How are things going for the Michigan State Spartans right now?
After, starting the season on a more-or-less outstanding six-game winning streak, the Spartans have sabotaged themselves in almost every way imaginable on their way to a three-game losing streak to open conference play. While Northwestern and Minnesota are far better teams than they were projected to be (by yours truly and many others), and while Michigan State did compete with Wisconsin, this has been an unmitigated disaster to start the conference season. While the team has undeniable talent, and while the coaching staff has a decades-long track record of success, the concern among the fan base is palpable and fully justified. The Nebraska win offered a glimpse of hope, but there is still a lot to mull over when it comes to the rotation and roles.
What was the plan?
Coming into the season Rocket Watts was supposed to take over the point guard, Aaron Henry was supposed to be the leading man on the wing, and Joey Hauser was supposed to open up the offense with shooting and his passing. The team was also supposed to have outstanding perimeter defending — Watts and Henry were superb last year defensively down the stretch, Brown has always showed promise as a defender (albeit only glimpses), and Malik Hall was very good defensively in the last 10 games of last season.
With the return of Josh Langford, who was supposed to add shooting, veteran leadership, and, if healthy, solid perimeter defense, and the additions of AJ Hoggard and Mady Sissoko, two high-level freshmen players, this season was set to be an exciting one.
Heading in, the depth-chart was set to look roughly like this:
1 - Rocket Watts, Foster Loyer
2 - Joshua Langford, AJ Hoggard
3 - Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown
4 - Joey Hauser, Malik Hall
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr., Julius Marble II, Mady Sissoko, Thomas Kithier
For reference regarding the statistics from Barttorvik.com below:
BPM: Box plus-minus
OPM: Offensive box plus-minus
DPM: Defensive box plus-minus
NET: To quote Barttorvik, “‘NET’ is a conversion of the box-plus minus stat (which is per-possession) grossed out for the minutes actually played to give an indication of the player’s net points added/subtracted for the game. A “threshold win” is when that Net figure exceeds the team’s margin of victory, implying that his performance was the difference between winning and losing.”
The point guards:
To start the season, Watts and Loyer did a solid job running the point — neither guy was flawless, but both guys had a couple of good scoring games, and both did pretty well not turning the ball over and setting up teammates with assists. In the three losses, however, neither guy had quite the impact required for the team to succeed, especially Watts who was noticeably worse than Loyer in the three losses.
I know that some people will read that sentence, and simply refuse to accept it, but that does not change the fact that Loyer simply has been better than Watts in the three losses and more consistent over the balance of the season — Loyer obviously has not been good enough and of course does not offer that athleticism that Watts does (when healthy and engaged), but he has not been the culprit for the team’s failures on either end.
Note some interesting things from Watts’ first six games:
- His defense has been poor all season — he simply isn’t staying in front of guys and is not producing impact plays — this is born out by the advanced stats (Defensive Box Plus/Minus, aka DPM), and his lack of steals and blocks.
- Despite his struggles on defense, Watts’ first six games were a success, by and large, on the offensive end. Note the solid assist numbers, relatively low-turnovers, and a couple of games where Watts did an excellent job getting to the free-throw line.
Note some interesting things from Watts’ disastrous three-game opening to Big Ten play:
- Rocket did not shot a free-throw.
- Rocket did not shoot better than 30 percent for effective field goal percentage or true-shooting percentage.
- Despite his individual struggles, Watts maintained a stellar assist-to-turnover ration (6:1 in the first three games of conference play - before the Nebraska game).
- Worst of all, Watts’ defense was even worse through the first three games of conference play, which tracks with the eye test — he is getting hung up on screens, failing to prevent dribble penetration, falling asleep off-ball, and generally playing without focus or mental toughness (this continued, unabated, at Nebraska).
I am not fully sure what to make of Watts’ play right now. Last year, I pretty quickly identified that Watts likely had a lower-leg injury, but this year I am not absolutely convinced — he likely has some sort of a knock, but I think many of his struggles are due to his own challenges and frustrations with what he is seeing out there. Getting him back to seeing the game the way he naturally does will help him and the team.
Loyer had two very solid scoring games book-ending this win-streak, and had two outstanding defensive games against the two ACC opponents that the Spartans played. In those contests, Loyer relied on his positioning awareness to draw multiple charges in each game. While Loyer’s offensive game largely runs hot and cold with his three-point shooting, he surprisingly held his own on both ends in a fashion that few suspected he would be able to heading into the season.
In Michigan State’s three conference losses, Loyer’s offensive output has remained tethered to his shooting, which has not been impactful enough. Significantly, Loyer has not had the kind of disastrous performance that he had on defense against Detroit and Western Michigan, and this is consistent with the film.
Against Wisconsin, for example, Loyer got scored on for 10 points, for the entire game, which is not terrible. While he was on the court for Wisconsin’s game-turning run in the second half (because Watts played so atrociously on defense), if you re-watch that run, Wisconsin only scored four points on Loyer. Rather, it was Langford, Kithier, Hall, and Henry conceding points and getting beat by their individual match-ups. Down four points, at the under-four-minute timeout, Tom Izzo brought back Watts and the team lost going-away. In short, fans should believe the stats when they tell us that Loyer has been solid-enough on defense (and far better than Watts, unfortunately). I have not included my play-by-play defensive breakdown of Loyer’s performance against the Wisconsin game, but here are the takeaways:
- In the first half, Loyer had two assists (four points) and made a three-pointer (to tie the game at the half) — accounting for seven points — while conceding six, directly.
- In the second half, Loyer conceded four points, directly, and was partly at fault for another two. He also assisted three times (nine points: three made three-point shots), and made a jumper — accounting for 11 points.
- The Wisconsin game typifies Loyer’s defense — yes, he is still physically over-matched, but he is simply not the one getting beat off-ball or on-ball for very many points at all.
[Note: Loyer had a bad outing against Nebraska, but that does not change my assessment of his play for the season as a whole — if he has a string of bad performances, then I will revisit this assessment.]
Coming into the season, everyone around the program expected the wing position, primarily manned by Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, and Joshua Langford, to be the biggest area of strength on the team. Unfortunately, this trio have just not succeeded in living up to the projections placed on them.
There is a lot of information here that really bears out what the staff and fans have seen from Henry this year (again, this is based on stats prior to the Nebraska game):
- Aaron has been worse than bad shooting from three-point range.
- Aaron has had a number of games where he shoots a high volume and really low percentage from two-point range (see losses to Minnesota and Wisconsin, and victories over Notre Dame, Duke, and Detroit).
- Aaron has also been one of the best and certainly most consistent passers and assist creators on the team, while having a couple of absolute disaster games from a turnover stand point.
- Aaron has completely stopped having an impact on defense in conference play, despite a couple of solid-yet-unspectacular games against Northwestern and Minnesota — gone are the steals and blocks that indicate how locked in and effective he can be both on-ball and as a help defender.
- Aaron has still been arguably the team’s most consistent and best player on both ends — not a great indicator given the listed challenges to his performance this season (before his Nebraska outburst).
Gabe just is not doing enough consistently. The team needs him to be an impact player on at least one end of the court every night, and his inability to bifurcate his defense and his offense has been disastrous on nights when other guys have not played well. Sometime your shot is not going to fall — but that cannot affect your defense in the way it obviously has for Gabe.
- The talent is there: his big games are huge and devastating, on both ends sometimes (five steals and two blocks vs Notre Dame is absurd, and a clear sign-post for the standard he has to hold himself to).
- Gabe’s rebounding numbers are inexcusable — he is 6-foot-7 with long arms, and incredible bounce. He cannot stand by and watch, he has to box out, and attack the ball off the glass on both ends.
- Gabe’s NET rating tells us that his cumulative impact on the team has been immense, but his game-by-game performance has fluctuated far too wildly. Gabe is allowed to have bad offensive games — guys who are catch-and-shoot specialists can have cold shooting nights— but bad defensive games, and games where he collects no rebounds or defensive stats simply cannot continue to crop up.
Josh has been solid creating assists and limiting turnovers — a problem at times for him in his younger years — but Josh’s NET performance has been average, at best, over the balance of the season. Never particularly positive, and far too often in the “red;” especially against the four best opponents the team has faced. [Josh had a very good game against Nebraska, generally, which is encouraging.]
- If Josh is going to be averaging nearly 25 minutes per night, he has to be more impactful on defense — the problem is that his post-surgery body simply cannot sustain a high level of defensive performance right now. When recovering from lower-body injuries, it often takes a full-year of health to regain all of the strength and explosion in your lower body and all of the small muscles in your feet and lower legs; while Josh has performed admirably in his comeback, his physical limitations really show up on defense where he has to react to the offensive player.
- We can have another conversation about the degree to which this Spartan defense is failing, collectively, to dictate to the opposing offense, but it is clear that Josh is currently not physically capable of consistently dictating the course of his defensive match-up against high-level teams. The Wisconsin loss was particularly indicative of Josh’s struggles as he personally conceded at least 14 points in the second half where he just could not quite bother his man, or prevent him from scoring or getting to the line.
- Josh’s shooting and scoring remains consistently strong, outside of the two outings against Wisconsin and Minnesota (where he was by no means the only one to struggle), and needs to be factored into the offense.
Joey Hauser and Malik Hall as almost the only two players to get time at the four, have been generally superb, making this position a bastion of relative consistency and production. While I expected both players to have big years, I can sadly say that only Malik Hall (out of the entire roster) has really lived up to my expectations for the season.
Yes, Joey Hauser has improved in almost every single statistical category from his freshman season at Marquette, but I had expected him to be a bit sharper offensively, and to be a far better positional defender than he has shown this year. While there is still time for his offense to become everything I thought it would be, it is now clear to me that he needs another year of work on the agility ladder before he becomes a good enough lateral athlete to defend at the level that I expected him to play at after his red-shirt season.
Hauser’s rebounding and offensive out-put have generally been superb, though his consistently bothered lower-legs (bruises, sprains, twists, etc.) appear to have hampered him at the start of conference play in particular, where he has not looked comfortable moving with his man defensively, which exacerbates his lack of length and vertical pop.
- As you can see from the nearly completely absent steal percentage, block percentage, and dunk numbers, Hauser is just not a high level athlete that generates explosive plays, and likely never will be that kind of athlete.
- If he is going to be a position-first, footwork-specialist defender at the forward position (or at the center when he plays there), he simply has to do that better. Part of this is another season in the weight room, on the agility ladder, and in the film room learning tendencies, and part of this is just repetitions of footwork technique in games.
- Hauser is clearly capable of carrying the team on any given night, but he has been far too inconsistent as an offensive focal point. You can see that when he has good three-point shooting nights, he has a good offensive game and NET rating overall, but when he does not hit from long-range, he has folded offensively of late, and allows it to affect the rest of his game.
- The key is getting to the free throw line. Hauser is an excellent free-throw shooter (far better than he has shown, even), and his focus on offense should be to get to the line at least five times per game.
- While I was bullish on Hauser this summer, and have been vindicated to some degree, it is clear that he is not an NBA player at this point, and will almost certainly return for his senior season (not a bad thing for him or the program by any means!).
It is an easy case to make that Malik Hall has been a top-three player for Michigan State to start the year: he simply has been. Despite playing far too few minutes (the staff has to find a way to get him as close to 30 minutes per game as possible), Hall has only had two poor games (that were not even that poor), and in every other game he has had a positive NET rating. [Add Nebraska to the list of “bad” Hall games — he was bad on defense — and yet still had a positive NET rating.]
- Hall’s three-point shooting has really picked up in the last four games prior to Nebraska, and I expect it to continue — he will likely end up as a career 35 percent, or better, shooter from three-point range, and it will be a feature of why NBA teams view him as such a valuable prospect next season (if not this season).
- Hall’s rebounding is excellent and consistent, his passing and lack of turnovers are as well. He is simply becoming a complete player very quickly.
- While the evidence of his defensive acumen was building down the stretch of last year, this year, with a much improved and trimmed-down physique, Hall has become one of Michigan State’s top-five individual defenders. While he is not immune to getting beaten off the dribble, or with power occasionally, he is generally on time on the catch, closes out well, has good footwork, and is in the right position as a help defender. Moving forward, Malik needs to become an impact defender by collecting more blocks and steals and helping organize and communicate more consistently.
There is not a lot of positive news to write home about regarding this positional group. None of the three returning options have been consistent or consistently impactful on either or both sides of the ball. Kithier generally executes assignments or at least is in position to execute on both ends, he screens the best out of the three (though that is not really saying much), and generally finishes when called upon. Marble has the best low-post offensive game, has no fear, and has the strength and bounce to be an impact player even if he has generally failed to produce outside of a couple of outstanding offensive performances. And Marcus Bingham Jr., the enigma of the group, has the length and shot-blocking nous that neither Kithier nor Marble can rely on — of course Bingham has been by far the worst offensive player on the team, and, despite his defensive contributions, even in limited minutes, the staff does not trust him to play consistent minutes.
Kithier plays a lot of minutes right now and has played some of the best basketball of his career in the Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska games. The challenge is that he does very little offensively with his minutes, and even when his usage rate ticks up (see the Wisconsin game) he just does not produce a ton in the box-score.
- Kithier’s offensive rebounding has been by far his biggest strength, but even his work on the offensive glass just cannot quite make up for his athletic deficiencies, which resolutely show up in his defensive box-plus-minus stat and in his consistently ho-hum NET rating —indicating that he just is not capable of finishing defensive plays and stopping his cover.
- Given Kithier’s physical profile, it is vital that he be a near-perfect positional player, communicator, and organizer. While he has generally been very solid in his own individual assignment, he has in no way succeeded as a consistent communicator or organizer for the defense — maybe he can step up in that regard, but he just is not there at this point. Of course, neither of the other two returning centers are either...
- In essence, Kithier is just a lesser version of Hauser on defense — there is almost no reason they should ever be on the court together especially because whoever is guarding Kithier can basically leave him open away from the paint to help on whoever has the ball, which clogs the paint when Hauser tries to drive.
- Kithier is an important contributor for the team — he always tries hard, he always does his best, and he understands what he is supposed to do. Kithier’s best role then, is as a lesser-used jumbo four-man who crashes the glass and screens for three-point shooters (to take advantage of the fact that his man will not be around to help), or as an energy-giving center in spot minutes, or against smaller teams.
While Julius Marble has tantalized Spartan fans with his lightning-in-a-bottle performance against Duke and his encouraging next-game follow-up against Detroit, he has been in a tail-spin ever since.
- While I want to hammer on the table for Marble to get more minutes, the tape and the stats just do not justify it right now. The Wisconsin game typified the issues with Marble right now: he had two brutal turnovers with the game very much in the balance, he did not register a single offensive rebound, he has not gotten a block or steal all season long, and his defense was tentative and passive.
- With this being said, it is possible that with a real mandate to attack the glass and make plays happen on defense that he could really emerge as a more impactful player over the balance of the season.
Marcus Bingham Jr:
Tom Izzo has talked about Bingham “not taking basketball seriously,” and Bingham’s play on offense has been nothing short of disastrous. Of course, if Bingham could harness a restrained and limited offensive game and play consistently hard, and tough defensive basketball, then he could have real value for the team. As such, that is not the case, and there are rumblings regarding him and a potential transfer.
- While some might scoff at my assessment of Bingham’s defense, I think the stats absolutely back-up the tape. When engaged, Bingham is a hugely impactful defender, even in limited minutes (he still leads the team in defensive box plus-minus for the season), and his block rate, if he met the minutes qualification, would be No. 6 in the nation.
What are the current results?
Well, the team started Big Ten play 0-3 before finally getting a win at Nebraska, which is bad, and the team has played just as poorly as the results. Watts has been dreadful of late at the point, Langford, Brown, and Hauser have been largely awful defensively. And while Henry, Loyer, Hall, and Kithier have been solid, they have not been anywhere near good enough on either end to get a win before the Nebraska game.
Not all bad, but trending like the Hindenburg.
The biggest issue is that the ostensible top-three players on the team Aaron Henry, Joey Hauser, and Rocket Watts, in particular, have been anywhere from inconsistent to woeful in terms of their jump-shooting and consistency.
“Big Three” shooting numbers [pre-Nebraska]:
Hauser’s natural stroke has rounded into form from all three levels, though, as mentioned above, his lack of athleticism means he is always finishing below the rim at the rim. While Hauser’s game really is predicated on his three-point shooting opening up his driving, mid-post, and elbow game (which gets cramped by the bad spacing that comes with playing with any of the centers on the team), he must do a FAR better job generating contact and getting to the free-throw line to supplement his off-nights.
Henry’s disastrous start to the year from three-point range is just painful to watch. He really is not a bad three-point shooter and should regress to his true-mean (somewhere around 35 percent) as the season goes along, but until he does, his driving and interior game must bear the brunt of his scoring. Of course, he has been dreadful from the mid-range and missed a number of shots at the rim that he usually hits with ease. At this point, his scoring troubles are mental, and Watts’ struggles mean that Henry is the key focus of opposing teams off the bounce from the wing or perimeter. [The Nebraska game hopefully began Henry’s regression to his true-means from all three levels.]
This is not the Rocket Watts that closed the season on such a dominant streak on both ends. Watts’ lack of athleticism (no dunks) and his inability to hit the three-point shots or mid-range shots that he can create space for with his quickness and jab step mean he is just not a very functional player right now.
If these three do not play consistent ball, and if a fourth and fifth player (Joshua Langford, Malik Hall, Gabe Brown, or, possibly, AJ Hoggard) do not step up to fill in on a nightly basis when one or two of the big three are struggling, then this team will never get out of second gear this season.
What are the current issues, ranked ordered?
- Role allocation: Too many players playing in the wrong roles, being asked to do the wrong things, or being tasked with something they apparently cannot execute: Watts (not a point guard or good enough defensively to play more than 15-20 mpg), Kithier (not a 20 minute-per-game center), Langford (not a good enough defender right now to play 25 minutes-per-game), Hall, Hoggard, and Sissoko not playing enough.
- Defensive communication and organization: Izzo has always had one or two defensive quarterbacks, you know the names, but right now the team just is not consistently organized — there are bursts of good communication, but it is not a consistent feature of the defense, which it must be given how poor the team’s individual defenders are proving to be. To be clear: none of the centers or veteran wings/guards have succeeded in anchoring the defense via communication and organization, at least not consistently.
- Aggression on the glass: Kenpom tells us that the team is a top-100 offensive rebounding group, and a top-60 defensive rebounding group. Neither rate is good enough given the limitations of this roster. The coaching staff needs to get the right guys to really sell out on the glass on both ends to get more and easier shots.
- Individual defense: The guards and wings were supposed to be a terrific perimeter defensive group — denying dribble penetration and being in-place and on-time off-ball —that has not materialized outside of Aaron Henry, AJ Hoggard, and, somewhat, Malik Hall. The inattention to detail and the scouting report by every position group has also been distressing to behold — allowing guys to drive their strong hand away from help, allowing guys to refuse screens, giving up deep post-position, getting handsy, choosing the wrong time to “slide” or “turn-and-run,” and failing to run shooters off of the three-point line.
- Total lack of transition play: The sloppy rebounding and failure to get enough stops or create turnovers consistently has guaranteed that Izzo team’s running game has been mediocre all season long. For a team still struggling to find their offensive rhythm, getting easy looks in transition is essential—mespecially because those looks, when they come at the rim or in the paint, can get the opposition into foul trouble and get the Spartans into the bonus earlier in halves.
You’ll notice that I have barely mentioned AJ Hoggard or Mady Sissoko in the above analysis. That is because the staff clearly did not have a vision of either freshman playing a major role on the team until far later in the year, at the earliest. While both were talked-up a bit over the summer, both were also clearly regarded as superfluous to requirements to some degree and in need of some seasoning.
Things have changed.
Against Minnesota, Izzo and the staff finally began to implement both AJ Hoggard and Mady Sissoko, an experiment that continued against Nebraska. While Hoggard took only a few games to settle in, and really “get” his pathway to the court (defense and sound offensive play), Sissoko took a bit longer. But in the last two games, in particular, both have looked like they should be getting about 20 minutes-per-game.
AJ has the highest defensive potential of the three point guards on the roster, and he makes impact plays on that end too. He can read the floor well on both ends; once he gets more game repetitions and his conditioning improves a bit more he will be a superb lead guard for the team. The swing skills for his minutes and his crunch-time minutes will be his free-throw and three-point shooting.
Sissoko’s defensive potential has begun to bear fruit — in two games he has shown his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess. And in both games he protected the paint and the rim quite well — affecting shots, and opposing players’ decision-making near the rim even when he did not get blocks. When Sissoko starts getting more consistent minutes and starts putting together complete performances, he will be everything this team needs.
What should the depth-chart look like moving forward?
1 - AJ Hoggard (20 mpg), Foster Loyer (15 mpg), Rocket Watts/Aaron Henry (5 mpg)
2 - Rocket Watts (15-20 mpg), Joshua Langford (15-20 mpg), Gabe Brown (5 mpg)
3 - Aaron Henry (25-30 mpg), Gabe Brown (15 mpg), Malik Hall (5 mpg)
4 - Joey Hauser (20 mpg), Malik Hall (15 mpg), Thomas Kithier (5 mpg)
5 - Mady Sissoko (15-20 mpg), Thomas Kithier (5-10 mpg), Joey Hauser (5 mpg), Marcus Bingham Jr./Julius Marble II (5-10 mpg)
Ideally, Hoggard can take on 20 minutes by the end of the year and the starting job, as his defensive potential is simply higher than Loyer’s, but for now expect Loyer to get more minutes if stability is needed or if games are close because of his experience, three-point shooting, and free-throw shooting. Watts or Henry can get a few minutes running the point each half depending on line-ups.
Watts needs to primarily shift to the off-guard, which will allow him to focus on scoring and defense, and will limit the number of minutes that Joshua Langford plays thereby limiting his negative impact on defense, while still getting him opportunities to shoot the rock — Langford played maybe his best game of the season against Nebraska, generally doing a very good job on Dalano Banton (Josh guarding bigger and slower wings is ideal). Gabe Brown can also be viewed as a play-well-get-more-minutes wing on a nightly basis predicated on his defense, offensive aggression, and rebounding. Malik Hall needs to start getting filtered into the wing rotation just to get him more minutes. The closer Hall gets to 30 minutes, the better. While Henry, as the team’s best player, can stabilize the team for most of every game.
Hauser also needs to play 25-30 minutes a night, ideally — so he needs to get on the bike and work on his conditioning. Kithier is clearly not going to get dropped from the rotation, but some of his minutes should start to be at the four position, so that he can be part of bigger lineups when Hauser and Hall are on the bench.
At the center, the time is now for Sissoko to start getting major minutes. Yes, he is still raw, but he rebounds the ball like a beast, contests a ton of shots in the paint, has the physical strength to compete with the giants in the conference, and the open-court rim-running to cause them problems himself on offense. Julius Marble and Marcus Bingham can fight for the other 10 minutes a night and those minutes should be exclusively determined by defensive execution and toughness, limited and effective offensive contributions, and an all-out assault on the offensive glass.
The staff needs to conceptualize this group as two kinds of teams:
- A smaller, aggressive, switchier team with Hall and Hauser playing as much as possible together. This team should use these two passers to orchestrate offense out of two-man games, triangle sets, and “Horns” (which gets these two the ball at the elbow with options).
- When Hall and Hauser are out and reserve bigs are in, the team should play big with two bigs — Kithier and Marble getting minutes at the four are solid options here — and focus on off-ball shooting from Loyer, Langford, and Brown. Playing two bigs with these lineups provides more length and brawn in the paint to dissuade opponents from driving to the paint, and it allows for the Spartans’ perimeter defenders to press out a bit more to deny three-point attempts and encourage two-point jumpers when they get beaten.
In either scenario, Hoggard, Henry, and Watts can push the pace, attack out of pick-and-roll, and attack off of secondary actions in the offense. We saw a lot of the above against Nebraska, but unless Hauser and Watts get themselves in order physically and mentally, this season will continue to be a brutal slog.
Final verdict: get the two freshmen more minutes, attack the glass, and defend. Players play; tough players win.