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Michigan State Men’s Basketball: Back to the Future

Syracuse v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

As the 2022-2023 offseason progresses for the Michigan State men’s basketball program, and as the class of 2023 begins to round into shape with the excitement of the recent commitments of Xavier Booker and Gehrig Normand (who join Jeremy Fears Jr.), MSU fans can, at least tentatively, sketch out what the 2023-2024 season will look like, on paper.

While I am much higher on the Spartans this coming season than many fans appear to be —be sure to read my upcoming preseason top-60 part two article for where I see MSU in the national picture — and while the final recruitment or two for the 2023 class have yet to fully play out, I believe there is quite a bit that observers of the program can confidently forecast as they look ahead to next summer.

Graduation & Departures:

Of this season’s seniors — Tyson Walker, Malik Hall and Joey Hauser — I expect none to return to the following season’s team. All three guys will be “old” and will likely have shown pro scouts all that they can show at the college level. That is my read for now, but we will see.

It also seems doubtful that any other attrition of any form occurs: Mady Sissoko, Jaxon Kohler and Carson Cooper should comfortably man the center spot moving forward, and A.J. Hoggard, Jaden Akins, Pierre Brooks and Tre Holloman are all highly compatible players. On their own, that group of seven would be highly competitive in the Big Ten conference even with just a couple of transfer additions on the periphery of the playing-rotation.

The only major early-departure concern might be Akins, but he has not begun to generate NBA interest, and he would need to generate a ton for him to actually stay in the draft. However, he should find himself in a position to at least enter his name into the draft process, in order to get feedback from NBA teams, after this coming season.

An even bigger jump from Akins will likely occur next summer (and into the next season as a junior) — in the same way that the coaching staff expects major leaps from Hoggard and Sissoko this coming season. I have always felt that, contrary to popular belief, the biggest jump players experience at both the high school and college level is between their sophomore and junior seasons, and each year seems to add further confirmatory evidence.

Returning Depth Chart for 2023-2024:

Barring any shifts in playing positions for the returners, the returner depth chart should look like this:

1 - Hoggard (Sr.)
2 - Akins (Jr.), Holloman (So.)
3 - Brooks (Jr.)
4 -
5 - Kohler (So.), Sissoko (Sr.), Cooper (So.)

In the same way that Kohler will likely not shift down to the power forward spot, due to a lack of foot-speed, Spartan fans should also not envision Pierre Brooks shifting up to the spot either. There is no evidence that Brooks is capable of defending bigger players consistently, or that he can rebound well enough to play that role.

Holloman should play a fair amount of point guard and off-guard (wing) during his freshman season, and I expect that he will prove more than capable of playing both roles for his entire time at Michigan State. Though he is a different player, physically, a guy like Charlie Bell comes to mind in terms of being able to slide seamlessly between guard roles and playing as a second point guard on the court (a return to a style that I discussed in previous articles). Finally, expect Hoggard’s coming season to be a dominant one, and for him to enter the 2023-2024 season with Big Ten Player of the Year aspirations, at the very least.

Again, if there were only marginal improvements to the roster from this “starting point,” this team would still be competing for a Big Ten title, and looking to get to a Final Four, but that is not the position that Tom Izzo and the Michigan State fan base finds itself in; far from it...

The class of 2023, as it stands:

Xavier Booker (PF, 6’10”, 210 lbs, 7’4” wingspan): Booker co-headlines the class with Fears (below), and stands head and shoulders above the rest of the roster in terms of his NBA potential. Booker is long, lean, agile, has terrific hands and timing, a solid shooting stroke from the free-throw line and out to three-point range, has comfort scoring in the post and has the lateral agility to help him move his feet on-ball on the perimeter and in the post, which will help ensure that he does not pick up the kinds of footwork-related fouls that so plagued Jaren Jackson Jr. in his lone season in East Lansing. While Booker will likely not be as imposing a player as Jackson was physically and in terms of his strength and weight, he has better control of his limbs, and should be able to play more minutes per game due to a lower foul-rate.

In terms of physical comparison, Anthony Davis (as a freshman at Kentucky) is actually a better comparison than Jackson, who, as a freshman, weighed about 240 pounds. Davis, at Kentucky, was about 6-foot-10, had a 7-foot-5.5-inch wingspan and weighed 220 pounds. By the time Booker gets to East Lansing, his weight should be right around 220 pounds. A more recent comparison would be Evan Mobley, who as a freshman at USC, was about 7-feet-tall, had a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan and weighed 215 pounds. It is this kind of physical presence that Booker should inhabit in MSU fans’ imaginations.

In terms of his actual game and skills, Booker enjoys elements of all three of these players on offense. Booker handles the ball in the same way that Mobley and Davis did in high school, his picturesque jump shot goes in at rates akin to Jackson from three-point range, and defensively he erases shots and covers ground — he has all of the physical tools to be a great defender.

At times, however, Booker can be slow or “behind” the play with his defensive off-ball footwork (he can take poor angles due to not angling his hips properly or literally stepping or sliding to the right spot; kind of like a cornerback who has a false step, or steps with the wrong foot first on a slant), and this can lead him to simply not helping properly off-ball. At times, he can also get to high in his hips, or not wide enough in his feet to properly move with his man on-ball.

But I see Booker as a great prospect on defense and a player who will rapidly develop on-ball and off-ball in his (perhaps only) season at Michigan State — he needs footwork and hip-work reps in a refined system with clear and detailed instruction (maybe Draymond Green or Xavier Tillman can stop by East Lansing next summer to work with him for a couple of weeks?).

While I do not think Booker is quite at the level of prospect of these three right now, by the time he gets to East Lansing, he very well may have reached the Jackson-Mobley level of prospect, while being a better perimeter shooter than all three. If you do not believe me, take a look:

Anthony Davis:

Evan Mobley:

Jaren Jackson Jr.:

Xavier Booker

Jeremy Fears (PG, 6’0”, 180 lbs): Fears truly is a co-headliner with Booker because of his leadership, tenacity and recruitment efforts. Before he has even arrived on campus, Fears has demonstrated why he will surely become a Spartan legend by going above and beyond in his efforts to benefit the program. As a player, Fears has already developed into a consummate floor general. His terrific handle allows him to get wherever he wants, Fears’ passing vision and skill allow him to manipulate defenses and deliver precise passes all over the court, and his toughness on defense and on the glass will have him in Izzo’s good graces before he even dons the Green and White.

Fears’ biggest need for improvement is his jump-shooting. While his free-throw stroke (and percentage) and his mid-range touch and finishing touch are excellent (which is important because these are the greatest indicators for long-term shooting improvement), Fears is reluctant to shoot from the mid-range at times, and has yet to develop confidence in his three-point shot — as you can see below, he lacks rhythm and proper energy transfer in the shot, even when the ball goes in.

Improving on these essential levels of shooting will elevate him toward five-star status, and give him a legitimate shot at the NBA despite his smaller stature. For now, however, count him among the Spartans’ blessings as a recruiter, leader, uniting force and as a future star college basketball player.

Jeremy Fears Jr.:

Gehrig Normand (SF, 6’5”, 180 lbs): The Normand-Matt McQuaid comparison is a natural one, both wings around 6-foot-5, both capable shooters, both solid athletes as high school players and both competitive dudes who fell in love with Michigan State in somewhat whirlwind recruitments. Normand should bring much of what McQuaid brought to East Lansing, but to be clear, they are different players.

Physically, Normand is a bit longer in his wingspan, has a bit higher of a vertical and is a bit more filled out than McQuaid was as a senior in high school. Normand also has a different style of offensive game: while McQuaid was always more of an off-ball operator in high school (though he did play more on-ball in high school than he did at MSU), Normand is far more comfortable playing with the ball in his hands.

Normand’s far more developed and confident handle allows him to attack closeouts, play out of the pick-and-roll and even attack some matchups in isolation. His off-the-dribble shooting opens up his driving game and his passing. Furthermore, his impressive athleticism and his desire to attack the rim results in plenty of alley-oop plays when his defender cuts off his corner-three catch-and-shoot opportunities, and even leads to his picking up some put-back dunks and finishes through contact in the half-court. This is not a Jason Richardson-level athlete, but this kid attacks and can finish with creative layups and with power at the rim on one-handed and two-handed dunks.

One last point on Normand’s offensive game — his shot specifically — is while McQuaid had a great career at Michigan State, his shot as a high school player had a hitch in it (McQuaid would catapult his wrist into his shooting motion), which became more pronounced during his collegiate career. This hitch was a huge part of why he had a sophomore slump, why he sometimes struggled against better competition and why he never became a great off-the-dribble shooter (outside of closeouts): such a hitch slows a shooter’s release and requires precise timing (with no “time or space” for re-calibration or adjustments mid-shot) — these issues can lead to shooters getting “gun-shy” or getting run-off the three-point line more easily.

Normand’s shot is far smoother in his wrist and hand-action, and this clearly translates into a quicker release, greater comfort with in-shot adjustments and a far higher capacity and comfort for off-the-dribble-shooting.

While Normand has a higher starting point on offense than McQuaid did, McQuaid’s defense was certainly further along than Normand’s is right now. Normand’s individual defense will be a major focus for the Spartan coaching staff as they stay in contact with him through the season to prepare him for college basketball.

Gehrig Normand:

Full Depth Chart:

Adding this trio of freshmen to the returning group gives the depth chart projection something along these lines:

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

This is a 10-man group that should compete for a national title, and will almost certainly enter the season ranked in the top-10, if not the top-five. Hoggard, Fears, Akins and Holloman will form one of the best guard rotations in the nation. Meanwhile, Brooks and Normand should provide excellent floor-spacing and positional size as the “fourth-or-fifth options” for most of the time they are on the court, and the front-court is already absolutely loaded with talent, size, scoring and defensive acumen.

The only area of need is for a hybrid-forward (along the lines of Alan Anderson, Raymar Morgan, Branden Dawson and Malik Hall): a 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 guy, with the speed, strength and athleticism to slide between the forward and wing-spots that would allow the coaching staff to comfortably flex between bigger and smaller lineups, and that would ensure that there is no defensive drop-off when Booker takes a rest.

The Final Recruiting Target:

In my mind, Coen Carr, who recently took an official visit to East Lansing, would fill this role perfectly. Carr stands at 6-feet-seven-inches tall, weighs roughly 215 pounds, has long arms, is a high-level NBA athlete, loves playing defense, is a terrific transition player, a great open-court passer and a solid “time-and-room” shooter from three-point range. The staff could not have picked a better target for their final player they hope will join the class.

I first saw Carr play about 14 months ago and was instantly enamored, but, given his location in Greenville, South Carolina, I assumed the staff would never really recruit him. I am still unclear as to when Izzo first reached out to Carr, but it is clear that there is significant mutual interest.

This young man is a perfect fit for MSU emotionally, mentally, physically, athletically and in terms of how he would fit on the roster and within the recruiting class. Given the odds (roughly 100 percent guaranteed) that Booker will go straight to the NBA after a lone season in college, and given that Carr likely will not be quite ready to go pro after the 2023-2024 season, he would be in line to return to a starting and starring role as a sophomore.

Carr will be announcing his commitment decision on Aug. 9. Many predictions favor Michigan State.

In that scenario, the depth chart would likely take this form for 2024-2025, assuming Booker does not return:

1 - Fears (So.)
2 - Akins (Sr.), Holloman (Jr.)
3 - Brooks (Sr.), Normand (So.)
4 - Carr (So.), ____________
5 - Kohler (Jr.), Cooper (Jr.)

This team, assuming that Akins returns for a senior season, would, again, compete for a national title, and certainly be a favorite in the Big Ten.

For now, bask in the glow of an exciting upcoming season, visions of banners in 2023-2024 and some awesome Coen Carr highlights: