Well, this season has been a struggle for the Michigan State men’s basketball team, but things are looking up, looking forward still, right? The short answer is: yes! While Michigan State’s signed 2021 class has dealt with its fair share of adversity in the last five months, the class still looks to be a supremely talented one, and there are a number of talents committed in the 2022 class that the Spartans appear to be in good shape on.
Checking in on the 2021 recruiting class:
Max Christie is still the most talented player in the Spartans’ 2021 class and remains ranked inside the top-25 players in the class. Christie appears set to comfortably take the mantle of “most skilled freshman to ever play for Tom Izzo,” and while he does not have the athleticism or two-way dominance of Miles Bridges, Gary Harris, or Jaren Jackson Jr., Christie will quickly confirm that he is the best shooter that Izzo has ever landed, and one of the top shooters in the entire freshman class next year.
Christie’s game reminds many of the great shooters in basketball history, frankly, as his ability to rise and drill shots from all over the court off movement and off the dribble is spine-tingling to watch. Yes, he remains wiry, physically, but he will likely be the most transformative single addition to the team since Jackson Jr. or Harris — both guys who were expected to come in and raise the ceiling on both ends. But where those guys raised the ceiling on defense as much as on offense, Christie’s game more heavily will impact the offensive end. Despite this, he is a long, smart, and capable defender who will block his fair share of shots.
While Christie’s Rolling Meadows team has been on pause along with the rest of Illinois high school basketball, it appears that the state’s high school athletes may have some chance to compete later this season. What is clear, however, is that whenever Max gets to East Lansing, he is going to thrive and really turn heads.
I still view Akins as the most exciting and best point guard prospect that Izzo has recruited since Marcus Taylor — for what it is worth he is up around the top-50 in recruiting rankings. While other players may have had better particular skills than Akins will bring, his game is extremely well-rounded and he plays both ends of the floor with terrific intensity and competitiveness. While he spent his junior season as a ball-dominant point-guard, and the beginning of his senior year with Ypsi Prep as a facilitating off-guard, at Sunrise Christian, where he has since settled after leaving Ypsi Prep, he is playing exclusively as an off-guard and demonstrating his scoring knack, explosive athleticism, and game-changing defensive potential on and off-ball.
In the recent string of games that Akins has played since joining the prep school, his defense, speed, quickness, and scoring ability have all been on display. While he is not playing in a passing role for Sunrise, he has that in his game. Akins would probably be the second best perimeter defender on the Michigan State team right now: he is a pest, possesses great technique, and has enough length, quickness, and hops to make impact plays while staying sound.
2021 Michigan State signee Jaden Akins |@JadenAkins3| had some impressive moments today in a Sunrise Christian win over IMG.— Endless Motor Sports (@endless_motor) January 19, 2021
6’3 senior guard appears to be getting settled into his role with a loaded SRCA squad. pic.twitter.com/WYOnroaihB
His ability on defense, in particular, will see him on the court early for Tom Izzo’s squad.
What a fantastic defensive play in the final minute from @sunrisehoops combo of Kenny Pohto, Jaden Akins, and Kendall Brown.— Ryan James (@RyanJamesMN) January 19, 2021
Game clinching defensive play actually.
Pohto cuts off top 30 2022 Eric Dailey. Akins with hands up, Brown with the help. Well taught pic.twitter.com/5aEnp1nXzw
Pierre Brooks II:
Pierre Brooks is still the least heralded player of the trio of recruits to sign in the 2021 class, but I would note that he increasingly appears to possess as much Miles Bridges in his game as Denzel Valentine. While Brooks does not have Bridges’ vertical leaping ability, he really is strong for his size and position, and understands how to use his body to leverage advantages when he gets them. Still ranked around No. 65 by the recruiting services, he is an explosive shooter with range, great physical know-how, terrific passer. While his defense has to improve considerably, primarily in his focus and attention to detail (he at times is too casual on defense, a common feature for younger guys who are stars on high school teams). If Brooks gets on the A.J. Hoggard train, as far as refining his musculature and becoming an assiduous defender, then the sky is the limit for him.
He really does have NBA range on his three-point shot, and given the absurd inconsistencies from three-point range from the Spartan wings who may be returning next year, there is no way that I see Brooks being kept off the court completely.
Checking in on the 2022 recruiting class:
Emoni Bates remains a mega talent in a lot of ways, but now that scouts and player evaluators are getting to see him play against older competition, and against higher level coaching and skills and athletes, there are some persistent issues and major areas of improvement. While some of Bates’ flaws may be attributed to his youth and relatively under-developed physique, the biggest question marks with his game are about his basketball IQ on defense.
His defense on-ball, and off-ball is generally disastrous. He has, to put it simply, major physical limitations (particularly in his hips and given his general lack of a “plus” wingspan; his arms are about as long as he is tall). Chiefly, his hips are immobile, he changes directions poorly, he obviously lacks physical strength, and his narrow shoulders and hips indicate that he will likely never add too much muscle to his frame.
The more significant issues begin to rear their heads when he is not on-ball, where he can, at times, really get in a bit of a stance and do his best. Off ball, he falls asleep, fails to consistently exert energy, does not communicate, and frequently misreads plays or just makes the wrong decision — it is this last part that is the most concerning.
Every young player makes physical mistakes, and has physical limitations, but all of those can be worked-around with high basketball IQ, correct and speedy decision-making, proper fundamentals, repositioning, and angle-reading. But guys who never develop that as youth players often struggle to develop that know-how even as they get older. One of the major confounding variables to our analysis of Bates’ game is that Bates’ offensive usage is so absurdly high that he expends a ton of energy on the offensive end and increasingly views the defensive side of the court as a place to rest. While this is reasonable, it is a problem because it is now that he should be learning to execute and make the right decisions on defense even if he cannot follow through physically.
It is increasingly apparent that Bates will be a negative defensive player early in his NBA career and maybe for the duration, but the odds are still high that he will be able to be hidden on defense in college (assuming he goes to Michigan State). Speaking of which, I am increasingly skeptical that he will step foot on a college court, but we will just have to see about that.
Oh and the drama with Jaden Akins?
Without getting into the minutiae of the scuttle-butt, Akins had a major and at least temporarily intractable disagreement and dispute with both Bates and his father (Elgin Bates, who started the year as the Ypsi-prep coach, but has since stepped away from those duties in direct response to the Akins situation fallout, it seems). This precipitated Akins leaving the Ypsi Prep team, and joining Sunrise Christian the program that produced Tum Tum Nairn, Marvin Clark, and Malik Hall.
Ultimately, this is more about the Ypsi Prep program than any one individual — there is no way that what began as an on-court dispute, and bled into practice (apparently), should have come to a head in such a manner. Teammates fight, teammates have arguments, but it is the responsibility and role of the leaders of the program to settle those disputes and reinforce the foundational values of teamwork, togetherness, love of the sport, learning the sport, and learning from mistakes and deficiencies.
The hope has to be that Bates and his father (and Akins) have learned from this and will not bring a similar set of attitudes to the Michigan State program. Tom Izzo will “challenge” Bates considerably more than any opponent or coach has in his life, and Bates’ body language, attitude, and leadership will doubtless improve under Izzo’s tutelage. In short, Bates, still a very young man, has a lot of growing up to do — certainly not the end of the world.
This was the game against Chet Holmgren, from early in the season, where Bates’ status as the best prospect in the country “regardless of class” first came into question — Holmgren dominated Bates and the game for all intents and purposes — and while Bates remains a top-level prospect and player, he has clearly come back to earth as he has begun to play against better competition.
While I have spent a ton of time critiquing Bates so far, as I mentioned, he is a superlative offensive talent in a lot of ways. He is confident, aggressive, and in no-way afraid of the moment or of taking high-pressure shots, a skill and disposition that simply cannot be overlooked. Bates’ shooting stroke is solid even if he has a bit of inconsistency in his footwork and has a number of very clearly defined “spots” where he takes most of his shots from. As he learns to drive left and use his left hand to finish, and as he becomes stronger and better able to finish around and through contact he will become nothing short of a “force” on offense.
Boakye’s season remains largely a mystery — George Harris Prep (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada) has been playing a modified schedule this season, but tape on Boakye has been difficult to gather and I have not had any chances to watch him play live. Despite this scouting frustration, Boakye remains an impressive prospect, and likely to reclassify to the 2021 class given his relative age and the physical attributes that make him such a promising college prospect.
What will the roster look like next season?
Without the reclassifications of Bates and Boakye, the Spartan roster will again enter the season loaded with talented players, and in need of considerable internal development in order to make up for the disappointing COVID--disrupted season of frustration.
1 - AJ Hoggard (so), Foster Loyer (sr), Jaden Akins (fr)
2 - Max Christie (fr), Rocket Watts (jr)
3 - Gabe Brown (sr), Pierre Brooks II (fr)
4 - Joey Hauser (sr), Malik Hall (jr), Thomas Kithier (sr)
5 - Mady Sissoko (so), Marcus Bingham Jr. (sr), Julius Marble (jr)
Even in the event that neither Bates nor Boakye reclassify, I would not be surprised to see one or two transfers from the program. This team would have a ton of veteran bodies, and, ostensibly, shooting, play-making, and athletic ability.
With reclassifications from either or both of Bates and Boakye, the ceiling ostensibly raises, but questions about chemistry, role-allocation, and on-court success will remain until the season actually starts.
11 - AJ Hoggard (so), Foster Loyer (sr), Jaden Akins (fr)
2 - Max Christie (fr), Rocket Watts (jr)
3 - Emoni Bates (fr), Gabe Brown (sr), Pierre Brooks II (fr)
4 - Joey Hauser (sr), Malik Hall (jr), Thomas Kithier (sr)
5 - Mady Sissoko (so), Enoch Boakye (fr), Marcus Bingham Jr. (sr), Julius Marble (jr)
This roster would see the Spartans two over the scholarship limit, but with NCAA rules on extra scholarships still slightly in flux, it is unclear exactly how this would sort out. I am increasingly dubious that Bates plays in green and white, and believe that it is also likely that there are at least a couple of transfers out of the program this summer.
The big keys for next season’s team will remain sorting out the point guard position and sussing out exactly which of the bigs on the roster will remain on the roster, and which, of those who do, will take the lion’s share of the minutes. It seems clear that AJ Hoggard, Max Christie, Joey Hauser, and Malik Hall will all be in line to play major minutes; after those four, I really am less sure than I was heading into this season. The second half of this season will likely prove decisive for a number of individual futures and the team’s fortunes heading into the next season.
Potential 2022 recruits to target?
Tre Holloman (6’1” PG) - Hollowman has long been recruited by Izzo and the staff, but with a number of potential lead guards already on the team it is unclear whether or not Izzo will add another point guard in the 2022 class—in the end, I doubt we see Holloman end up in East Lansing.
Jaden Schutt (6’5” SG) - Schutt is easily my favorite player the Spartans have an offer out to in the ‘22 class. He is a super athlete and a deadly jump-shooter with deep range on his three-point shot. If I had my druthers, Schutt would be the next player to commit to Michigan State and the first to sign.
Ty Rodgers (6’6” SF) - Rodgers is filling the role of top hybrid forward-wing in the state of Michigan. Every year there is at least one guy, like Rodgers, who emerges as a high-level recruit. Rodgers, like many before him, is a versatile player. Strong on the glass, a terrific and tough defender, with a paint-focused offensive game. Michigan State remains on the periphery of this recruitment for now.
Jalen Washington (6’9” PF) - Washington, from Gary, Indiana, is a terrific forward prospect. He has range on his shot, a balanced and fluid offensive game, and the strength and know-how to operate around the paint on both ends. On his way back to full-health from an ACL tear, Washington is beginning to round back into form and has the makings of a potential NBA forward if his jump-shot continues to develop.
Tarris Reed (6’10” C) - Reed is a big-bodied center (listed as a power-forward, but he is definitely a college center and an NBA center, if he plays at that level), who is at his best facing-up and attacking off the bounce or using his touch to finish on mid-range jumpers. His body needs improvement, but he has feel and is a natural basketball player. He understands how to use his strength, and he has impressive body control that will only become better weaponized with coaching and with some improvements to his physique. He can finish with power, has some ball-handling ability, and generally looks like a real player. The fact that he is from the Saint Louis area, however, does not bode particularly well for his recruitment as that area is akin to Chicago in terms of messiness in recruiting.
Jai Smith (6’9” PF) - Smith, one of Izzo’s most recent offers, is from the Syracuse area in New York, and is now playing down in North Carolina; quite far afield for the Michigan State staff. But he can clearly play and looks to be a late-bloomer whose recruitment may take off in the coming year. He is a solid run-and-jump kind of player, but does not have the ball-handling or fluid basketball skills that would make him a high level player right away. What he does well, however, is finish the ball, and use his strengths — he knows who and what he is and does not stray from that blueprint.
Kel’el Ware (6’11” C) - Ware, another recent Izzo offer, and another big man from farther away from the typical Michigan State recruiting footprint. Ware, from the Little Rock, Arkansas area has real NBA size and length, and a ton of scoring touch around the rim. He also is active defensively and on the glass and is quite adept at simply using his length rather than picking up fouls on either end by getting off-balance or jumping into opposition players. Of the two further-afield recruitments, Ware’s is the one that intrigues me the most—he has more skill and physical upside than Smith, and Arkansas produces a lot of really good basketball players.
Donovan Clingan (7’1” C) - Clingan, a long-time target, seems to be less of a priority or has possibly cooled on Michigan State. But he is a long, talented player with offensive skill. His feet are not superb and his foot-speed defensively would render him a real liability in space, but his body and height are things you cannot teach. I doubt Clingan ends up at Michigan State.
Given the potential for attrition, and the likely mass-exodus of seniors after the 2021-22 season, Tom Izzo will likely need to make the 2022 class a fairly large one. I would expect the staff to add at least one more big, at least one wing, and probably a versatile forward. Particularly if Bates and Boakye reclassify to the 2021 class, Spartan fans should expect another four players to join the 2022 recruiting class.