EAST LANSING, Mich. — The offseason has been filled with intrigue for Michigan State’s basketball program. Seniors Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham Jr. have decided to turn pro. A coaching seat on Tom Izzo’s bench opened up last month when longtime assistant Dwayne Stephens accepted the head coaching job at Western Michigan. Projected starter Julius Marble has transferred to Texas A&M to be closer to his family. And more recently, we learned of the fate of Max Christie – the player considered by many to be a future NBA pro. Turns out the future is now.
This offseason has been more about departures than arrivals, and that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. As Michigan State evaluated some targets in the transfer portal, a source said Athleticism earlier this week that the Spartans were likely to move forward with their current roster and rely on internal growth. Izzo echoed those sentiments for The Lansing State Newspaper.
If this is the direction Izzo and Michigan State have chosen, it means there is a level of confidence in the internal options already on the roster. This aligns with Izzo’s mindset when it comes to player development and his belief that the process still matters. But Michigan State will now head into the 2022-23 season building on improvement across the board. Young players will need to mature quickly. The actors will have to step into the spotlight. The opportunities will be there.
So who will get the most out of it? Here are some options:
At times last season, Malik Hall looked like the best player in Michigan State, ready for a breakout. He shot 51.5% from the field and 42.6% from deep, recording career highs in points (8.9) and rebounds (4.6) per game. A month-long stretch between January and February saw Hall score double figures in six of eight games – averaging 12 points per game during that span. But Hall would only hit double figures twice in MSU’s last 12 games (5.7 points per game). That includes two points overall in MSU’s two NCAA Tournament games.
So which room will appear in 2022-23? We will expect more from him, that’s for sure. He’s a captain and a veteran in a team that doesn’t have many. Maybe we see it more at three to explain some of the minutes left by Brown and Christie. This could allow MSU to play Hall and Joey Hauser together. MSU had an offensive rating of 121.4 in 165 minutes when these two were on the court together (108.6 overall).
Hall is an integral part of this team, but consistency has eluded him so far. Maybe this is the year he puts it all together. The State of Michigan needs it.
It was an interesting first year at East Lansing for Tyson Walker, a transfer from Northeastern, mainly due to the time it took him to adjust to what was being asked of him. Marquer was his calling card at Northeastern, and he did it well. He put up nearly 19 points per game and was aggressive in finding his shot. But Walker wasn’t the same player at Michigan State. There are several ways to look at this.
Considering the MSU point guard’s situation in 2020-21, it was clear the team needed someone who could involve others. Walker considered this his main role, and it showed. He formed a solid 1-2 punch with AJ Hoggard in the backcourt. Walker often let looks pass to make the extra pass or involve a teammate. In the process, it became apparent that Walker is one of the few players on the team who can create his own shot from anywhere on the field. He shot 47.2% from 3 points. At the end of the year, he became the closest to MSU. But before that, he was clearly trying to balance when to get his own points and when to distribute the wealth.
Now that he’s a year in the system and a year at this level, Walker will need to keep progressing. It means looking more for your shot. That means shooting over 3s, after seeing his attempts drop from 5.9 to 3.2. That could mean playing both more often with Christie in the NBA, as we saw last season. If Walker has another level in him and he feels like it, it’s time to see it.
Freshman forward Jaxon Kohler
Of the three incoming freshmen soon to join Izzo’s program, expect Kohler to make an immediate impact. Ranked No. 52 overall for the Class of 2022, Kohler hails from Utah with plenty of offensive skills ready for play. Given MSU’s frontline situation, we probably won’t have to wait long to to see him.
Kohler is a great big shooter with great touch and footwork in the paint. He’s a good size at 6-foot-9 and should be able to space the floor like a big stretch, but he’s also a solid passer with a knack for finding open teammates. Here is what Athleticism Sam Vecenie wrote of Kohler when he committed: “Kohler is a total offensive return right now, but with a booming perimeter game. He’s an undersized big man at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, but he makes up for that with absolutely elite skills. The big man from Utah has tremendous footwork in the paint and has a case as the top post scorer in the 2022 recruiting class. He can score over either shoulder, with his right hand and his left hand. Hook shots, no drops, everything you need on the block, he’s got it because he’s got great touch. He is physical and uses his frame extremely well as a rebounder, digging space and pointing the ball up. That key I mentioned too? He started to extend his reach past the college 3-point line and I’d bet he’d become big spacing at some point at the 4- and 5-point. He will score and rebound.
That’s high praise for an incoming freshman, but those traits make Kohler a prime candidate for big minutes as a true freshman — even if his defense lags his offensive game. He should have plenty of opportunities in this team.
Michigan State hasn’t added a center from the portal, and on the face of it, it doesn’t plan to. There are plenty of minutes available after Bingham’s decision to turn pro and Marble enters the portal. Of all the options on the front line of this team, Mady Sissoko is the only true center.
Sissoko comes with a solid prospect pedigree. He was ranked No. 41 overall for the 2020 class. At 6-9 with a 7-4 span, Sissoko has the tools to help this team. When he was a high school prospect, coaches at Michigan State fell in love with his run, his work ethic, his length, and the way he grounded and rebounded. But he averaged just 4.9 minutes per game in his first two seasons at East Lansing and didn’t look like a Big Ten center.
If no other moves are made, Sissoko should see a massive boost within minutes. This would serve as another example of Izzo betting that he and his staff can make the most of the roster. It looks like Sissoko will have a chance to prove some people wrong. It remains to be seen what he will do with it.
Second year guard
Perhaps no player has been more directly affected by the Christie news than Jaden Akins – a 6-3 combo guard with plenty of untapped potential. Already expected to see his minutes increase in second year, Akins now finds himself thrust into the spotlight. His role as a freshman was primarily to spell Christie to two, or allow him to go to three in Brown’s place. But with both players now pursuing professional careers, Akins will be called upon to give this team some juice.
Akins did all the little things for Michigan State as a true freshman. He is the best athlete on the team. He was a willing defender, he was active on the field, and he was one of the best rebounders on the team, regardless of size. It didn’t always show up in the box score, but he apparently caused a spark on the bench every time he spoke. Even before the season, Izzo knew what he had in Akins.
“Sometimes you get surprised by guys,” Izzo said in September. “Most of the time the surprise is that the guy isn’t as good as you thought. Sometimes you have a guy who ends up better than you thought. In all honesty, he (Akins) is better than we thought he would be, so that was a pleasant surprise.
Akins is still a work in progress, but he flashed all the tools in his kit last year. He has a chance to make a jump to year 2. It will be fascinating to see what he does for an encore.
(Malik Hall top photo: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)