Malik Hall is back from injury and starting to transition into the rotation for the Spartans. After two games, the hope is Hall will be fully integrated by mid-January. Hall’s expected return full action leaves MSU with a difficult question: how to establish the starting five and six man for the heart of Big Ten Play.
First, let’s look at Hall’s return:
Malik Hall made his return from injury as Michigan State took on the Buffalo Bulls.
The 11-point performance in about 12 minutes of game time showed promise. It reminded everyone how much better MSU is on both offense and defense with Malik Hall on the court. It also made everyone more than a bit nervous as Hall appeared to limp off the court and instead of the planned 15 minutes of game time, Hall checked out after 12 minutes and finished the game with his foot on a stretching roll.
Against Nebraska, MSU needed much less from Hall in the eventual blowout. This worked out well, as Hall had a much more rusty game. In many ways, his five point performance against Nebraska looked like what I expected for his first game against Buffalo. The good news was Hall positively impacted the game while on the court, improving team defense, dishing a few key assists and most importantly leaving the game looking healthy.
The Next Step: Integrating Hall into the Lineup
While it will take time for Malik Hall to regain his form, and the team to adapt to his presence, his return creates a conundrum for Tom Izzo’s starting lineup.
By contrast, this season’s starting lineups have been pretty obvious. The departure of Marcus Bingham, transfer of Julius Marble, and lack of any incoming transfers for this season left Mady Sissoko as an obvious starter. From there, the injury to Jaden Akins left the Spartans with a clear top 4 players (beyond Sissoko) active and ready to play: Hall, Tyson Walker, AJ Hoggard, and Joey Hauser.
Injuries to both Akins and Hall created some questions, but generally Pierre Brooks was the fairly obvious choice to step up. He was also the obvious choice to return to the bench once either Akins or Hall returned.
Now that the Spartans look like they will have both Akins and Hall back for the core of Big Ten play, the team has six players that look like starters. One of them will have to come off the bench.
It should be noted that Michigan State’s sixth man has historically been a pretty good role to play. Unlike some teams where the sixth man (or seventh for that matter) have limited playing time, Coach Izzo has a history of lineups that are his “go to” in crunch time that include the sixth man, rather than match the starters.
Izzo’s starters tend to fit more traditional matchup roles, giving a solid early read of the Spartans options against an opponent down the stretch. The crunch time lineups tend to maximize mismatches.
Considering Izzo’s history of using his sixth man more than some starters, we should understand that anyone that starts the game on the bench, may be seen finishing the game. And any of these six players listed below should not see the move to coming off the bench as a demotion. Izzo may tinker for a while, but the eventual decision will come down to best matchups and value coming off the bench.
These disclaimers laid out, let’s look at the six starter options and look at them from least likely to most likely to come off the bench, once Hall is fully healed and rolling.
The Six Man Options:
Likelihood of coming off the bench: Not Going to Happen
Hauser is the definition of indispensable this year. The Spartans leading scorer (14.1 points p. game); leading 3-point shooter (2.0 makes a game on 4.5 attempts - both team leading); and leading rebounder (7.5 p. game) is NOT coming off the bench. Heck, at 2nd on the team in minutes p. game (33.3, just behind Tyson Walker), the question can be asked: does he ever come off the court in big games?
Joey Hauser may not always be a fan favorite, and he does have his limitations. This year he improved every facet of his game and his role within the team makes almost everything they do possible.
Want to play a traditional lineup with Mady Sissoko at the five? Hauser is the best option at the 4, as it moves Malik Hall to a true swing role - a role Hall has exceeded some expectations in this year.
Want to play “small”? Then Hauser is the forward that moves into the center position. Even if Hauser doesn’t love playing the five spot, if Izzo uses it less out of necessity (last year’s burden) and more as an offensive tool that creates massive mismatches, it may be a great change of pace for Hauser.
Even on off-shooting nights, Hauser is essential for his rebounding, a skill the rest of the lineup can be a bit inconsistent on.
Likelihood of coming off the bench: Baring long term injury limitations, seems inconceivable
A senior leader of this team, it would be shocking to see Malik Hall play the sixth man. While his versatility could be valuable playing anywhere from shooting guard to power forward - and I guess even a very small lineup five man - the value that Hall gives to this team has been on display all season. From his early season great showing, to the way the team absolutely missed him in his 8-game layoff.
Hall is a crucial player on offense, on defense, and everything in between for MSU. He will need to be a central piece to establish tone at the start of games.
Likelihood of coming off the bench: Theoretically possible, though never going to happen on an Izzo coached team
Mady Sissoko is the big man for the Spartans this year. If Jaxon Kohler has a mid-season breakout into the greatest freshman ever, it may not be enough to push Sissoko out of the starting lineup. And this isn’t an article on that. This is about who would move from the current starter projections to a sixth man role. And that is not a role Sissoko will play for MSU.
Izzo values the opening tip too much to start a small ball lineup with Hauser at the five. Further, Izzo would shun any start to the game that could leave Hauser getting steamrolled by an opposing center on defense. Hauser needs to gain confidence at the beginning of games, and keeping him out of a defensive mismatch is key to his headspace for the game.
If Sissoko can’t keep up, or more likely fouls his way out of minutes in the first half, he will still start. Izzo needs to know early how the team matches up at the five spot, and Sissoko is the best indicator of that.
Likelihood of coming off the bench: It worked once, it could happen again, but most likely won’t
AJ may be the x-factor to this season. His assists are a key to the Spartans success. His aggression and downhill drives are potentially equally as essential. Hoggard has the potential to define the season in a “how AJ goes, so to do the Spartans.”
Theoretically, Hoggard fits the mold of a solid choice for the sixth man role. He has a change of pace style to Tyson Walker at the point (something the team exploited last year), and could see the game flow and come in as a needed counter/upgrade.
Hoggard has come off the bench once this season, and it sparked an improvement in his play. He played well as the sixth man in that game, and his play since has definitely improved.
That experience also shows why it’s unlikely. Hoggard definitely saw the move to coming off the bench as a message about a need to improve his play. Unless Izzo sees a need to send that message again, it’s unlikely he does anything to mess with Hoggard’s confidence. And a young, aggressive, sometimes inconsistent player like Hoggard may need that unwavering confidence and defined starter role more than the next two names on this list.
Likelihood of coming off the bench: It definitely could happen, may depend on the psyche of others
Walker is a key player for this team. Heck, all six of the players on this list are key for MSU to succeed. There is no doubt that Walker is on the floor for crunch time.
He is also an experienced and mature presence on the team. If anyone on this roster could understand the need to move to the sixth man role to help the bigger picture, it would be Tyson Walker. I think he is humble enough to focus on the positives being the sixth man provides to the team, without taking it personally about his play.
Further, some recent early game foul trouble could mean coming off the bench actually protects Walker and makes sure he is available later in the game.
The downside is Walker is a scoring threat who does the seemingly impossible: he doesn’t shoot enough. Moving him to the bench could exacerbate that, as the temptation would be to platoon him early with AJ at the point, limiting the early game opportunities for Walker to play off the ball and be more of a pure scorer.
While there are obvious upsides to Walker in the six man role, I don’t see him being pulled from the starting lineup. While able to play the point and shooting guard roles, he isn’t able to replace multiple positions, or create as much flexibility as Jaden Akins (see more below). Further, losing Walker’s defensive intensity at the start of games would be very hard. Walker coming off the bench could put someone like AJ Hoggard at more risk of early fouls by requiring him to defend the opponents best ball handler to start the game.
Likelihood of coming off the bench: Most likely candidate - if it doesn’t mess with his confidence
Akins brings so much to the table. From a purely athletic standpoint, he outshines Waker, Hoggard, and even Malik Hall in some areas. His pace of play, shooting (particularly if he stays hot), and defensive tenacity are useful throughout the game.
Everything that Akins brings to the table makes him the best option as a sixth man.
If any of the five starters are struggling, Akins fits into a lineup that allows Izzo to pull them. If Sissoko is struggling and they don’t trust Kohler, they play small with Akins at the 3, Hall at the 4, and Hauser at the five. If AJ is struggling, Walker moves to the point, and Akins to the two spot. If Hauser is struggling, Hall moves to the 4 and Akins fills in at the three. And of course, Akins could spell Hall directly at the three (something that may be needed with both of them having seemingly some occasional soreness still). In a pinch, Akins can even run the point - though that is not likely an early game option coming in as the first substitute.
Beyond the roster flexibility, Akins speed, energy, and all around athleticism makes him an ideal insertion to change the tempo and feel of a game.
The one potential downside could be Akins feeling slighted coming off the bench. Particularly if Akins truly rounds into form and a month from now and is leading the team in various stats. It would take some quality coaching and communication to make it clear that the sixth man role helps the entire team, and doesn’t limit Akins individual stats.
Izzo has a history of convincing talented players to thrive in the sixth man role, and I think he can do it again with Akins.
Who do you think should be the Spartan’s sixth man? Pick your six man and tell everyone why in the comments.