Michigan State Spartans basketball has forever been a program that people around the country associate with strong point guard play. It comes as no surprise considering legendary names like Magic Johnson, Scott Skiles, Mateen Cleaves or lately Cassius Winston have all donned the green and white. Countless others have made their mark too and under Tom Izzo, a coach who preaches a strong relationship with his primary playmaker, the position has gotten even more recognition in regards to Michigan State as it used to. In comparison to that the wing position in East Lansing hasn‘t garnered as much attention (even with highlight names like Miles Bridges throughout the years), especially not consistently. For the upcoming season at least that needs to change since the Spartans‘ biggest strength seems to lie at the small forward position.
Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Malik Hall figure to get most of the minutes at the three and considering how far they‘ve come in their careers already it gives more than just a little bit of reason for optimism. Those three players could form one of the best wing groups in the entire nation if they put in the necessary work over the summer and continue to develop as players. What has to excite the MSU faithful the most is the sheer oversupply of varied skills these kids have to offer, both individually and as a group.
High hopes again for Aaron Henry
Aaron Henry of course is the headliner as he enters his junior season with plenty of expectations. The same was true before his sophomore year which some might have considered a disappointment. He played well at the end of the year though and clearly felt more comfortable with his increased responsibility in February and March. The same needs to happen in 2020/2021 as not many other potential lead type players are left on the roster. Don‘t get it wrong, MSU‘s team possesses plenty of talent and many good athletes. But in terms of guys who can just get a basket on their own, make a play for others, have the skillset to just put the team on their back and have everybody else follow them, Henry is one of the few names to consider (next to Rocket Watts and maybe Joey Hauser if Xavier Tillman doesn‘t come back).
His diverse skillset makes him the perfect centerpiece for a balanced attack and in high school he was by far the most dominant player on a state championship team. Though he seemed more comfortable in recent years to take a backseat at MSU and let others march ahead, especially as a scorer, he probably has a leader somewhere inside himself. He might very well show that off next year and it would be a gigantic help for Tom Izzo‘s team going forward if he proves to be more than just a great Robin to somebody else‘s Batman. All of this, of course, is assuming Henry withdraws from the NBA Draft and comes back to school.
Gabe Brown looking for more consistency
His fellow junior to be Gabe Brown kind of went in opposite directions to Aaron Henry last season. He had a tremendous start to his sophomore campaign and even grabbed a hold of a starting spot by December. After falling ill and consequently just offering inconsistent performances he lost the gig in the first five and it seemed that his confidence took a hit as well. Nonetheless Brown showed last year that he has special upside as an ultra athletic scoring wing. With his incredible length and next level athleticism he can make plays that maybe only a handful of people in the Big Ten can make.
He adds a different dimension to any mix of players he is added too and his stats as a starter (8.4 points, 3.7 rebounds in 27.4 minutes per game, 45.3 percent shooting) indicate that he might be ready for some heavier lifting. It‘s just the latter that he needs to do a lot of in the offseason as he is still a little thin for the position. The more important aspect of his development though is his overall skillset and what he makes of it. An athlete of his caliber could be a much more dominant rebounder and he has to provide better passing than the half assist he averaged last year. Overall he has to work on his creativity with the ball if he wants to be more than just a hot and cold sniper who gives you the occasional highlight reel dunk. But considering how well he already has shown last year with a limited skillset, the future seems very bright for a guy who seems to just scratch the surface of what he can do.
An expanded role coming for Malik Hall?
The third member of the wing group might not even be counted at this position by many people. Malik Hall spent almost his entire freshman year at the power forward spot and after some early struggles with foul trouble plus physicality showed plenty of encouragement. He gained a lot of experience, even starting nine games and playing his best basketball at the end of the season when it mattered most. Hall will most likely continue to see minutes at the four but he certainly has the versatility and the skillset to provide some punch at the smaller wing position, too.
If he continues to develop according to plan Izzo could use him as a matchup nightmare for opponents and inset him wherever his game has the most impact on any given night. Next season this might only come to fruition in spurts if ever but even just having the option is a big plus in MSU‘s bag. Hall is one of those players who does everything well but not that much great up to now. He is a determined young man, doesn‘t shy away from a challenge and has proven to be more than capable of handling the Big Ten‘s physicality in the paint. Exclusively a role player last season, it will be interesting how far he can take his own game as a sophomore and if he can secure more responsibility as a scorer. The tools are definitely there.
All three of the aforementioned players have plenty to learn yet already offer so much to the Spartans squad. A tremendous advantage will be the size Izzo can roll out there on any given night. Even the most stacked and athletic teams will be hard pressed to match the combination of size, athleticism and skills that Henry, Brown and Hall bring together. Defensively all of them are quite heady, in Henry‘s case we are even talking about an All-Big Ten level defender. The most important thing with this group is that MSU will never be at a physical disadvantage from the tip off which wasn‘t always the case in the last decade. They often only had a limited number of true small forwards on a roster with the right length/athleticism combo and thus were at times struggling to counter opponents who had serious talent at that position. Now this won‘t be the case anymore and in a basketball world that is more and more drifting towards versatility and spacing, the wing position is the one spot that can make or break the entire balance of the lineup.
Luckily for Michigan State, Tom Izzo has taken care of that one position now and seems to be putting an emphasis there in future recruiting as well. Even if the Spartans are usually better known for their point guards...