The Michigan State Spartans picked up a monster win on Tuesday on the road against Minnesota, overcoming a 13-point deficit in halftime to down the Gophers 75-74 in overtime. The win improved MSU to 9-5 overall, collecting their first league victory of the season in the process.
Contributing in a big way once again was freshman big man Nick Ward, who notched his second double-double of the season with a game-high 22 points to go along with 10 boards and four blocked shots. That’s back-to-back 20+ point games for Ward coming off a career-best 25 against Oakland, and eight straight games overall in double figures going back to Thanksgiving weekend.
For a team that has struggled to score so far this season (72.8 PPG – 12th in Big Ten), largely due to the six-game absence of another highly-touted freshman in Miles Bridges, it is encouraging to see one guy stepping up in a big way. One could say that Nick Ward is basically putting them team on his back right now.
His value is even more heightened because of the supporting cast around him. Bridges is the team’s leading scorer (16.6 PPG) and rebounder (8.8 RPG), while Ward is right behind him in both categories. Senior Eron Harris should be the team’s scorer for how heralded he is at scoring. But he’s held down the fort averaging close to 13 PPG, After that, it becomes almost a hassle for head coach Tom Izzo finding scoring elsewhere. Matt McQuaid has not shot quite as well as many Spartans fans would have hoped early on. Another freshman, Joshua Langford, has also struggled to find a rhythm. Guards Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn Jr. and Cassius Winston have done well sharing duties at the point guard, but are not scoring-first options. And the front court depth is all but vanished, with Izzo having to exceed the limits of former walk-ons Kenny Goins and Matt Van Dyk.
Simply put, Ward is a one-man wrecking crew right now. And an even crazier part? He’s only averaging 18.7 minutes of playing time per game.
Now granted, that has gradually elevated over the last few weeks due to the fact that Bridges is out. He did log a season-high 33 minutes in the overtime win over Minnesota, and in this current stretch of eight games putting up double-digit points, Ward has registered at least 20 minutes in six of them.
Coming into the season, Ward sort of got lost in the shuffle among the star-studded freshman class Izzo brought in. Bridges was the unquestioned No. 1 talent in the bunch, Langford had received high praise for his ability to score and being a five-time (yes) high school basketball player of the year in the state of Alabama. And Winston was the local Detroit product with high remarks for his vision and leadership. But Nick Ward? Eh, he was suppose to be just another big man as part of a rotation. And when you add the fact that he stepped onto campus reportedly out of shape, AND the Spartans lost fellow big men Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling indefinitely, Ward was thrown into the fire and has responded, both in his game production and slimming down, getting more conditioned.
It becomes even more impressive when you look at Ward is accomplishing early on. Compare those to the ones of another Spartan diaper-dandy from a year ago, Deyonta Davis. Like Ward, Davis didn’t see the floor a whole lot, just 18.6 points per game in 35 games played last year. And one could argue that Davis had a better supporting cast around him and was not a primary option for scoring. But let’s say we extrapolate both Ward’s and Davis’ numbers to a ‘per 40 minutes’ ratio. How do the two stack up?
|NICK WARD – 2016/17||DEYONTA DAVIS – 2015/16|
*Stats courtesy of Sports-Reference
We can see that even though their minutes per game are roughly the same, Ward is nearly doubling Davis in the scoring department. And basically being the lone big man on the floor for MSU at any given time would explain a reasonable increase in rebounds. It is also important to point out that while the free throw shooting is swung towards Davis in this exercise, Davis went to the charity stripe just 38 times all of last year… that’s in 35 games. Ward in 14 games has already attempted 90 freebies, by far the most on the team (next closest is Harris with 39). But Tom Izzo will gladly take 52.2 percent from his big man, because MSU as a team is shooting a putrid 60.6 percent from the line, dead last in the Big Ten and it’s not really even close.
We know it’s impossible to project how this team would be doing had they been working with a full deck of cards all season long. Hell, even if Davis had come back for another year, Ward might not have even been offered a scholarship to begin with. But it’s very safe to say that the silver lining in what has been a bit of a sluggish season so far for the Spartans, is the emergence of Nick Ward.