East Lansing — While Nick Ward hasn’t missed a 3-pointer all season, there’s not much argument over who has been Michigan State’s best shooter from long distance this season.
That, of course, is only partly because Ward has taken just one all season and might not take another, but it’s clearly because sophomore Cassius Winston has hardly missed from 3-point range this season. Through 10 games, Winston is 25-for-41 for 61 percent, which believe it or not, is not the best mark in the Big Ten. That goes to Illinois’ Aaron Jordan, who is 25-for-40 for 62.5 percent.
However, Winston has clearly been No. 2 Michigan State’s best option from long distance, twice this season making five 3-pointers in one game. He did it Saturday in the win over Southern Utah and a couple of weeks ago in a victory over Notre Dame. When he scored a career-high 28 points against Connecticut, Winston was 4-for-5 on 3-pointers.
It’s been a significant jump from last season when Winston shot 38 percent (27-for-71), but an offseason of work has led to a dramatically improved result.
“A lot of it was in the summer putting work in,” Winston said. “You put that work in and it builds that confidence because you know you can do that and then just getting out there and playing like that. They’re putting a lot of trust in me, telling me I can do this, I can do that, so it helps.”
That work has led to the improved numbers, which builds the confidence from game-to-game.
“That’s probably the biggest thing, playing out here with that confidence and shooting shots with confidence,” Winston said. “A lot of my game is built off my confidence and how I feel about myself so playing out there with that confidence like, that helps me a lot.”
As the team’s starting point guard, Winston has done a good job of balancing when to shoot and when to get others involved. But he’s also played the shooting guard spot fairly often as coach Tom Izzo has opted to use Winston and senior Tum Tum Nairn together.
That’s something the Spartans (9-1, 2-0 Big Ten) will continue to do as they get set to take on Oakland at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Little Caesars Arena.
“In the halfcourt we are gonna work on him coming off ball screens a little bit more than we’ve done because I think he’s by far the best at it, and he’ll make good decisions,” Izzo said. “But remember too, whenever you have someone who’s good at something, the defense is gonna try and take those away too. Like some teams have tried to trap us a little bit more. Some people have hedged and stayed a little bit more.
“So, they’re going to try and take away what he does. That’s why that open court stuff is so valuable to him and he’s got his hands on the ball 90 percent of the time.”
The open-court stuff Izzo talked about was his desire for Winston to get better at pushing the ball in transition. It’s something Nairn does well, but he’s limited at the offensive end, making Winston’s development crucial.
He’s also becoming less of a liability on the defensive end, something that limited his playing time as a freshman.
“Right now Cassius has been as consistent a player as we’ve had,” Izzo said. “You know again, went through the film of the last game and the difference in him defensively on ball screens in that this year compared to last year is enormous. And so he’s been consistent on both ends.”
And while Miles Bridges will get the attention, Nick Ward piles up points and Jaren Jackson Jr. torments opponents with his length, it will be Winston that drives the team, getting his own shots and creating for his teammates.
“When Cassius is aggressive I don’t think there’s a team that can beat us,” Bridges said. “Just because of how great of a passer he is. If he finds a happy medium between passing and shooting then we’ll be tough to beat.”