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MSU Men’s Basketball: Roster Outlook and Implications in the Jaden Akins Afterglow

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NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Jaden Akins is a Spartan...

As Ryan wrote in the commitment announcement, Jaden Akins committed to play for Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans yesterday afternoon. The absurd recruiting streak for the program likely will end with Akins’ commitment, at least for the near term, because Michigan State has no more space in the 2021 class, and none of the other 2022 recruits the staff is currently pursuing appear close to a commitment.

With Pierre Brooks II, Max Christie, and Jaden Akins, the ‘21 class has three dynamic, athletic, and talented back-court players, and with Emoni Bates and Enoch Boakye currently in the ‘22 class, but poised to possibly reclassify into the ‘21 class, Michigan State could, potentially, have a five-man group joining the team for the 2021-22 season. This five-man group would include: a terrific new point-guard in Akins, a superb shooting-guard in Christie, a versatile sweet-shooting wing in Brooks II, an all-universe five-position player in Bates, and an imposing center in Boakye. Should this five-man class come to be, it would almost certainly take the No. 1 spot in the class recruiting rankings, a first for Tom Izzo’s Michigan State tenure.

The picture for this article shows Cassius Winston in the background and Rocket Watts in the foreground. With Akins’ commitment, and AJ Hoggard on the team, the program appears set at the point-guard position for at least the next few years. And I mean the program is SET! Hoggard, a terrific player in his own right, will now be joined by Jaden Akins, who I project as a future NBA player and a terrific fit with the personnel he will likely play with as a freshman and beyond. Capable of playing on-ball and off-ball, creating for himself or setting up others, and already a terrific athlete and superior three-point shooter, Akins projects as a three-level scorer and high-level creator from day-one. While his defensive ability is yet to be clearly determined, he has the positional height and length, quickness, and athletic ability to project as a positive contributor on that end both in college and in the professional ranks.

Long rumored to be an MSU lean, Akins, who averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists per game his junior year at Farmington High School, cements the greatest recruiting summer ever for the Michigan State men’s basketball program, and will take on a crucial role for the Spartans regardless of how many years he plays in the green and white. While currently listed as the No. 70 prospect in 247Sport’s 2021 composite recruiting rankings, I think his talent level is closer to the top-50 or so players in the class.

Regardless of the recruiting-ranking-particulars, I view Akins as the best point guard prospect Izzo has landed since at least Cassius Winston. Although I believe Akins to be a considerably better prospect than Winston was as a high school senior based on his athleticism, quickness, and size, alone, Winston out-played his own ranking by leaps and bounds. If Akins can follow a similar developmental trajectory while at Michigan State to the one that Winston’s career took, then he will be an NBA player very soon.

For now, however, we get to enjoy watching Jaden play in the only colors... he is a Spartan!

Who is Jaden Akins as a basketball prospect?

As I mention above, Akins appears, to me, to be the best point guard prospect Izzo has landed in a long time. I actually rate him as the best point guard prospect since Marcus Taylor. That’s right a better prospect, in my view, than AJ Hoggard, Rocket Watts, Cassius Winston, Travis Trice, Keith Appling, Kalin Lucas, Drew Neitzel, and Chris Hill. This may seem blasphemous, but I will stand by it; we will have to see how his career plays out in terms of individual statistics and awards, wins, and team accomplishments, but Akins appears poised to really turn heads in East Lansing and on the national stage.

Akins has terrific positional size at 6-foot-3-inches and about 170 pounds, and appears to have a “plus” wingspan (meaning his wingspan is longer than he is tall)—my guess is that his wingspan is around 6-foot-5-inches, maybe more. He has tremendous physical gifts: an incredible leaper, very quick, agile feet, excellent change of direction, quickness, and explosion. He really understands change-of-pace, and has superb footwork offensively, where he has already mastered a number of impressive dribble-combinations, spin-moves, and step-backs that lead into his excellent jump-shot.

Akins’ shooting mechanics are superb, he has a consistent release, an effective dip, and good timing and rhythm. He can get his shot off quickly and is comfortable shooting off the catch and off the bounce, with range and comfort, out to at least the college three-point line. Akins is an excellent finisher at the rim—dunking confidently, off of both one and two feet, and finishing with touch and craft when the situation calls for more finesse finishes. As a passer, Akins is clearly confident and comfortable making any pass a point-guard would need to: off the live-dribble, out of the pick-and-roll, in transition, and in tight-spaces after breaking down the defense.

While many of Izzo’s point guard prospects over the last two decades have had some of these abilities or characteristics, some outstripping Akins’ in certain areas, none of them have the complete combination that Akins does. And this is not to denigrate any of these players—all of whom are some of my all-time favorite Spartans (AJ Hoggard is one of my favorite Izzo recruits in a long time, for example).

Take a look at these highlights:

These full season highlights show off Akins’ complete repertoire nicely.

And in this video you can see Akins’ team take on fellow future-Spartan Pierre Brooks II:

The talent level for both future Spartans really pops in this highlight, and Akins, despite playing on a weaker team (with no real size to speak of, hence his rebounding numbers), clearly impacts his team in a variety of ways on offense. Defensively, like all incoming freshmen, Akins will have to continue to improve his strength, his understanding of the fundamentals of defense, and to develop a familiarity with Izzo’s schemes, but he has all of the raw ability to become a terrific defensive player.

All in all, Akins’ ceiling and floor are really high. While he will likely only play a rotation role and not start as a freshman, his ability to shoot, and his distribution skills will see him playing major minutes as early as his sophomore year.

What we know about the current roster and possible roster projections...

Covering some similar ground from the earlier pieces, and given what we now know about Michigan State’s early entrants’ decisions for the coming season, this roster projection exercise can eliminate some scenarios and really present a clearer idea of what the team will look like for the 2021-22 and 2022-23 seasons.

As always, I hope none of these kids transfer, but the odds are increasingly high that one or more of these athletes may decide to move to another school in search of more playing time. And, as I have opined before, sometimes a transfer really is the best outcome for both the player and the program (again, let’s hope these guys all stay in green and white).

For now, we know what the 2020-21 season’s roster will look like, more or less. The question of who exactly starts, who closes, and whether those roles change as the season progresses will remain in the air until we get closer to the first game of the season, but for now, this is how I see Michigan State at its best this coming season:

1) Rocket Watts (so), Foster Loyer (jr), Jack Hoiberg (jr)
2) Joshua Langford (sr), AJ Hoggard (fr)
3) Aaron Henry (jr), Gabe Brown (jr)
4) Joey Hauser (jr), Malik Hall (so), Thomas Kithier (jr)
5) Mady Sissoko (fr), Marcus Bingham Jr. (jr), Julius Marble (so)

Again, we may see Brown, Hall, or even Hoggard begin season in the starting lineup if Langford is not full-go, but if I were a betting man, my money would be on Josh starting the entire season. We also may see any of Sissoko, Bingham Jr. (who started 16 games last year), Marble, or Kithier start the year at the center. I think the odds-on favorites for that starting job would be between Bingham Jr. and Sissoko, but any of those four guys would be a very good option, and all four will likely see minutes early in the year before the rotation gets trimmed in conference play. That being said, I would not be surprised at all if Izzo kept 10 of the 13 scholarship players in the rotation through the end of the season.

Looking ahead to 2021-22:

Following next season, we will see Josh Langford run out of eligibility, and, very likely, Aaron Henry and Joey Hauser head to the NBA before their senior years. Rocket Watts will likely test the waters, but I believe he will be back for a third season in green and white—as I have mentioned previously, the 2021 NBA draft will be one of the best in a long time, and it will be full of guards and wings (the 2022 draft will very likely be even better). It will take a heck of a season for Watts to climb into guaranteed-contract territory. The thresholds for that would be something like: 15 points, four rebounds, five assists, one steal, and only two turnovers (or fewer) per game on 50 percent shooting from two-point range, 40 percent from three-point range, 80 percent from the line, proving to be able to run the team really well and maintaining his terrific defense. If he meets all of those thresholds, then things get really interesting from an NBA perspective.

Of the likely early entrants—Henry, Hauser, and Watts—Joey Hauser is the more likely of the two would-be rising seniors to return for a senior season, but for now I am assuming that he will stay in the draft; there will be fewer high-end stretch-forwards, and, probably, none who will offer the shooting acumen that Hauser does. For now, then, we have two primary scenarios: one where Bates and Boakye reclassify and one where they do not.

Scenario 1 (Henry and Hauser go pro; Bates and Boakye do not reclassify):

1) Watts (jr), Akins (fr), Loyer (sr), Hoiberg (sr)
2) Christie (fr), Hoggard (so)
3) Brown (sr), Brooks II (fr)
4) Hall (jr), Kithier (sr), Marble (jr)
5) Sissoko (so), Bingham Jr. (sr)

This team, with four seniors (five if Hoiberg gets to keep the final scholarship), three juniors, two sophomores, and three stand-out freshmen, would likely begin the year as a top-ten, maybe even a top-five team in the nation. With an “extra” scholarship, if Hoiberg were to return to walk-on status, Izzo would have the option of adding another player, and likely would try to do so given Brown, Loyer, Kithier and Bingham would all either run out of eligibility, and possibly be joined by Watts, Christie, Hall, and Sissoko as early entrants. In the face of such a scenario, Izzo would actually desperately need to add another player to the ‘21 freshman class—probably a big or a multi-positional forward.

Watts, Akins, Hoggard, and Loyer offer four terrific point-guards who can also all play off ball. Christie, primarily a shooting guard as a freshman in all likelihood, could also play at the point or initiate offense if necessary, as could Pierre Brooks II.

With Christie, Brown, Brooks II, and Hall, the team would have four supreme college wings, all terrific three-point shooters (I expect Brooks II and Christie to shoot right around 40 percent as freshmen), capable defenders, and solid positional rebounders. Hall and Brooks II could both play as smaller fours, and Kithier, Marble, Sissoko, and Bingham would offer the same group of four bigs that took all of the minutes at the center the year before. This team would have size, strength, length, shooting, skill, quickness, and more functional, high-level depth, at all five positions, than Izzo has had in some time.

Scenario 2 (Henry and Hauser go pro; Bates and Boakye reclassify):

1) Watts (jr), Akins (fr), Loyer (sr)
2) Christie (fr), Hoggard (so)
3) Brown (sr), Brooks II (fr)
4) Bates (fr), Hall (jr), Kithier (sr)
5) Sissoko (so), Boakye (fr), Bingham Jr. (sr), Marble (jr)

This team would have a roster conundrum with 14 players for 13 scholarships. It is a situation that everyone would dread and regret, because, if none of the players decided to transfer on their own, or go play professional ball, Izzo would have to rescind a scholarship from one of the incoming players, insist that one of Bates or Boakye not reclassify (which might precipitate their choosing to find another school), or Izzo taking a scholarship from a player who had one the previous year and had been recruited as a scholarship player. This would be hard to stomach for everyone involved and might lead to hard feelings, a reputational hit for the program (at least in the short term), and might subsequently prompt a transfer.

In all likelihood, this situation will not arise for a variety of reasons. Loyer, Kithier, Brown, and Bingham jr may all, very well, have graduated before their senior years, which would give them an opportunity to grad-transfer to another school for immediate eligibility. Given the depth-chart and minutes crunch one or more of them may choose to do so anyways. Loyer might also choose to take a “regular” transfer to sit out for a year before playing with his younger brother, Fletcher, who looks poised to be a high-major player in his own right.

How exactly the depth-chart shakes out for the 2020-21 season, will, in all likelihood, determine whether or not one of the bigs or Loyer choose to transfer, so we will all have to wait and see a bit.

Regardless of the exact roster make-up, any scenario in which Bates and Boakye (or just one of them) reclassify to join the ‘21 class would make a likely top-ten or top-five team the likely No. 1 team in the pre-season rankings and a heavy favorite to win the national title.

So what happens in 2022-23?

The 2022-23 scenarios:

There are two dominant paths for the ‘22-‘23 roster: one where Bates and Boakye do reclassify in ‘21-‘22, and one where they do not. In the scenario where they do not, Izzo will likely have to add another big or hybrid-forward to develop for a year before playing a huge role in the ‘22-‘23 class (this would probably be a late-signing and one Izzo would save for a late-surging player or a more developmental guy yet to be determined). For now, however, I will proceed without that forward in my depth-chart projections.

In a world where Bates and Boakye do reclassify, Izzo will have to add even more players to the ‘22 class, which would mean an even younger team in ‘22-‘23. Regardless of these potential developments, we do know that the 2018 class will no longer be on the team—Henry, Brown, Loyer, Kithier, Bingham Jr., Hauser, and Hoiberg will all have used up their eligibility and will be beginning their post-graduate or professional careers.

For now, I assume that Watts will leave after his junior year, but that Hall and Marble will return for their senior campaigns (Hall being the likelier of the two to join Watts). I will also assume that both Hoggard and Sissoko will return for their junior campaigns (though Sissoko may have progressed enough to leave after his second season). I will also assume that Pierre Brooks II and Jaden Akins will return for their sophomore campaigns. With all of that being said, I will proceed as if these assumptions are reasonable, and I will look at two scenarios where Max Christie does, and does not return for his sophomore season as well.

Scenario 1 (Bates and Boakye do not reclassify in ‘21; Christie returns):

1) Akins (so), Hoggard (jr)
2) Christie (so), Brooks II (so)
3) Bates (fr)
4) Hall (sr), Marble (sr)
5) Sissoko (jr), Boakye (fr)

With a complete nine-man rotation, Michigan State would likely be the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason rankings with potentially as many as six players looking to be drafted in the 2023 NBA draft (Akins, Christie, Bates, Hall, Sissoko, and Boakye). Izzo would need to land another two wings and probably two bigs to fill out the ‘22 class, and would also need to begin filling out another huge 2023 class given the likely departure of all four of his front-court players.

Scenario 2 (Bates and Boakye do not reclassify ‘21; Christie goes pro):

1) Akins (so), Hoggard (jr)
2) Brooks II (so)
3) Bates (fr)
4) Hall (sr), Marble (sr)
5) Sissoko (jr), Boakye (fr)

The need would be even greater in this scenario for Izzo to continue filling out a huge 2022 class: with Bates, Boakye, Sissoko, and Akins all likely to test the draft waters, Izzo could be looking at a 2023-24 season where he only returns two scholarship players. Getting another three or four players in the 2022 class would give them time to develop and get experience before taking on huge roles in the ‘23-‘24 season.

Now, if Bates and Boakye do reclassify in ‘21, what happens in ‘22-‘23? Under current rules, Bates would not be eligible for the ‘22 draft—would Emoni really play a second season at MSU, or would he play in the G-League, in Europe, or simply sit out the year and prep for the draft on his own? While any of these are possibilities, there is also a distinct possibility that he would, in fact, return for a sophomore season: he would still be young, he could, potentially, make a TON of money through new NIL legislation and rules, and he could, potentially, be pursuing a second consecutive NCAA title.

Boakye would certainly be eligible for the draft given his age status, but would he go or return for a second year to show off an expanded game in an expanded role? My guess is that Boakye will leave after a single season, but there is a non-zero, albeit slim, chance that he would come back as a sophomore.

In a world where these two do reclassify, it would be unlikely that Graham III, or any other forward or big, would be joining the ‘21 class. Now, in addition to Christie’s decision, we also have Bates and Boakye’s decisions to consider for the ‘22 NBA draft.

Scenario 3.a (Bates and Boakye reclassify and go pro after one season; Christie returns):

1) Akins (so)
2) Christie (so), Hoggard (jr)
3) Brooks II (so)
4) Hall (sr), Marble (sr)
5) Sissoko (jr)

Even in this scenario, MSU would still have a top-seven players that could rival most groups in the B1G and compete with anyone nationally. Hoggard and Marble (or whichever two guys would not start) would form an incredible bench-duo that could fill in any two positions, one-through-five. Filling in a huge class in ‘22 would be essential, obviously, and Izzo would be looking for players in both the back-court and in the front-court.

Scenario 3.b (Bates and Boakye reclassify and go pro after one season; Christie goes pro):

1) Akins (so)
2) Hoggard (jr), Brooks II (so)
3) Hall (sr)
4) Marble (sr)
5) Sissoko (jr)

Even in this “disaster” scenario (one that would get worse if Hall, Hoggard, or Sissoko left early for the NBA draft—highly likely for Sissoko and, possibly, Hall), MSU would still have a top-six players that could rival most groups in the B1G and compete with anyone nationally.

Scenario 4.a (Bates and Boakye reclassify; Bates returns, Boakye does not; Christie returns):

1) Akins (so), Hoggard (jr)
2) Christie (so)
3) Bates (so), Brooks II (so)
4) Hall (sr), Marble (sr)
5) Sissoko (jr)

Preseason No. 1, favored in every game, print the “Undefeated” shirts immediately and rake in the cash.

Scenario 4.b (Bates and Boakye reclassify; Bates returns, Boakye does not; Christie goes pro):

1) Akins (so)
2) Hoggard (jr), Brooks II (so)
3) Bates (so)
4) Hall (sr), Marble (sr)
5) Sissoko (jr)

Again, MSU would still have a top-seven players that would strike fear into anyone nationally. Bates’ return would seal Michigan State as the preseason No. 1 team, and make for an extremely exciting year.

Scenario 5.a (Bates and Boakye reclassify and return as sophomores; Christie returns):

1) Akins (so), Hoggard (jr)
2) Christie (so), Brooks II (so)
3) Bates (so)
4) Hall (sr), Marble (sr)
5) Sissoko (jr), Boakye (so)

Scenario 5.b (Bates and Boakye reclassify and return as sophomores; Christie goes pro):

1) Akins (so)
2) Hoggard (jr), Brooks II (so)
3) Bates (so)
4) Hall (sr), Marble (sr)
5) Sissoko (jr), Boakye (so)

These true dream scenarios for the ‘22-‘23 season would be beyond exciting.

Regardless of what would happen in the ‘21-‘22 season, this squad would be the clear favorites to win a national championship.

With a clear eight-man or nine-man rotation, and with a ton of versatility, these squads would have everything Izzo could dream of, and would keep Spartan fans in dreamland all year. Whichever permutation comes to fruition, the next few seasons appear set to see the program reach a level Michigan State basketball and its fans have not witnessed since 1979.

What a time to be a Spartan!!!

Go Green!!!