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What to expect from Rocket Watts 2.0

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

Mark “Rocket” Watts is in position to be one of the most important players for the Michigan State Spartans basketball team this coming season — whenever it does begin. While there are other returning players with more experience, more NBA-hype, or who will likely play more irreplaceable roles, Watts, if he plays to the peak of his abilities, should be the catalyst for the team and for the season. Allow me to explain...

The other major players:

Aaron Henry: We all know that Henry will play a huge role next year, he is a superlative defender, capable of leading the team offensively for stretches, a great interior passer and creator, and a burgeoning threat from beyond the three-point arc. But Henry’s individual offensive creation is not as seamless for himself, especially when the defense can shade in his direction — he prefers attacking the paint and using spins, his pivot, up-and-under moves, and various crafty finishes. While I very much expect Henry to showcase an expanded individual offensive repertoire next season, his ability to purely create for himself and others, from a dead start, simply has not been there to this point, and will likely never be a major feature of his individual game.

Joey Hauser: After being denied an immediate-eligibility transfer this past season, Hauser will likely step in as the co-best player on the team. A lights-out shooter and scorer from all three levels, Hauser was recently touted by Tom Izzo as much improved in both his ball-handling and his defense. If Izzo’s praise proves accurate, then Hauser will be an absolute dynamo. But Hauser, as a big, relies on the touches that guards get for him, and as the best offensive big, he will likely face increased attention every game. Having space to operate will be essential to Hauser’s effectiveness and he will only be able to generate so much space because Izzo will not permit him to be a perimeter-only kind of stretch big. He will NEED to spend time on the block, at the elbow, and in the short-corner.

Josh Langford: While praising Joey Hauser, Izzo also mentioned Josh Langford in a more positive light than he has been able to in years. It sounds like Josh has been consistently playing, working-out, and participating in basketball-activities with a consistency and confidence that he did not have in his attempted-return last season. Izzo made it clear that if things continue as they have been, Josh will be playing at least 20 minutes a night, scoring, leading, and defending in a major way. But Langford will certainly not be back to his old self right away. And even if he does reach that level, Langford was never a pure isolation scorer or even a superlative creator (although his assist numbers — both raw and in terms of his assist rate — DID increase at the beginning of his junior year); Langford will again be used, primarily, off-ball and will thus be imposing his will on games indirectly at times by drawing defenders and helping create space with his own shooting-gravity.

Which brings us to Rocket...

Where these other excellent players’ games have never been ball-dominant, or featured a ton of pure isolation or pick-and-roll creation, Watts is a natural in both of these offensive aspects of the game. Before we get to the finer points, take in these highlights - note how Watts moves in the early clips (his ginger landings after elevating, his lack of elevation, etc.) and his confidence and solidity when he pushes off, explodes, and lands, later on, after he came back from his injury:

The first thing to note when looking at the clips and comparing them to Watts’ season long statistics, and a yet-more-granular view of his statistical season, will be that, though Watts did not shoot well for the season, there is major cause for excitement to the well-trained eye.

Rocket shot only 28 percent for the year from three-point range (34-121), but in conference play (i.e. the second half of the year after he came back from a stress reaction in his lower leg) that percentage rose to 30.7 percent (27-88). When you look at his performance against the best teams Michigan State played, his three-point shooting looks even better: 36.5 percent against “Tier A” teams in Kenpom’s ratings (27-74). Watts did not lack for confidence, and sometimes shot more than he should have (though this was his job on a team that lacked consistent perimeter shooting outside of Cassius Winston), but he also had no problems hitting big shots against the best teams he played against.

While he did not get to the line nearly enough, and was not as explosive inside the three-point arc as Michigan State fans and the coaches would have expected, he shot right at 50 percent from two-point range for the season (59-118), and was just below 55 percent in conference play (45-82); a pair VERY good marks for a freshman guard in high-major basketball. But these numbers came with Watts increasingly playing an off-ball role as he settled in on the wing.

This coming year he will begin the year at the point guard position, undoubtedly. What will that mean for him and for the team? Will Watts be able to shoulder a continued important shooting and scoring role (and improve his three-point percentage, while maintaining his two-point percentage with higher usage)? Furthermore, will Watts be able to increase his creation out-put for others? He only averaged 1.7 assists per game for the season, a number that fell to 1.2 assists per game in conference season, after all.

While Watts’ skills, injury, and Cassius Winston’s own superlative creation, passing, and ball-dominance, placed Watts in a lower-creation-intensive role, he will need to demonstrate his ability to do perform that offensive function this coming season. A fine balance will have to develop between his looking to score and his looking to run the offense and create for others in unsettled situations. While many around the country and the Big Ten are skeptical of Watts’ ability to step into this facilitation role, skepticism seems curious, at this point, to me.

Watts will never try to, and simply cannot, replace Cassius Winston, or his production; at least not on his own. To borrow from the ever-relevant book/film “Moneyball,” the team does not need him to replace Winston; rather the team, as a whole, needs to replace, or better, Winston’s production and output (as well as Xavier Tillman’s and Kyle Ahrens’). While the analogy is not perfect given the disparities between the sports, the logic holds: Watts will take on much of Winston’s scoring role, but will not have to be the passer par excellence that Winston was. Rather, he will have to take on part of that role; with others—Henry, Langford, Hauser, AJ Hoggard, and Foster Loyer (all capable passers in their own right)—also helping.

What Watts really can do is ease the scoring burden on others on any given night — he can shoot the lights out (I fully expect his season percentage to be higher than 35 percent from three-point range this year, possibly higher), he can draw rotations, and he can score from anywhere on the court. What observers and Michigan State fans need to do when reviewing Watts’ last season, and when trying to project his impact and the trajectory of his own and the team’s coming season, is envision how he will be used and where he can be truly effective along with the other players who will replace Winston, Tillman, and Ahrens in the Michigan State line-up. Remember, the complete context-change for the team is what matters. It is this complete context-change that Watts will contribute to, but, again, will not be able to shoulder on his own; nor will the coaching staff even ask this of him.

Some more-detailed analysis...

Take a look at these plays and actions:

First, note that, in this clip, you should imagine Hauser in the Tillman spot, any of the other forwards or bigs in the spot that Malik Hall takes (if Izzo is running his starting group Hall should be replaced by, say, Marcus Bingham Jr. or Mady Sissoko). You should also imagine Langford and Henry in the places of Winston and Gabe Brown respectively (or an improved version of Brown, himself, in position of his former self).

Turning to the clips and actions themselves...

Imagine a “normal” Michigan State possession this coming year. Michigan State gets a stop, gets a rebound, but gets denied in transition by the opposition getting back. Watts or Henry bring the ball up the court and begin to run the offense. Let us further imagine that the initial action does not work. We end up with Watts with the ball in his hands on the wing, in a two-man game with Joey Hauser. You have a true-big in the dunker spot (where Hall is), two capable shooters, who can also attack close-outs on the other wing and at the top of the key.

The beauty of this scenario is that where Tillman, this past year, was NOT a pick-and-pop threat (the way that Kenny Goins was the year before), Hauser will be unleaveable (and unbelievable). Watts will be able to attack the pick or refuse it, as he does here, with the knowledge that if the big or the small leave Hauser that he will have an easy pass and a likely assist. Otherwise, if the help comes from the paint, Watts has an easy lob or drop-off, or if either of the perimeter defenders Watts has a beautiful inside-out pass to two very good, if not excellent, shooters.

While we saw Watts take a LOT of these floaters, or push-shots, from the close-mid-range, he will have more space, and even better options to work with than he did last year with Hauser’s presence on the court.

If Watts is in one of the off-ball positions, he gets even more of an open opportunity to nail a shot on a kick-out, which he did a terrific job of down the stretch this past season, as evidenced below:

Imagine a Hauser elbow attack, in the above play: Hauser gets the ball from Watts, with Langford and Brown or Henry spreading on the three-point arc, and MSU’s other big on a straight-dive to the rim from the weak-side. Watts, Langford, and Henry will all have a TON of chances to run this kind of two-man game with Hauser, and we may even see some of this kind of action with Watts and Henry (with Henry attacking from the elbow or the short-corner).

And that is before we get to transition opportunities or offensive-rebound kick-outs, both of which gave Watts a ton of great opportunities last year, and most of which he knocked down:

Simply put, Watts’ shooting ability and confidence (something that Gabe Brown really needs to pick up from Watts and Langford), and his natural understanding of how to relocate and spread-to-space, will — when paired with Langford’s similar capacities, Hauser’s shooting, and Henry’s secondary creation, shooting, and slashing — create a potent, four-man devastating group of dynamic scorers.

Another truly exciting position to put Rocket into will be the delayed break. Izzo has had many different delayed break actions over the years, but one of the recent staples that will give Rocket and the team a ton of great opportunities this coming year is called the “Pistol.”

Here is a great capture of what it looks like, and pay special attention not only to Langford’s comfort and success in these actions, but also to the notion that Watts, Henry, Langford, Loyer, and Hoggard will all have opportunities to both bring the ball up the court and to trigger the action proper from the elbow. Note also how the play-side big and the initiating guard can be involved in the play to differing degrees and imagine what the play looks like if the weak-side guys either can be capable spot-up shooters or if they are running a weak-side pin-down, which the guys only occasionally execute properly in part because the weak-side wings in these clips are often younger guys, which they will NOT be this coming year (with either Langford or Brown as the first wing sub off the bench, and all three primary wings being seasoned vets).

Take a look at the “Pistol” here, and dare to dream:

But what Watts will provide that the others may not be able to, or to the same degree of effectiveness or efficiency, is his isolation scoring...

Watts in isolation...

While isolation scoring can be over-utilized in the sport, in general, and can be disastrous if relied on too much, it is also essential to solving difficult team-defense schemes (Virginia, Texas Tech, Wisconsin, etc.). Furthermore, beyond the mere ability he has in this part of the game, Watts also increasingly displayed a deep understanding of when his isolation game was needed as the team began gaining its incredible momentum down the stretch of the Big Ten season this past spring. Learning, in part, I am sure, from Cassius Winston whose ability to read the pulse of the team offensively and understand when his own scalpel-like dagger-driving isolation work was needed, Watts displayed tremendous feel and confidence in the last few games of the year.

Take a look at a few of these, note the time and score and remember the outcome of the respective games:


A beautiful dagger here, I could go on and on:

But what does it all mean? What does it amount to? How does this cash out [sobs]?

Exciting, dynamic, diverse, and democratic offense...

This coming season will not see a single player dominate the ball the way Winston did the last couple of seasons. Rather, we will see Henry, Hauser, Langford, and Rocket Watts all have nights and moments where they lead the attack. This will depend on match-ups, game-plans, foul-trouble, who is feeling it, etc. within a given game. But make no mistake, this will truly be a four-headed monster of a focal-group of offensive players. Watts, though the youngest of the group, will no doubt be called upon to make pivotal plays and will need to step his own level of play up another notch or few.

Given Watts’ incendiary close to the season, where he averaged about 31 minutes, 17.5 points, three rebounds, a bit under two assists, and one turnover per game, on 100 percent (6-6) from the free-throw line, 59 percent from two-point range (16-27), 30.5 percent from three-point range (11-36), if Watts can tick up his assist numbers, and bump up his three-point percentage to at-or-above 35 percent, then he will take the Big Ten and nation by storm (and potentially put himself in position to enter the NBA draft next summer).

Watts, Henry, Langford, and Brown will form one of the best defensive back-courts in the nation, and the offensive fire-power for the team, as a whole, will be far more than most teams can handle with scoring and shooting coming from every position on the court. At the heart of it all will be Mark “Rocket” Watts with his constant confidence and unwavering toughness. This will be something to behold.