Michigan State has gone from doom and gloom about Senior forward Malik Hall’s injury status on Monday, to a much more encouraging outlook on Wednesday. In a press conference on Wednesday, MSU coach Tom Izzo said a new review of Hall’s injury indicated it would be possible the crucial player could be back in action sometime in February. This was a substantial improvement from reports from just a few days ago suggesting Hall was potentially done for the year.
While the news is encouraging, it’s still potentially weeks of games before Hall is back in any way. This leaves MSU with an all too familiar question: who takes on Malik Hall’s minutes.
Earlier in the season this was a much harder question. Jaden Akins pre-season injury, and his set back a few weeks into the season left the options very thin for MSU. Then again, with a limited scholarship roster, very thin is the story of MSU’s depth this year.
When MSU adjusted to both Akins and Hall out, sophomore swingman Pierre Brooks stepped into the starting lineup. As Akins came back into the starting lineup, and Hall re-entered the rotation - even in a limited way - Brooks’ time on the court evaporated.
Brooks’ time on the court was so limited, by the Illinois game, I was asking if he would see more than 3-4 minutes a game. Now with Hall back out for an extended period of time Brooks looks poised to take on more minutes.
The question is: should Brooks be the option?
Let’s take a look at the overall depth.
MSU may be thin overall, but almost every position on the court has a clear primary and backup - even if that backup slides around the lineup rather than comes directly from the bench.
Point: Hoggard primary, with Holloman off the bench and more and more Akins taking over the duty at points. Walker has almost exclusively moved to shooting guard.
Shooting guard: Walker, with Holloman running dual points with Hoggard at some points, and Akins sliding to the 2 spot at others.
Wing: Akins is the primary, with Malik Hall coming off the bench (while injured), and Brooks playing spot minutes. In a pinch, Walker could play the wing with Holloman and Hoggard as dual point guards on the floor.
Power forward: Hauser as the absolute iron man, with Malik Hall at times moving there - but mostly when MSU goes with a small lineup. Pierre Brooks has occasionally moved to the power forward, but is undersized there and a defensive liability (well… always).
Center: Sissoko as the primary, with Cooper emerging as the go to off the bench and Kohler also in the mix.
Coming off the bench, Hall had been filling in at the wing and the power forward spot. Now that he is not available, it leaves MSU exposed - not at the center position as most would have predicted pre-season, rather at power forward. And Hauser has been essentially the only option.
Hauser is averaging over 36 minutes a game, and is all too often being played “into the ground,” as Izzo put it in after the Illinois game.
This means the substitute for Hall’s minutes needs to be able to play the four spot, almost as much, if not MORE than the wing.
Brooks is the most obvious spot player at the wing position. At the four spot though, he is a more difficult option. While Hauser is not exactly a defensive power house, putting an undersized, already defensively suspect Brooks into that role is simply asking for a disaster.
Enter the true choice: Jaxon Kohler.
Kohler’s minutes of late have taken a nosedive. This has been driven by the emergence of Carson Cooper and the consistent defensive issues for Kohler.
Kohler has shown that he has some offensive bite. He can’t replace Hauser’s stretch the floor abilities, but he could provide MSU a real post presence, particularly if he is being defended by the other team’s second most talented big man - presuming the most talented big man stays on Sissoko.
Kohler’s defensive liabilities could be slightly less exposed if the freshman big man is not asked to take on a truly talented and bigger center on the other team. Hauser lacks some defensive range as well, so the drop off to Kohler could be a bit less than some might fear.
A lineup that gives Hauser five to six minutes off a game (sorry Joey, you’re not getting more than that, the team needs you), and rolls Kohler out next to Sissoko (please, please, please do not put Kohler and Cooper on the floor together…) with Akins at the wing for defensive support could work for short stretches. It might even provide a focal point for some much needed in the paint scoring.
If Brooks focuses on giving Akins 5-6 minutes of rest a game, and Kohler gives Hauser five minutes a game that could be huge for long term durability of the starting five. Brooks could also prove himself a bit more reliable and see more minutes if Akins slides to the point guard or shooting guard spot to give some relief there. Similarly for Kohler, if the move slightly out of position gives him some confidence, he could expect more minutes as part of the effort to keep Sissoko’s numbers around 22-25 minutes a game.
In Hall’s absence the entire roster for MSU will need to step up. The team defense will need to maintain the intensity it had against Purdue. Offensively it will need Akins to get back to hitting threes. And to make sure that Akins and Hauser don’t collapse due to overuse, Brooks and Kohler will need to step up.