more opportunities. But I want to consider a best-case scenario for Kithier here; not one that anticipates injuries or other guys not playing well, but one that holds all else roughly equal — where does Thomas Kithier, now a junior, fit into the team this season and moving forward? What would be required for him to work his way into the rotation?

Revisiting Kithier’s first two seasons:

I want to begin by revisiting Kithier’s freshman and sophomore seasons—both Kithier’s performance within the context of his teammates and his individual performance.

Freshman season—solid spot minutes:

Non-scoring contributions and advanced stats (in team context):

Kithier’s non-shooting stats. 2018-19 season
barttorvik.com

Kithier played sparingly in the non-conference portion of the schedule, but towards the end of conference play, his minutes started took a jump. Kithier played 18 minutes against Minnesota, before not getting off the bench in a loss at Wisconsin. The following game, against Ohio State, on Feb. 17, Nick Ward broke his hand, and from then on, Kithier played about eight minutes per game. The stats bear out the story of his muted, but efficient, contributions. Kithier’s offensive rating is excellent, but his minutes percentage, usage rate, assist-to-turnover rate, and defensive impact percentages (block and steal percentages as well as his foul rate) indicate a role player who lacks the athleticism to really impact games.

Shooting stats (in team context):

Kithier’s shooting stats. 2018-19 season
barttorvik.com

Kithier’s shooting stats confirm the eye-test — Kithier finished at the rim effectively after going unnoticed by defenses focused on Michigan State’s primary players. Kithier played a small role and did not provide any evidence of shooting acumen or the strength or athleticism usually required to draw fouls or defend without fouling.

Recap:

Thrust into a playing role with Ward’s injury and with Bingham even less capable of contributing, Kithier had a surprisingly effective freshman season despite his limitations and his need to overcome not having played competitive basketball for a full year while also taking a major jump-up in competition level.

Sophomore season—improvement across the board, but still significant weaknesses:

Non-scoring contributions and advanced stats (in team context):

Kithier’s non-shooting stats. 2019-20 season
barttorvik.com

With the departures of Ward and Kenny Goins, Kithier’s role needed to expand last season. And his performance held up to some degree. Kithier increased his scoring, rebounding, and assists in raw terms, but he also improved his passing and ball-handling stats, and showed improvements on the offensive glass as he was the best offensive rebounder on the team. The big concern that shows up in the statistical story of Kithier’s sophomore season, which the film consistently echoed, relates to his athleticism. Kithier’s impact stats on defense actually got worse as he fouled more often, and continued to prove unable to draw fouls effectively.

Shooting stats (in team context):

Kithier’s shooting stats. 2019-20 season
barttorvik.com

While a dip in his efficiency was expected, Kithier continued to do a solid job finishing around the rim. His lack of shot attempts and lack of shot variety or creation for himself (around 75 percent of Kithier’s shots were assisted, in his sophomore campaign), indicate his likely continuing as a smaller-role player.

Recap:

Kithier started the season pretty well — through the first four games (a loss to Kentucky, two wins over lesser teams, and a crucial win over Seton Hall, on the road) Kithier acquitted himself very well on both ends, but the loss to Virginia Tech really exposed Kithier defensively against the smaller, quicker, attacking Tech team, Kither proved unable to cope with the staff shifting away from Kithier for the balance of the next few games. While Kithier, Bingham, Marble, and Hall all shifted in and out of the lineup to varying degrees through the rest of the season, Kithier was unable to wrest a consistent place in the rotation. While Kithier had important contributions and good performances in some wins and losses, his inability to assert himself physically proved his undoing.

Areas for Improvement:

By far the biggest area for development for Thomas Kithier is his physique. Kithier’s on-court struggles can be directly tied to his foot-speed, agility, upper and lower-body strength, and lack of length or explosive leaping ability. While Kithier clearly knows the game of basketball, and has more skill than he has been able to consistently demonstrate, his inability or failure to develop physically over the summer between his freshman and sophomore seasons doomed his second campaign to frustration.

While Kithier will never become a top-tier athlete, he must becomes stronger and quicker. These are areas of improvement that require diligent work in the weight room and with the training staff, and certainly can come good both for Kithier as an individual and for the team. If Kithier can get his body in order, then it is clear that he can read the offensive glass quite well, can finish effectively around the rim, can pass the ball surprisingly well, and may even have potential as a shooter from range.

Revisiting the Rotation:

While the sophomore-to-junior “jump” often proves to be the biggest step-up in performance and individual development that college players experience, Kithier must also contend with a number of other factors when attempting to force his way into the coaching staff’s plans for the season. But beyond some of these forces and factors working ‘against’ him, there are also, potentially, some that may benefit his individual aspirations.

Joey Hauser and Malik Hall appear to be firmly ahead of Kithier in the pecking order for minutes at the forward position, with Gabe Brown potentially a factor there as well. But if Hall proves capable of playing “down” a position — sliding to the wing, which the staff will surely test as it would further increase the flexibility of the depth chart — and if Hauser can prove capable of play “up” a position — sliding to the center, which would maximize the roster’s offensive capabilities in all likelihood — then Kithier may have more of a chance to get minutes at the four-position.

While Kithier appears to be a long-shot to play at the center, with Bingham, Marble, and Sissoko all longer, stronger, and taller than Kithier, Thomas’ experience and savy may give him a chance to take minutes from any of those three players if their attention to detail slips or if they struggle to execute plays or coverages on the offensive and defensive ends respectively.

The biggest swing factor for Kithier this year and moving forward is his shooting. If Kithier can prove to be a capable and consistent mid-range shooter or three-point shooter, then Izzo will find him minutes — he is solid-enough on defense and in other facets of the game for him to warrant playing time.

At this point I still view Kithier as on the outside of the rotation, but with a chance to play about eight minutes per game.

Looking Ahead to Kithier’s Senior Season:

Looking ahead to next season, there is still much to be decided and determined. The most important factors, of course, will be the play and progression of Kithier and the rest of the bigs this season. The odds are quite high that Hauser will test the NBA waters — I view him as a near-lock to leave for the NBA assuming he has improved on defense and on the glass from his freshman season at Marquette. He is such a dominant offensive player with skill and scoring in every sense and a style of play amenable to any NBA offense that he will likely be too enticing for NBA teams to pass-up.

If Hauser does leave for the NBA, the rotation opens up considerably for Kithier, particularly if Hall shows some facility for playing on the wing. A big-man group of Hall, Kithier, Marble, Bingham, and Sissoko would be an ideal group for a college team, with Hall, Kithier, and Marble all capable of playing multiple positions. The wrench that might get thrown into the plans from Kithier’s perspective would be the reclassification of either or both of Emoni Bates and Enoch Boakye to the 2021 class. If both of those talented players join the roster, then Kithier, Marble, and Bingham would find themselves in the exact same position that they do now.

With everything to play for and a chance to take control of a portion of the reserve minutes in the front-court rotation, Thomas Kithier’s vitally important off-season work will soon be put to the test. Kithier may not start the year on the front page of papers, but he will likely play a crucial role off the bench and on the practice court.

Go Green!!!