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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Jeremy Fears Jr. and the future of the Spartans

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NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Oakland Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

With Jeremy Fears Jr.’s commitment this past week, Tom Izzo landed an essential piece to the 2023-2024 and 2024-2025 roster puzzle. As I have written about previously when discussing Tre Holloman’s commitment, Izzo has clearly decided that having at least three point guards on the roster at all times should serve as his cardinal rule of roster construction (I will return to “cardinal rules of roster construction” below).

Fears, and both Jaden Akins and Max Christie from the 2021 class, are the best NBA guard prospects that Izzo has recruited since Gary Harris and Marcus Taylor. All three possess NBA level athleticism and foot speed, understand leverage, and have the scoring, creation and passing ability that give NBA teams an offensive baseline to project from when evaluating young players.

Fears, for his part, has a more compact build, currently standing at 6-foot-1 (though likely to grow another inch or so), but do not let his smaller stature fool you: Fears is a “Grade A” athlete who has terrific core strength, a tremendous capacity to both accelerate and decelerate and superb body control in the air (both absorbing contact and when avoiding it with change-of-pace moves).

Fears controls tempo, he control opponent ball-handlers and he competes at an Izzo-approved level whenever he is on the court. Fears’ shooting form needs a slight tweak (from what I have seen) — his wrist can be a bit static and a bit more extension and flexion will maximize his excellent rhythm and fluid stroke — but his comfort shooting from both the mid-range and behind the three-point arc, his confidence in his shot and his superb touch on his shot indicate that Fears will be a high-level shooter as soon as he sets foot on the Michigan State campus.

At this point, Fears is clearly most comfortable as a distributor, but that is also the role that he plays on this season’s La Lumiere team. I predict that this spring and summer, and throughout his senior season, that Fears’ role as a scorer will increase. While he will initially, likely, not play a completely starring role at Michigan State, his ability to dominate games even as a junior on a stacked La Lumiere team indicates the extent to which this young man has star potential. This is a future NBA player and a future collegiate star.

Fears’ competitive level, the nuance and feel to his game, and his sense for the moment should remind Michigan State fans of Kalin Lucas and Cassius Winston, and while Fears may not have Lucas’ straight-line speed or Winston’s long-arms and superlative shooting, Fears’ overall package and athleticism put him right at the top of the heap of Michigan State lead guard recruits in Izzo’s tenure. What is more, coming from La Lumiere (where he will also play next season) guarantees that Fears will have a clear idea of how to play solid basketball and will be comfortable playing high level competition and Division I-level athletes every single game; a not-insignificant factor when considering the preparedness of college basketball freshmen.

Future depth chart update and implications:

The depth chart for the next few seasons is shaping up nicely, but there remain some clear needs given the likelihood of significant departures over the next two offseasons. Primarily, on the wing and at the forward position. I mentioned earlier the development of some “cardinal rules of roster construction” that Izzo appears to be zeroing in on, but I think we can expand beyond the clearly defined one (“must have three point guards on the roster at all times”) to add in a basic “ideal roster construction” set of rules:

  1. Have three point guards at all times (including at least one “combo guard”). This season, the team has Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard and Akins who can all run the point, and even Christie who would be more than comfortable doing so if called upon. Next season, Walker, Hoggard and Akins (assuming they all return) will be joined by Holloman, who will likely spend most of his time with Akins on the wing or serving as a “second lead guard” when playing alongside Walker or Hoggard. The 2023-2024 season will see Hoggard (as a senior), Akins (assuming he stays for his junior year) and Holloman (as a sophomore), joined by Fears. MSU fans can expect Fears to be the primary reserve point guard with Akins and Holloman playing the Charlie Bell-type role in most games.
  2. The second cardinal rule for Izzo’s rosters appears to be (and should be) “have three bigs on the roster, including one veteran defense-first big, one developmental defense-first big and one polished offensive big.” In recent years, Izzo has had Jaren Jackson Jr.-Nick Ward-Xavier Tillman, Ward-Tillman-Marcus Bingham Jr., Tillman-Bingham-Julius Marble., Bingham-Marble-Mady Sissoko, and as of next season, the team appears relatively set with Marble-Sissoko-Jaxson Kohler. While both Marble and Sissoko appear to be plateauing a bit in terms of their development so far this season, there is still plenty of time before next season begins for both guys to find some consistency on both ends. It is also possible that MSU adds a transfer big to the mix. What is clear, however, is that Kohler will be an immediate difference-maker offensively, and an at-least-solid-enough defender, as a freshman (expect Kohler to be an immediate impact big man next season).
  3. The third cardinal rule for Izzo rosters appears to be (and should be) “have at least two-to-three smaller or “stretchier” forwards, or hybrid wing-bigs who can play-make and/or shoot.” This season this group includes Joey Hauser, Malik Hall and, to some degree, Gabe Brown and Pierre Brooks II. Next season, it is clear that Izzo plans to give Hall the vast bulk of the minutes at the forward spot, and, if Hauser returns, to give him plenty of those minutes as well (along with playing a bunch of minutes at the center). Expect next season to also see Brooks play minutes at the forward spot once he gets another summer to really improve his physique. The lack of commitments of this type of player in the class of 2022 means that Spartans fans should expect the staff to add at least two such “tweeners,” or forwards, or “big-wings” to the class of 2023. Hauser will have exhausted his eligibility by the 2023-2024 season, Hall, in all likelihood, will not pursue his possible fifth season of eligibility and Brooks may be playing more minutes as a true wing at that point.
  4. The fourth, and final, cardinal rule for Izzo rosters appears to be (and should be) “have at least three wings on the roster at all times.” This season, Brown, Christie, Akins and Brooks all fit the billing of wings, with Akins, Brown and Brooks also capable of “flexing” up or down a position as needed. With the addition of Holloman, another guard capable of defending bigger players due to his significant wing-span, the likely departure of Brown and possibly Christie will be mitigated next season. The class of 2023, however, will need at least two recruits capable of manning the wings due to the near-certainty of Christie not returning for a third season, and the possibility of Akins not returning for his junior year either.

So how do the next two seasons appear to be shaping up?

Current depth chart projection for 2022-2023 with Gabe Brown, Joey Hauser, Marcus Bingham Jr. and Max Christie going pro:

1 - Tyson Walker (Sr.), A.J. Hoggard (Jr.)
2 - Jaden Akins (So.), Tre Holloman (Fr.)
3 - Pierre Brooks II (So.)
4 - Malik Hall (Sr.), Jaxon Kohler (Fr.)
5 - Julius Marble (Sr.), Mady Sissoko (Jr.)

This scenario would certainly see Izzo and the staff adding at least one wing via immediate-eligibility transfer. The wing depth with this group would be too thin otherwise. That being said, assuming solid progression from Marble, Sissoko, Brooks and Akins, this team will probably be the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten and to compete for a Final Four run.

Current depth chart projection for 2022-2023 with Max Christie returning:

1 - Tyson Walker (Sr.), AJ Hoggard (Jr.)
2 - Jaden Akins (So.), Tre Holloman (Fr.)
3 - Max Christie (So.), Pierre Brooks II (So.)
4 - Malik Hall (Sr.), Jaxon Kohler (Fr.)
5 - Julius Marble (Sr.), Mady Sissoko (Jr.)

If Christie returns, then you can expect Michigan State to begin the season ranked in the top-five nationally, with serious NCAA title aspirations. The staff would likely not add more than one transfer (possibly a solid defensive center in case Sissoko does not come along far enough in the staff’s estimation this season).

Current depth chart projection for 2023-2024 with Jaden Akins returning:

1 - AJ Hoggard (Sr.), Jeremy Fears (Fr.)
2 - Jaden Akins (Jr.), Tre Holloman (So.)
3 - Pierre Brooks II (Jr.)
4 - Jaxon Kohler (So.)
5 - Mady Sissoko (Sr.)

I think there is a strong likelihood that Izzo would play both Kohler and Sissoko together for plenty of minutes in this scenario, but the recruiting needs remain quite clear based on the “cardinal rules of Izzo roster construction” we discussed: at least one developmental defensive big, two forwards or “tweeners” (assuming Kohler is really an “offensive big” and Brooks is really a wing), and at least two wings (given Akins all-but-guaranteed departure to play pro ball after his junior season, and Hoggard’s graduation, which will push the vast majority of 2024-2025 point guard duties onto Fears and Holloman).

Given the needs and the timeline of the guys I currently project on the roster for the 2023-2-24 season, expect the class of 2023 to number at least five, possibly six players (including Fears). This number lessens if Izzo adds a multi-year immediately eligible transfer this coming offseason, and this monster class may include an immediately eligible veteran transfer or two as well. Regardless of transfers, expect a sizable class to develop around Fears, who will be an outstanding lure and recruiter for Izzo and the staff.

So who are the targets, right now, to join Jeremy Fears Jr. in the Class of 2022?

2023 high school class updates

Braelon Green remains the top target for the staff on the wing — I still believe there is a strong possibility that Green completely bypasses college ball to go straight to the G-League (he is just an incredible talent as a long athlete with jaw-dropping athleticism and offensive skill).

Beyond Green, Cam Christie, Max’s younger brother, currently standing at 6-foot-4, appears to be another vital target for the staff. Cam Christie is already proving to be a superb player in a similar mold to his older brother — a terrific shooter and burgeoning ball-handler, passer and off-the-dribble shot-creator.

Another wing to keep an eye on is Curtis Williams Jr., listed at 6-foot-6, who plays at Brother Rice in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Williams is a tall, long shooter with deep range and solid athleticism.

Realistic forward targets remain a bit of a mystery for the xlass of 2023 due to a dearth of quality forwards in the state of Michigan, but expect the staff to begin identifying targets in earnest this summer.

GO GREEN!