I am not a mechanic and I have never developed much of a knowledge base on the workings of car engines, but I do have a basic understanding of spark plugs (among other parts of cars): they make combustion happen. The spark plug delivers the electricity that sparks the fuel and makes the combustion, which kick-starts the engine’s operation, happen.
While I will not spend too much time completing the analogy for the rest of the squad (who represents the crank-shaft, or the pistons, etc.), I think even casual basketball fans can relate to the idea that every team needs a spark. For this coming season, one potentially full of promise, I view Gabe Brown and Malik Hall as that spark, or, rather, as the spark plugs that will keep the engine humming.
We know that Michigan State will have a “big-four” of Joey Hauser, Aaron Henry, Joshua Langford, and Rocket Watts. We know that Michigan State will have a three-or-four-headed monster at the center position comprised of some combination of Marcus Bingham Jr., Mady Sissoko, Julius Marble, and Thomas Kithier. And we know that Michigan State will have solid reserve guard play from Foster Loyer and AJ Hoggard (both of whom Tom Izzo has lavished praise on this off-season).
But Gabe Brown and Malik Hall? They fall into a category of their own. These are two players that can absolutely turn games on their head with momentum plays, solid defense, and timely scoring. What gives them this ability and exactly how their sparking of the MSU engine will manifest on the court are exactly what I want to look at here.
Gabe Brown will come into this 2020-21 season as a junior, along with the other members of his ever-increasingly important class, as a freshman Gabe was a little-used but highly efficient and intriguing player. Long, athletic, with a natural and smooth lefty stroke, Gabe had the look of a promising player, and in the Sweet 16 game against LSU Gabe had a monster scoring game to help lead MSU along with Aaron Henry.
Gabe’s sophomore year began with the same promise that his freshman year ended, where Gabe only registered double-figures in two games as a freshman, through the first half of the last season he registered four in addition to playing major minutes and scoring in every game, a feat which he did not come close to as a freshman. But after struggling with the flu in the dog-days of conference play, Gabe struggled to find his rhythm offensively and saw his minutes reduced as the season wore on — Rocket Watts’ rise correlated with this shift and may have had some impact on Gabe’s assertiveness even when he was fully healthy.
But despite this adversity, Gabe was subtly rounding into form down the stretch of the season, along with his teammates. He had a crucial scoring game at Nebraska to help distance MSU from Fred Hoiberg’s pesky squad, and he had a big-time performance at Penn State where, despite only scoring four points, Gabe’s defense and two vital offensive rebounds helped the team rally from a huge deficit to win the game. Gabe seemed to find himself, especially defensively, even in his limited minutes down the stretch; a role-adjustment that would have proved crucial in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Beyond his on court experience, Gabe’s personal life, tinged with the tragic loss of his father, has already served to toughen his spirit and hone his joyful approach to life and to the game. Gabe’s joy is evident, and his emotional growth and depth of feeling are always evident. In this, his third year in the program, generally the year where players experience the biggest transformation in their ability to impact winning (if not their statistical peak, which tends to come in their senior years), Gabe looks poised to play a major and vital role for Michigan State, whether in the starting unit or off the bench.
Malik Hall came into the past season somewhat an unknown — unknown to some, at least. He made his impact felt early and rounded into an indispensable contributor by the close of the season. Where Gabe relies on joy to spark him, Malik, similarly touched by personal tragedy with the deterioration of his father’s health, exudes and projects equanimity and focus.
Last offseason, Malik’s role appeared set to be relatively small; Hauser appeared a likely participant, Bingham Jr. and Kithier seemed poised for bigger roles, Xavier Tillman was set to dominate post-minutes and touches, and the wing seemed equally full of capable bodies. But, as Michigan State fans know, things changed quickly: Langford and Hauser were unable to participate, Kithier and Bingham struggled to find consistency, Marble needed a bit more time to find out how to impact the team, and, all of a sudden, Hall became a very important factor in the fortunes of the season.
While he failed to score, and struggled, against Kentucky and Virginia Tech in let-down losses early in the year, he proved essential at Seton Hall, where his 17 points kept Michigan State in the game and proved decisive along with contributions from Watts and Cassius Winston.
Much of the rest of the year saw Malik battle with consistency, as nearly every freshman learning the college game does. However, increasingly, Hall’s demeanor and ability to execute the tasks given to him allowed Hall to see his minutes rise from their mid-season dip (he averaged about 10-12 minutes per game from mid-December through mid-January) to close the year starting a ton of games and averaging about 18-20 minutes per game.
Like Gabe’s freshman year, Malik showed, down the stretch of the season, that he could spark the team with his defense, his rebounding, his toughness, and his scoring — in a season defining, redemption-win at Maryland, Malik scored 16 crucial points in a nearly perfect scoring game (four-of-four from two-point range, one-of-one from three-point range, and five-of-six from the line) that cemented him as a player to watch for the post-season and for his sophomore year.
So what do these two Spartans really bring to the table?
Gabe’s physical profile is the prototype of an NBA-level wing player. Standing at 6-feet-7-inches tall, with a wingspan closer to 6-feet-10-inches, serious functional, positional strength, leaping ability, a great stride that has him blitz down the wing, and the agility to hang with quick guys on defense, Gabe has a lot going for him that has intrigued NBA scouts since he first set foot on campus. As you can see here, Gabe has a lot of physical tools:
Hall does not have the perfect build for an NBA hybrid-forward, at least not ostensibly. But when you look at the NBA playoffs today (and recently), take a look at a lot of the most impactful secondary-stars and role-player forwards and big-wings: PJ Tucker, Robert Covington, JaMychal Green, Jaylen Brown, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder — they are all in that 6-foot-5-inches to 6-foot-8-inches height range that Malik fits into snugly. Hall is an NBA-level athlete, has a really excellent pair of feet on him, open hips, and a serious strength that allows him to battle with true-centers at a level that one would not expect, but would be essential if he hopes to stick in the NBA.
We all know where Gabe Brown’s biggest forte truly lies: shooting. The strange thing is, he has not shot the ball as well as he is capable of while at Michigan State. Take a look, below, at Gabe’s shooting numbers:
While Gabe’s three-point shooting has been disappointing, overall for him and for the team, to some degree, he is still at the “very-solid” 35 percent for his career. With a strong year this season from beyond the arc, he will likely put himself firmly on early-entry watch. But why am I so confident that he is a better three-point shooter than he has shown? Because he is so terrific from the free throw line at 90 percent for his career. While he needs to do an even better job of getting there — attacking closeouts aggressively, getting to the offensive glass, and running hard in transition (and not always to the three-point line) — being a good free throw shooter, combined with his excellent shooting stroke, indicates that his true three-point percentage should probably fall somewhere north of 38 percent. Given the need for his career percentages to “regress upward” in order for my assessment to bear out on the court, I fully expect Gabe to shoot closer to 40 percent on a pretty high volume.
Even more than Brown’s shooting from range and the line, the Michigan State staff has to be absolutely thrilled with his improvement from two-point range. Shooters, especially in the current iteration of the sport, often struggle at the rim or from the mid-range; not Gabe Brown:
Brown attacked the rim — finished a high number of dunks and generally was excellent at the rim — he also shot impressively from mid-range. While 35 percent from mid-range is not otherworldly, it is a very good percentage. For a relatively modest set of thresholds, Gabe ended up in the top-40 players in the nation in terms of mid-range jumper percentage. With his incredible scoring ability from all three levels, albeit mostly on assisted shots, Gabe looks poised to play a surgical role on offense for Michigan State.
Malik Hall is simply a really talented offensive player who has only just begun to demonstrate his skills to Spartan fans. He can handle the ball incredibly well and confidently for a non-guard who is more of a forward at this point than a wing. He can pass the ball and is absolutely willing to do so even at this early stage in his development. He can shoot and score from all three levels, and he can hit his free throws at a solid rate already. With a solid stroke and a great feel for what is a good shot, I envision Malik Hall ending up as a hybrid somewhere in the Venn Diagram of Raymar Morgan, Kenny Goins, and Draymond Green. While he lacks the wingspan that would make him a truly elite prospect, Hall is already a better shooter than Morgan ever was, a better rebounder, passer, and ball-handler than Morgan was too; in fact, between the four players, Hall is already the superior shooter compared to all of them except in terms of his three-point shooting.
But where Green and Goins developed their perimeter shooting as upperclassmen, Hall already has that part of his game locked in, he merely needs reps and opportunities. Like Gabe Brown, I expect Malik Hall to have a very efficient offensive season and a terrific shooting season from three-point range (inspired, I am sure, by Joey Hauser, as well). Malik is also already a terrific defender, despite his lack of elite length, because his strength and quickness help him execute the fundamental skills of sliding, running, bumping, and holding his ground against many different kinds of players. In fact, in this way (lack of length, but other excellent physical skills, including leaping and explosion) Hall is more reminiscent of Miles Bridges.
The bottom line is that Hall has all of the offensive skills required, and many of the defensive and rebounding skills that will serve him and the team well this season and beyond.
Competitive Fire and Sense for the Moment:
Another essential component that will help spark the team when Gabe Brown and Malik Hall step onto the court this year will be their shared competitive fire and their sense for the moment. I have already underscored their vital contributions in pivotal games in their respective careers, but allow me to regale you further. Take a look at their big-game performances again, below.
Gabe Brown vs. LSU
Malik Hall at Seton Hall
Malik Hall at Maryland
There is a heck of a lot of confidence, moxie, competitiveness, shot-making, and mental fortitude on display in these highlights, and it only gets better when you look at their season-long highlights:
While highlights can be deceiving, I think these ones effectively convey the kind of seasons these two Spartans had — they were highly impactful, but promise even greater impacts with more opportunities and even firmer and more consistent role-definition. Relatedly, one of the things you see from both of these videos is how much time Hall and Brown actually spent on the court together. I do not think this should be undersold or ignored by the staff when looking ahead to the coming season.
A huge part of successful teams and successful line-ups is familiarity and comfort with players and roles, understanding guys’ spots, knowing their games, and anticipating their natural movements in unsettled situations. Izzo and the other members of the staff should be laser-focused on bringing these two guys onto the court together, and playing them together, as often as possible. They have a clear chemistry and comfort with each other, and their skills are highly complimentary: both excellent shooters and scorers, both good finishers, and both capable defenders and rebounders. If the team gets off to a slow start, you pull two guys and insert these two and you instantly get a jolt of scoring, energy, and defensive competence. Most of all you insert two smart guys who know the system and will execute sets and actions at a high level.
It can sometimes be challenging to sell players on a role off the bench when they have had a taste of the starting lineup, but I think Izzo should bring both guys into his office, sit them down, and demand that one or both of them end up as the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year. Izzo will have a pair of great examples to point to in his own career: a multi-skilled and under-sized sophomore forward and a sweet-shooting, lefty junior who played on the wing. I am talking, of course, about Draymond Green and Morris Peterson.
Green’s career took off when, as a sophomore, he and Izzo had a similar chat to the one I am envisioning Izzo having with Malik Hall. We all know how that ended: Draymond with a Sixth Man award in conference play, a Final Four, and a taste of how important dominating your role can be for your professional prospects (which has served him incredibly well in his astounding professional career).
Mo Pete some twenty years ago offers another analogous case where, as a junior and coming off the bench he secured all-league honors himself. Gabe Brown should be looking long and hard at Mo Pete’s developmental trajectory, in the same way that Malik Hall should be looking at Draymond Green’s, because Mo Pete had well, but not lit the world on fire through his first two seasons in East Lansing, but as a junior with a vital and clearly defined role, he absolutely took off.
Think about the possibility of having two Draymond-level or Mo-Pete-level impact-players coming off of your bench. Now open your eyes — that dream is reality. While neither of these guys is Draymond or Mo Pete, their impact on winning should be clear to everyone —they can bring that level of impact individually, and, together, they are going to completely devastate teams.
For his career, Brown has approximately a 120 Offensive Rating (when on the court for 100 possessions, Gabe’s team will score 120 points) and about a 99 Defensive Rating (when on the court for 100 possessions, Gabe’s team will allow 99 points). Last year, Malik Hall had approximately a 123 Offensive Rating and a 95 Defensive Rating.
Their respective Box Plus-Minus scores (the net point-differential for the minutes these two play) are between 4.5 and 5.5 depending on which scorer you look at (Barttorvik has them both a bit lower than Sports-Reference), which underscores what the Offensive and Defensive Ratings indicate: these guys are GOOD.
Those numbers, while surely bolstered in part by playing with Xavier Tillman and Cassius Winston, still stem mostly from these two players themselves. Keeping them on the court together for a significant chunk of each half will simply break most teams.
Roles and Season Outlook:
While both Brown and Hall seem, on the face of things, to be primed for major starting roles and up-ticks in usage and significance on both ends of the court, the context in which they find themselves, and the team finds itself, this mean that neither will likely start too many games (barring injuries or other developments). Hauser and Langford, if healthy, will both prove irresistible forces in a number of ways that will almost certainly see them secure starting roles. So what are Gabe and Malik, and the Michigan State staff and fans to make of this?
The first thing to note is that Michigan State will, realistically, have seven starters. Watts started most of the year, Henry started every game, Langford has started a TON of games, Hauser, as I note, is a clear starter, Bingham Jr., started 16 games as a sophomore, and will likely open the season as the starter at center, and, of course, Brown and Hall have started 16 and nine games, respectively.
On almost any other team in the country, those two would start every game this season, but with Langford and Hauser likely supplanting them, Michigan State will have the incredible luxury of bringing two clear starting-level players off the bench. What this means, most immediately, is that Izzo’s bench will be REALLY strong, both guys should be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year in the Big Ten Conference, and both guys will be more than ready to step into the starting line-up or come off the bench with the experience, attitude, physical ability, skills, and competitive mentalities of players ready to dominate.
There will be no excuses for the guys ahead of them — if the starters do not play to Izzo’s expectations, they can expect to get pulled and replaced by these two guys immediately. So practices, and every player’s focus level, will have to be kept at the highest level at all times, which will only benefit the team and improve the team’s performance in games.
Most of all, the joy and equanimity that Gabe and Malik will bring to the team will serve to really bolster the Spartans in the daily grind of the season and spark the team to play with a winning mentality and a fighting spirit when they need it most.
This is not a drill...
Also, I would be remiss if I did not encourage everyone to remember those whose lives were lost on September 11, 2001. I remember the day vividly and hope we can all take some time today to think of those most affected, including the first responders, families, and friends.