As the days of summer become shorter with every passing week, college basketball once again is looming on the horizon. This year the season will start with lesser question marks than it did a year ago when many people were wondering if all the games would even be possible amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with many more answers given in that regard, the Michigan State Spartans will still have to deal with quite a few unknowns going into the team’s next campaign. No question is probably bigger than who will lead the team on and off the court in 2021-2022.
Tom Izzo needs to find a leader he can rely on
It’s not a new problem for Tom Izzo and his staff to have, of course, and after years of being treated to tremendous leaders like Cassius Winston, Draymond Green or Denzel Valentine, they faced a similar problem 12 months ago, as this wonderful website noted appropriately.
After struggling at the beginning of the year, Aaron Henry seized the spot behind the wheel for Michigan State during the 2020-2021 camoaign, tremendously aided down the stretch by the veteran presence of Josh Langford. Their will was a huge factor in dragging the Spartans to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, even if they couldn’t prevent a First Four exit in overtime against the UCLA Bruins. Henry is gone now, and so is Langford. The third captain from last year, Foster Loyer, transferred this offseason and is now out of the MSU program as well. It’s well documented that Izzo, who Langford recently called “one of the greatest leaders to ever live,” likes his team to be led from the inside with players stepping up and putting their teammates on their backs. Unfortunately he could be hard pressed to find such a player on this year’s roster. Especially at the beginning of the season.
It’s not that the 2021-2022 Spartans don’t possess a lot of talent, they certainly do. Tyson Walker was one of the most highly coveted transfers in the nation and fills a huge void at the point guard position, some veterans like Gabe Brown or Marcus Bingham Jr. could make serious noise as seniors if they continue their development and Izzo also brought a talented 2021 recruiting class to East Lansing, including the likes of five-star shooting guard Max Christie, Michigan Mr. Basketball Pierre Brooks and incredibly talented point guard Jaden Akins. But even if MSU has plenty of individual talent, no player on the roster stands out as a natural leader at first glance. With some of them it has more to do with circumstances or timing, with others it just does not seem like it would be a natural role for them.
Tyson Walker has a good shot, yet is also an unknown.
Let’s start with Tyson Walker, who if he doesn’t struggle mightily in training camp, should grab a hold of the starting point guard position. This alone would make it seem that he could operate as Izzo’s brain out on the floor, direct the offense and lead the vaunted fast break for the Spartans whenever necessary. As a player Walker has shown that he offers big time potential and he has performed against strong competition. He is experienced, tough and has the kind of dynamic offensive game that can ignite the entire MSU offense as a whole.
Yet in the end, he is still a transfer who enters the Big Ten from a lesser league. He will have to learn the ropes in a complicated system and will have to go through a transition period playing next to an entirely new team. Growing pains should be expected accordingly. It should also be seen as realistic that Walker will have plenty of stuff on his own plate, which will in turn make it harder for him to focus on leading others. One huge positive for him, though, is that he is a strong and willing defender, which should smooth any transition that he is going through. He also should be one of the few players on the roster who can create his own shot whenever he wants, which is something you usually want to see from your top player.
Could Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr. or Joey Hauser step up?
Just like Walker many of the other players who might be considered for a leadership role will have to deal with their own problems first before they can think about a bigger role amidst the team’s hierarchy. Joey Hauser is a talented scorer, yet his first season in East Lansing was a big disappointment. His defense, his inside game and his toughness left a lot to be desired and he even got benched midway through last season. He never seemed like an outspoken guy to begin with, and at the end of last year his confidence looked visibly shaken. For him, it would already be a huge accomplishment if he can retain his scoring form and get his confidence back as finisher. If he could take that next step up in his game, and earn trust from his teammates, he could become a leader if he is willing to work for it.
Other veterans like Gabe Brown or Marcus Bingham Jr. played well at the end of last season, and as seniors in 2021-2022, it would seem natural that they’d be looked upon as leaders. Brown loves playing for MSU and has an inspiring story to tell, yet his game has been inconsistent on the court, and in the past, he has not really translated to being a leader. He rarely does anything else than finishing or shooting corner three-pointers, and has been a role player his entire career. With that said, Brown is an incredibly hard-worker and can lead by example, while also growing into a more vocal leader this season.
Similar to Brown, the same goes for the quieter Bingham, who also has to learn a lot individually going forward. Bingham is a player who made a serious impact on defense last season, but also made a lot of mental mistakes, and was often given a short leash by Izzo. Can he take the next step on and off the court and eventually lead his teammates? Time will tell.
If Hauser, Brown and Bingham concentrate on becoming better players and doing more in their respective roles, it would also be a big step forward for MSU. Yet it might be a bit much to ask them to provide serious on-court leadership.
Returning players almost exclusively fighting for roles
Junior forwards Malik Hall and Julius Marble probably belong in the same boat as Brown and Bingham. They both bring a lot to the table, are talented players in their own right and also have an emotional side to themselves that could inspire others. Yet they also have quite a laundry list of things to work on this summer and would have to grab big time minutes first before they can think of really stepping up in the pecking order.
Same goes for A.J. Hoggard, a crafty lead guard who struggled mightily with his shot last season. He could have an alpha mentality in him, yet becoming a respectable offensive player can only be the first expectation for him. With Max Christie, who arguably could be the most talented player on the roster and with Pierre Brooks, who just looks exactly like a typical, tough future MSU leader, the freshman class might offer two names that could grow into bigger roles as they get older. Early on, though, they will most likely be happy with just keeping their heads above the water and earn a spot in the rotation. In Christie’s case, it might even be a starting gig.
All in all it will be fascinating to see how Michigan State’s hierarchy shapes up at the beginning of the year, and which player will step forward. Recently some media outlets haven’t really put much stock into the Spartans, as the team got dropped from the early Top-25 poll at ESPN and Andy Katz didn’t include them in his top-five teams for the Big Ten Conference.
Usually these are exactly the kind of circumstances Izzo and his players thrive in — when few people give them a chance and when the Spartans can exceed expectations. But considering how big the question mark regarding the leadership is for this year, it could be a huge hill to climb this time around. We will soon find out how long it takes the team to gel together.