Up until the end of June, there were some rumblings among the Michigan State men’s basketball fan base with plenty of people wondering if their beloved coach Tom Izzo was losing a step.
A somewhat underwhelming 2022 recruiting class, at least by national ranking standards (No. 56 in the country, according to 247Sports), and a notorious inactivity in the newly aligned transfer portal raised concerns and even angered some souls who just expect more from a premier program in college basketball. Like, for example, grabbing one of most sought after high school talents in the class of 2023 named Xavier Booker, which is exactly what Izzo did on July 30.
Xavier Booker’s recruitment
As has been the case with most of the other Michigan State recruits for 2023, Booker wasn’t a blue chip prospect from the beginning and can easily be described as a late-riser. At the time Izzo and the Spartans first showed interest in the lanky power forward, he was barely a consensus top-100 recruit, a fact that he never forgot and which should play a big role in his commitment later on.
Over time, though, there were more and more programs catching up on the talented big man from Cathedral High School, a private, independent Catholic institution in Indianapolis. While he didn’t put up tremendous numbers for the Fighting Irish (12.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game as a junior), Booker’s tremendous tools flashed more regularly the older he got. He won a state championship in March on a loaded Cathedral team, started to be considered among the top-10 players in his class (Rivals recently ranked him as its No. 1 player in the country) and then dominated on the AAU circuit as he secured MVP honors at the highly respected Pangos All American Camp in Las Vegas.
The number of interested teams had already grown by the week, among them were national powerhouses like Duke, Gonzaga and Kansas. There were also plenty of schools from the Midwest recruiting him like Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Indiana and Purdue. The last two got official visits, but already had to play catch up to the Spartans as Booker has had numerous unofficial trips to East Lansing and many considered the relationship with Izzo and his main recruiter Mark Montgomery very strong.
After he stopped by in East Lansing on April 15 for his official visit, many experts expected MSU to have the pole position, a notion that proved to be correct on the last day of July. Booker made it official after cutting his list of potential colleges to 10 just a week earlier and credited Izzo’s relentless and honest approach with him for his decision.
Booker is currently the No. 3 ranked overall player in the 2023 class, according to 247Sports’ Composite rankings.
Xavier Booker’s player profile
Booker is the type of player that modern NBA scouts drool over. Standing at 6-foot-10 or 6-foot-11, he has long arms, moves around the court extremely naturally and already possesses an astounding variety of perimeter skills rarely seen in a young player his size.
His shooting stroke looks natural, fluid and effortless — the ball comes out of his hands clean and quick. He can shoot spot up jumpers or even let it go off the dribble. His handles are amazing for his size as he can go between his legs with ease or even take the ball behind his back under his own basket with the opposing point guard barreling down on him. Again, a player his size usually should not be able to do these things, especially considering how young he is.
That raw and natural talent allows Booker to operate in different situations, as he can bring the ball up the floor, take his man off the dribble or help out his teammates whenever they are pressured in the backcourt.
Next to his handles and his shot — which he himself describes as the best part of his game right now — is his passing, which might actually be the most impressive tool in his bag.
Booker has a natural feel for passing lanes and spots teammates all over the court in the right place or at the right time. It is not often you see a 6-foot-11 big man dribble down the lane from the top of the key, and when a second defender comes to help, make an effortless one-handed drop-off pass to the open shooter in the corner, let alone all in one motion. It is obvious Booker likes to pass, which makes him a true weapon in the high post or along the baseline. His long arms and his reach allow him to spot players everywhere on the court and open up new lanes that would be closed for smaller players. He is extremely unselfish and he will make the extra pass even if he could easily score himself.
Which brings us to one of the question marks of Booker’s game. At times he is actually a little too unselfish, roams around the court without much purpose and seems to be OK just being out there playing. Considering how physically overpowering he is in comparison to most of his opponents (he sometimes faces front-court guys who seem to be about half his size), it might be understandable that he almost has to play a little careful being that much bigger than anyone else. Yet it also is something that bears watching in the future. This at times passive approach, for example, hurts him tremendously on the boards or even as a rim-protector as he gets caught ball watching way too much and is slow to react in situations that he should easily control.
It is almost more visible on the offensive end where Booker often spends plenty of time on the perimeter and really doesn’t demand the ball much. One of the reasons for that surely is Cathedral’s talent level. Their roster featured some older college prospects (like future Eastern Kentucky guard Tayshawn Comer) and Booker definitely had a defined role inside their hierarchy. In AAU, though, and with better players opposing him, you can tell that he rises to the occasion when he gets challenged. You can’t really say that he is a very emotional player, but he is very focused and serious.
With all that said, as of now, Booker’s high ranking is more based on his truly limitless potential and his talent. He already is switchable on defense and extremely skilled on offense. He is a perfect fit for the modern game, possesses strong athleticism and movement skills, plus he can do things that are just hard to teach. He also needs to gain weight, become a more dominant force and play as more than a stretch-four for longer periods of time.
Xavier Booker’s potential role at Michigan State
While Booker has the size and especially the length for the center position, he clearly sees himself as a four-man. Due to his strong perimeter shooting, there is no reason why he shouldn’t play that role at Michigan State, especially considering he potentially fits very nicely next to Jaxon Kohler. Kohler has a strong back-to-the-basket game and is more of a lumbering, flat-footed type of player. Booker would still space the floor for Kohler with his shooting, yet would also add a serious above-the-rim game and has the versatility to defend more agile front-court players. As Kohler can also shoot, these two potentially could be a nightmare to guard and might give Izzo a true twin towers look that almost no team in the entire country could match.
Due to his advanced offensive skills and mobility on defense, Booker might also be an option as a five-man in smaller lineups, even if Izzo doesn’t really like to give his freshmen multiple roles from the get-go. Gaining weight without losing his agility will clearly be a priority for the long forward. Booker is still is a bit raw overall, and needs to become a lot more consistent, but his offensive game should be so unique on the day he arrives in East Lansing that it will be hard to keep him off the floor for long.
Defensively, that might be a different story. While he has rim-protection potential, he is nowhere near the shot-blocking prowess of let’s say Jaren Jackson Jr. or Anthony Davis for example (to whom Booker is often compared to, but who came into college with world class timing already). Booker also has to develop as a rebounder and play a bit more physical overall to not cut into his own playing time.
Luckily things like focus, mental preparation or physical development are hallmarks of the Izzo era at Michigan State, especially for big men. Booker will have all the resources he needs to develop into the type of player he can be. His character seems advanced for his age: serious and focused — all things that should serve him well and give MSU a potentially dominant inside force for its possible title run in 2023.