MSU’s Bridges, Ward, UM’s Wagner make ESPN’s top 25

The Detroit News

Miles Bridges and Mortiz Wagner contemplated jumping to the NBA. Nick Ward gave it some thought, too.

All decided to return, and all should be among the top the players in the country this season.

Bridges and Ward, rising sophomores for a Michigan State considered the Big Ten front-runner and a Final Four contender, are ranked Nos. 9 and 18, respectively, among ESPN’s top 25 college basketball players posted Monday. Wagner, a rising junior who helped lead Michigan to a Big Ten tournament title, is No. 24.

John Gasaway of ESPN writes that the rankings are a reflection what which players are expected to help their teams most next season. It’s not a mock draft.

Bridges found himself in plenty of those last season, after leading the Spartans in scoring (16.9 points) and rebounding (8.3) while canning 39 percent of his 3-pointers as a freshman. He was projected to be a lottery pick in last June’s NBA draft, but opted to return to East Lansing for his sophomore season, vaulting the Spartans into the mix as preseason Final Four contenders.

“As a freshman, Bridges did it all for MSU, hitting shots from both sides of the arc and even, at 6-foot-7, leading the team in defensive rebound percentage,” Gasaway wrote. “Michigan State bowed out to Kansas in the round of 32, but not before its star had rung up 22 points and eight boards in a preview of what probably will be Bridges’ final college season.”

Ward, meanwhile, was a revelation for MSU, forced into major minutes after preseason injuries to Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. He averaged 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds in 35 games, including 21 starts. He, too, also considered a jump to the NBA, but elected to stay.

“It would be easy to say Ward is likely to have the proverbial breakout sophomore season,” Gasaway wrote, “but a more accurate statement might be simply that he breaks out any time he’s on the floor — which, granted, wasn’t all that often last season. As a freshman, the 6-foot-9 big man averaged less than 20 minutes per game. Nevertheless, he got his money’s worth out of those cameo appearances, drawing fouls, blocking shots and, especially, cleaning the offensive glass. More minutes for Ward will mean more wins for Michigan State.”

The 6-foot-11 Wagner averaged 12.1 points and 4.2 rebounds as a sophomore, and was a catalyst during the Wolverines’ postseason run.

“... The transformation shown by the 6-foot-11 post player as a sophomore was extraordinary,” Gasaway wrote. “When you’re shooting 66 percent inside the arc and 39 percent beyond it while attempting a high volume of attempts, you’re one daunting defensive assignment. Saying Wagner has a shot at Big Ten player of the year honors is both accurate and remarkable in a league that already boasts the likes of Ethan Happ and Miles Bridges, among others.”

No. 1 on the list was Duke freshman-to-be Marvin Bagley III.