Rocket Watts is next in line to step into the storied lineage of Michigan State basketball point guards.
But Tom Izzo has options.
There’s Foster Loyer, the junior who was recently voted as one of the Spartans’ three captains. There’s freshman AJ Hoggard, whose 6-foot-3 frame adds size Izzo rarely has had running his offense. There’s Jack Hoiberg, a walk-on whose basketball pedigree is strong as the son of Nebraska coach Jack Hoiberg.
Then there’s Watts, the 6-foot-2 sophomore who can drive to the basket and fill up nets from outside. Moving Watts from shooting guard would alter the Spartans’ offensive identity a bit after four years of two-time All-AmericanCassius Winston, who was a pass-first point guard. It is a transition that would rekindle memories of Kalin Lucas and Keith Appling and some of the more offensively minded, attacking lead guards from Izzo’s past.
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Michigan State Spartans guard Rocket Watts (2) scores against the Iowa Hawkeyes during first half action Tuesday, February 25, 2020 at the Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich.
“He’s worked hard on his shooting, he’s worked hard on his ball-handling,” Izzo said Wednesday during a video call. “What he’s gotta continue to do now that we can be together is work on watching film, making decisions. He’s a pretty good passer – I mean, nobody’s going to be Cassius. But (Watts is) a very, very good defender. And he’s a shot-maker. He’s not afraid of the moment, he’s not afraid to take big shots.”
Watts averaged 9.0 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists as a freshman, with seven games with 10-or-more shot attempts. That includes 20 in a comeback at Penn State and 10 3-point tries in each of the final two regular-season wins over the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes. Winston had 14 games with double-digit shot attempts in his first two seasons, but only three as a freshman.
Izzo says Watts’ shot selection “will be a little more key” if he is running the point, but he added he wants to float him between both guard spots. That could mean more time for Loyer, the 6-0 junior who averaged 2.9 points in 7.5 minutes a game last season while backing up Winston. Loyer has averaged just under one assist a game in each of his first two seasons at MSU, but slightly reduced his turnovers as a sophomore. He also shot 45% from 3-point range last season.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks to guard Foster Loyer during the first half against Western Michigan at the Breslin Center, Dec. 29, 2019.
Izzo said he has been pleased with Loyer’s progress over the offseason.
“I think you’ll see him and Rocket playing together some,” Izzo said “But what he can do — we always think of what a kid can’t do — what he can do is he can shoot it with anybody on our team.”
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Senior Joshua Langford told the Free Press in late September he is taking it “one day at a time” in his return from a second foot surgery.
“I’ve been on the court as much as we can due to the virus. But for the most part though, I’ve been able to pretty much work out as much as I can,” he said. “In terms of how I feel, I feel great. Things are definitely on the incline and not decline.”
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo with injured guard Joshua Langford during a practice session for the Final Four Friday, April 5, 2019, in Minneapolis.
That progress has continued.
Izzo said Langford has not had many restrictions the past three weeks, but he also is not ready to say the 6-5 shooting guard is “over the hump” just yet after having his return to the court shut down last fall before he could ever play a game.
“Knock on wood, man, he’s been pretty solid right now,” Izzo said. “I would say there’s days that he looks like the old Josh, dunking and doing things that he really couldn’t do last year. He’s way ahead of where it was last year. I’m trying to be cautiously optimistic, for his sake and ours. … I think the hardest thing is making sure Josh doesn’t try to get everything back in a week or in a month or two months. And so we’re really trying to work with our trainer and Josh and myself on how to balance everything.”
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After playing in every one of his first 83 games at MSU, while averaging 10.2 points and 2.8 rebounds, Langford has sat out the Spartans’ last 57 contests. In 2018, his third season in East Lansing, he was averaging 15.0 points a game in 28.6 minutes with 40.3% shooting from 3-point range and pivotal defense when he first hurt his foot.
“We made a decision, Josh and I together, that, hey, what’s meant to be is meant to be,” Izzo said. “We’re going to be smart. But we’re also not going to baby anything because he wants to have a year. That’s why he came back. We’re gonna go for it.”
Izzo said he feels he has two starting jobs figured out, with swingman Aaron Henry and forward Joey Hauser leading the rotation. The other three spots are in flux as practice opened Wednesday. Those will come down to Izzo finding the right combinations, and it could remain fluid throughout the year.
“One thing I do think is we have depth. It seems like we have depth a lot,” Izzo said. “Now, depth and quality depth are two different things. But I do think we have some quality depth.”
Michigan State forwards Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown during the second half of MSU’s 87-69 win over U-M on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in East Lansing.
Langford’s health will be one key, along with how Watts operates the point. Where sophomore Malik Hall fits best will be another. Another consideration: Whether to use Gabe Brown in the starting group or off the bench — “He could be the best sixth man we’ve had since Morris (Peterson),” Izzo said. Which big man emerges to replace Xavier Tillman alongside Hauser, a stretch-4, also will contribute to Izzo’s eventual lineup maneuvering after a COVID-disrupted summer.
“I haven’t worked with our guys 5-on-5 scrimmaging nearly as much as I would have liked to,” Izzo said. “But we got time, too. It’s not like we don’t have time. We’ve got time. There’ll be no excuses.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State basketball: How Rocket Watts will play at point guard