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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: NBA Update, Recruiting Notes and Offseason Ruminations

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the offseason for Michigan State men’s basketball, but there are still plenty of topics to discuss. Here are some updates on Spartans in the NBA, recruiting, offseason thoughts and MSU’s projected future depth charts.

NBA Update:

  • The two Spartans playing in Memphis had STRONG postseasons— Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman both had great postseason runs with the Grizzlies, building on their respective strong regular seasons. Jackson finally found his feet defensively, which helped him stay on the court and impact the game far more consistently this season than he ever has before.

In fact, this development landed him on the NBA All-Defensive first-team, a well-deserved honor for a guy who anchored one of the top defenses in the league with a league-leading 2.3 blocks per game. While Jackson’s three-point shooting has not quite returned to form after his injury last season, his ability to play in the paint and get to the line was much improved. Jackson’s future stardom remains very much on the near-horizon: Memphis was plus-7.7 when he was on the court and got about three-points worse per 100 possessions while he was on the bench — by far the best numbers for his career.

Tillman — despite having a bit of a down regular season in a somewhat inexplicably smaller role, which, in turn, affected his performance — performed admirably in the playoffs, particularly against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round (he struggled against the Warriors in the second round).

  • Draymond Green remains sensational and a generational defender for the Golden State Warriors. While his offensive impact has continued to decline somewhat, he remains a terrific creator with the ball, a menace in transition and has a real knack for making big plays — in the playoffs, the Warriors are plus-9.8 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court and are actually minus-1.7 points per 100 possessions when he is off the court (i.e. his NET rating is +11.5!).
  • Miles Bridges had a HUGE year for the Charlotte Hornets, really cementing himself as a future star player. His aggression and impact on both ends of the court was leaps-and-bounds better than his earlier seasons in the league — he led the Hornets with a plus-5.8 NET rating — and he really has found a level of comfort with himself as a professional player. As a restricted free-agent this summer, expect a number of teams to try to sign him to offer sheets, which the Hornets will have the chance to match. Whether in Charlotte, or elsewhere, Bridges should have a big fifth season in the league.
  • Bryn Forbes had a somewhat muted season in Denver in large part because of the Nuggets’ injuries. Forbes is at his best when playing alongside multiple creators and players who can generate rim pressure, this entire season, Denver struggled with these tasks outside of Nikola Jokic. Next season when Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return after missing the entire (or majority of it in Porter’s case) 2021-2022 season, the Nuggets should provide a far more conducive offensive context to maximize Forbes’ lights-out shooting prowess. While Forbes will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, his fit and value remain obvious for teams like Denver and the Milwaukee Bucks — I would not be surprised to see Forbes end up back on either team, or to see him land with one of the Los Angeles teams.
  • I had a brief chat with Aaron Henry recently and he is doing well, staying positive, and grinding away. He had a strong season in the G-League after unfortunately ending up on the Philadelphia 76ers and playing for Doc Rivers, a coach famed for not giving minutes to rookies. Despite that frustration, Henry remains, in my view, a very clear NBA player—especially in today’s NBA — his perimeter defense, length, mid-range capacity, rebounding, slashing and interior passing ability are hallmarks of useful bench players right now. If Henry can improve his three-point shooting, then he could have a trajectory similar to that of Gary Payton II, who emerged this season as a defensive specialist capable of finishing inside, hitting wide-open set-shot three-point shots, and generally playing with constant and maximum effort for the Warriors.
  • Max Christie, Gabe Brown, and Marcus Bingham Jr. are all prepping for the NBA Draft and Summer League opportunities. Christie and Brown look like strong bets to find a way onto an NBA team either through the draft or through a two-way contract. Bingham, too, should have a great chance to force his way into a team’s plans simply because of his defensive length and activity, and because of his shooting acumen.
  • Denzel Valentine had a great stint at the end of the G-League season with the Botson Celtics’ affiliate — he looked really good physically and will undoubtedly have a shot over the summer to work his way onto a roster.
  • Like Valentine, Cassius Winston had a solid NBA G-League season. He remains on the periphery of the NBA right now, but if he can take his physical development to a higher level his ability as a shooter and creator off the bench should provide significant value to NBA teams in need of offensive sparks on cheaper contracts.
  • Finally, somewhat forgotten in the purgatory that is Orlando, Gary Harris quietly had a really strong season for the Magic. Harris relocated his shooting, which had been absent for a couple of seasons (and ultimately led to him being traded from the Nuggets), and his body appears to have fully rebounded from the injury-plagued past few years that clearly directly impacted his offensive game. Harris is one of just a handful of unrestricted free-agent off-guards available this summer, and will likely pursue the best possible contract he can get that also lands him on a contending team. A role as a sixth-man or on a team with high-scoring star-players seems like a great fit, and one can assume that Harris will find himself in high demand again.

Recruiting Notes:

  • Devin Royal, Xavier Booker and Fears are all on the same team at the Pangos Camp. This is good.
  • MSU appears in strong shape for Royal and Booker, but given Duke’s recent entry into the picture for Booker that has to be of some concern, though Jaxon Kohler’s major NIL moves should stand as a great signal to all prospective high-level recruits that MSU is more than willing and capable of facilitating that kind of opportunity.
  • Eventually, one assumes that high-ranking high school prospects will grow at least slightly skeptical of the Duke pitch given their ultimate lack of NCAA titles despite comical talent-accrual over the last seven years.
  • Furthermore, Tom Izzo’s continued production of high-level NBA players (i.e. guys who get to the NBA with the skills, maturity, and “sticky” attributes required to stay in the league) should, eventually, begin to strike a chord.
  • Seeing Tillman find a durable role, and seeing Valentine, Cassius Winston, Henry, Brown, and Christie work their ways back onto NBA rosters, or newly onto NBA teams’ radars for longer stretches will undoubtedly reinforce this pitch.

Offseason Ruminations:

  • This upcoming season should really entice Michigan State fans, not only because of what will happen on the court, but also because of what this season is setting-up: the 2023-2024 season. That will be the first year Fears and the rest of his class get on campus, it will see A.J. Hoggard and Mady Sissoko as seniors, Jaden Akins and Pierre Brooks will be juniors —after playing major roles as sophomores — and will likely see major improvements from Tre Holloman and Kohler, who will become sophomores in their own rights.
  • Returning that core of six players, and adding in a significant and talented freshman class should give Izzo a solid nine-man rotation, with the “bottom” of that rotation filled out by high-level freshman players who will instantly be ready to contribute.
  • Before I continue with the depth charts, as I see them, I want to reframe what I am thinking about and looking forward to for this season:

Yes, I want to see the Spartans win a national title, but given that goal is quite a lofty one, here is what I am most focused on for the seniors and for the “future core”...

Seniors: Joey Hauser, Tyson Walker, Malik Hall — first of all, these three need to be aggressive. Each one of this trio has had moments when their confidence or offensive aggression has diminished or simply disappeared. Myriad reasons likely explain these previous episodes of disappearing confidence, but none of those matter now. What matters is that all three of these guys play with supreme confidence all season long — if they shoot their shots (literally and proverbially), then this team will be well-situated to shock a lot of people in the world of NCAA basketball. I say this because these three can really shoot, play-make and carry an offense. In fact, each demonstrated this multiple times last season; Spartan fans just never really got to see a consistent version of what an offense focused on these three looks like.

In a lot of ways, this trio reminds me somewhat of the Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Matt Costello trio, who, as juniors all had moments of high-level play, but who never consistently dominated games. As seniors, that trio was superlative in so many ways for the entire season, right up until the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament; and even in that soul-crushing loss to Middle Tennessee State, that trio was not really the issue, rather the coaching staff’s failure to manage “that game” and a fundamental roster-construction-issue marred what should have been a glorious postseason.

That roster construction issue — a fatal dearth of athletes and lock-down perimeter defenders — will in no-way be the flaw of next season’s team. This burgeoning senior trio will be flanked by a bevy of long-armed, tough, athletic defenders, particularly on the perimeter. The scariest roster flaw for next season is, potentially, rim-protection. But even this flaw may get resolved if Kohler and Sissoko take major leaps on defense, or if the perimeter defense is so intense as to seriously limit teams paint-attacks to exclusively post-up opportunities, which are notoriously inefficient, and which teams are, generally, unwilling to go to 20-plus times per game.

If this senior trio has a “Michigan State seniors” kind of season, then this team is going to be really damn good.

“Future core”: Hoggard, Akins, Brooks, Sissoko, Kohler, and Holloman — there is a LOT to be excited about among this group. Hoggard has already demonstrated outstanding development in his two seasons — he has the ability to break down defenses in the half-court, get to the paint, finish at the rim, run the team’s transition game and defend at a level far higher than I thought he would reach as an underclassman. Akins has NBA-level athleticism, the ability to generate offense for himself in isolation, a terrific defensive platform to build on and a far better stroke than he demonstrated as a freshman in limited opportunities.

Brooks, in an almost-zero offensive role, demonstrated a healthy willingness to play his role, and to play it well: Brooks rebounded very well for his position, defended, and got to the line a bit by leveraging his strength. In an expanded role, he should have a lot more shooting opportunities from the perimeter, and potentially a major role as the sixth or seventh man in the rotation.

Sissoko, though barely utilized to this point in his career, has a major role to play this coming season. His length, knack for blocking shots, willingness to play physically in the post, and his ability to draw fouls will prove essential. His tasks this summer and this coming season remain straightforward: he must improve his defensive footwork so that he fouls less-often, he must improve as a free-throw shooter to punish teams that foul him and he must learn to screen effectively and play on the offensive side without rushing. If he does these things, then his promise will come good, and many opponents will face a dimension of this team that does not appear to exist on paper heading into the season.

Kohler, should be an offensive stud from the get-go, and if he can take major strides physically and with his footwork most of all, then his defense may actually surprise people — he will never be a Tillman-Jackson level defender, but he should approach a Goran Suton-Costello level of defensive solidity through positioning, footwork and defensive-IQ. Holloman will undoubtedly carve out a role for himself as a secondary point guard, secondary creator when he plays off-ball, and as a defensive menace. If Holloman’s shooting from the perimeter is real (even if only from catch-and-shoot set shots), and if his athleticism and quickness allow him to stay in front of much older, stronger and quicker athletes, then he may absolutely end up as a pivotal player.

The Shape of the Team: Nobody looks at this team and thinks “Big Ten contender and national title contender,” nobody, that is, but me, apparently. That’s not entirely fair as Barttorvik.com has Michigan State as the No. 22 team in its preseason rankings, with Indiana and Illinois at No. 13 and 14, respectively. When we get a bit closer to the season, I will reveal why I like this Spartan group more than those two teams in greater detail, but for now, let me focus on the Spartans themselves.

The rising senior trio each had the best season of their respective careers last season, each of the three shot over 40 percent from three-point range, and each played their best basketball of the season over the second half of the season, for the most part. Redistributing a healthy share of the nearly 1,000 shots that Brown, Bingham, Christie and Julius Marble took to this trio will probably produce some very efficient offense for the Spartans (especially those roughly 300 shots that Christie took — again, he is a far better shooter than he showed last year, but that does not change the fact that he was not an efficient scorer last season despite having an extremely HIGH quality of shot last season).

This trio should solidify every lineup and I expect the staff to focus on keeping at least two players of this trio on the court almost all game long once conference play starts. Beyond this trio, the other two essential returners — Hoggard and Akins — appear primed for absolutely starring roles this coming season.

From his freshman to sophomore year, Hoggard improved his offensive rating by 23 points— the same order of magnitude of improvement that Winston made from his freshman-to-sophomore years. While Hoggard likely will not replicate that huge of a jump again, another significant jump is likely. Beyond the standard “get stronger and quicker” requirement, Hoggard’s only real directive should be to improve his free-throw shooting and his three-point shooting. If he accomplishes those tasks — say a seven-to-eight percent improvement in both figures, taking him to roughly 70 percent from the free-throw line and roughly 30 percent from three-point range — then he will terrorize teams.

Hoggard’s defensive potential is no longer in question after his stunning defensive work on Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis and Purdue’s Jaden Ivey, two likely top-eight picks in this summer’s NBA Draft. In both instances, Hoggard terrorized these two future NBA rotation players (if not future stars) by using his strength, length, quickness and competitiveness to force turnovers, contest shots, shut off driving lanes and generate steals and deflections. And, in both cases, he did this while offering up two of his best offensive performances of the season.

In short, Hoggard is primed to dominate the Big Ten next year with almost no competitors for best point guard in the conference outside of Walker, his Spartan teammate, Illinois’ five-star freshman Skyy Clark (who I do not think I have ever seen try to play defense), Indiana’s hit-and-miss Xavier Johnson, Northwestern’s Boo Buie, Ohio State’s Isaac Likekele and Wisconsin’s Chucky Hepburn. Looking at that competition, Hoggard should be viewed as starting the season in pole-position not only for the mantle of best point-guard in the conference, but also, potentially, for a first-team all-conference nod.

Akins, one of the most enticing guard recruits Izzo has ever landed in my view, remains poised on the precipice of stardom only because the season does not start for another couple of months. As soon as the season starts, this kid is going take off. Akins, like Hoggard, has to take a step forward with his shooting consistency. His form is solid, he needs repetitions and confidence; after an odd senior year of high school, and a slowly-building freshman season, Akins will have a TON of opportunities and find himself playing within a superb passing team — expect Akins to do a lot of finishing of plays, and to really pressure the paint a ton. If he gets his free-throw shooting back up to his high school averages (he routinely shot in the mid-70s from the line in high school), then his scoring game will really take off.

This five-man core group, bolstered by Brooks, Sissoko, and the two freshmen, should look at the Big Ten and see a lot of good teams, but no clear run-away favorites. While the returning big men in Zach Edey, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Hunter Dickinson should all be matchup nightmares on paper for the Spartans, none of those teams have high-level guard play that those teams can bank on out-playing the Spartan perimeter players. At this point, the Spartans appear to be at least co-favorites with a handful of other Big Ten teams, with every bit as high a ceiling, if not a higher one than most.

Depth charts:

2022-2023:

1 - Hoggard (Jr.), Holloman (Fr.)
2 - Walker (Sr.)
3 - Akins (So.), Brooks (So.)
4 - Hall (Sr.)
5 - Hauser (Sr.), Kohler (Fr.), Sissoko (Jr.)

This is what I view as the likely push-comes-to-shove closing lineup for Izzo. Yes, Hauser is a weak-spot defensively, but he just needs to hold his own, compete in the paint, and box-out. Otherwise, this five-man group should be dynamite defensively and a potent five-out offensive juggernaut. Holloman and Walker (and possibly Akins) will all take turns initiating the offense, and Brooks and Hall will likely spend plenty of time playing both on the wing and as a mobile-forwards (as will Hauser, at the forward, at least). Kohler will really determine a lot — if he can really defend and rebound, then he should play a ton of minutes, possibly pushing Akins into the sixth-man role, if that materializes, then that eight-man unit (with Sissoko as the ninth man) should develop a LOT of continuity early on in the season. A bench trio of Holloman, Akins and Brooks should be a pretty potent group.

Possible 2023-2024:

1 - Hoggard (Sr.), Fears (Fr.)
2 - Akins (Jr.), Holloman (So.)
3 - Brooks (Jr.), Royal (Fr.)
4 - Booker (Fr.)
5 - Kohler (So.), Sissoko (Sr.)

If, as I believe, the Spartans really are in the pole-position for both Devin Royal and Xavier Booker, then the 2023-2024 roster already looks pretty set, and really enticing. Hoggard, Fears, Akins and Holloman might be the best back-court in the nation that year, and a Kohler-Booker duo in the front-court is the most tantalizing prospect that Spartan fans have had since the prospect of Jaren Jackson Jr., potentially returning for his sophomore season (sigh...what if...). MSU would look the part of a preseason top-10 team with the versatility, shooting, defense and guard-play to compete with any team in the country.