A Tom Izzo coached team is usually led by experienced seniors on and off the court like last year with Denzel Valentine. This season it doesn’t look like that. This season the team will only go as far as “The Class” take them.
One of those freshmen has gotten better game-by-game, and it’s not Miles Bridges. Fresh off of winning Big Ten Freshman of the week, Nick Ward keeps improving his play. This past week he averaged 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in two games. Tuesday night, Ward scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds on 6-of-10 shooting in a 77-57 win over Youngstown State.
“Nick is far surpassed where I thought he would be at this point offensively,” Izzo said in his weekly press conference. “He’s not far surpassed the mediocrity defensively.”
Izzo is right. We’ve seen an increase of production on the offense side of the ball as Ward put up a season-high 24 points in a 80-76 win over Oral Roberts on Saturday. In the win, he also recorded his first career double-double as a Spartan grabbing 10 rebounds.
Izzo is also right about Ward’s defense. He is going up against the best teams in the country like Duke and Kentucky.
“Some of it is lack of knowing, some of it is coming up with all these different teams that we have played have all run different stuff and that’s a quick prep,” Izzo said. “Some of it is the one day prep and it’s not fair to him.”
Mistakes will be made, but that comes along with being a young center. He will learn with time and experience.
A key ingredient in Ward’s success on Saturday came from the free throw line where he was 8-of-14. His ability to get fouled, and then to make his free throws contributed to the win.
One improvement in his game throughout the season is his field goal percentage. At the beginning of the season, when MSU played Arizona and Kentucky, he shot less than 50 percent from the field. But now, Ward is taking advantage and knocking down shots. Last week he was above 70 percent in both games.
An increase of minutes for Ward does raise concern for Izzo and the coaching staff because he is not in shape to be logging so many minutes. But with so many games, miles traveled and little time to practice, Izzo has taken fault for some of reasons why Ward is not up to shape.
“I think he is still trying to get into shape after losing 30 pounds. We all think that means he’s in better shape, and it does, but you have to learn how to play with a new body.” Izzo said. “Playing 26 minutes in a college game going up and down is hard.”
Ward’s low post threat has been much needed this season with the injuries to Bridges, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. As just a freshman, the progress he has made since game one to game nine is tremendous.
MSU has been known to produce big men that go on to the NBA to succeed such as Draymond Green and Zach Randolph. Ward is only a freshman and it is foolish to compare him as those two already, but the chance is there.
Izzo has talked highly of Ward and the fact that he has progressed so well from the beginning of the season. With the injury to Bridges and inconsistent play of almost everyone else on the team, now is the time for Ward to breakout.
“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, nobody on this team has improved more than Nick.” Izzo said.