Forbes fine-tunes game as MSU’s go-to guy

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Bryn Forbes

East Lansing — When Michigan State played Oakland just before Christmas, it was its first game without Denzel Valentine.

The senior had positioned himself squarely in the national player of the year conversation in the season’s first few weeks with a pair of triple-doubles, but when he suffered a knee injury in practice and was forced to undergo arthroscopic surgery, it was a crippling blow for the Spartans.

The silver lining was that the injury was relatively minor and would likely only keep Valentine out for a few weeks.

However, the Spartans still needed to pick up the slack.

That night at The Palace, in a come-from-behind victory over an upset-minded Oakland team, it was clear Bryn Forbes was going to be absolutely vital to the Spartans continuing to win without their star. He scored a career-high 32 points and was 9-for-15 from the field, including 7-for-9 from 3-point range.

The senior who transferred from Cleveland State before last season and won state championships at Lansing Sexton with Valentine was emerging as the star — even if only until Valentine returned.

“It had to be done by somebody,” Forbes said after the game.

But much like Forbes’ first season with the Spartans when he had to adjust his game and learn to play defense, it doesn’t always come easy.

While Matt Costello and Eron Harris have also stepped up their games, it was clear Forbes would be Michigan State’s go-to guy. And that has meant other teams know that, as well.

That was evident in the Big Ten opener last week at Iowa when Forbes managed just five shots and scored only three points.

“I knew it was gonna be the best defender on me,” Forbes said of the Iowa game. “I don’t think I was as focused on getting myself open. I think it was like sometimes if they were face-guarding me I was OK with it instead of forcing myself to get open

“It’s always frustrating when you’re not getting the shots you want, but now I’m working some stuff to change that and get the shots I want.”

That fine-tuning is already taking place.

Forbes bounced back on Saturday with 20 points on 7-for-17 shooting in a victory over Minnesota and expects more when No. 5 Michigan State hosts Illinois on Thursday.

“Bryn is a unique kid because there is never a day I question how bad he wants to play, how important the game is to him,” Izzo said. “He still sometimes struggles with learning how to compete at a level that is maybe above the level he’s competed at, and I thought he’s made some progress this year.”

There’s no doubt Forbes has benefited from playing with Valentine over the years, but adjusting to life without him has added more pressure to perform.

“This role has been pretty difficult,” Forbes admitted. “Seeing it from the outside, it looked difficult, but I’m kind of stepping more into a leadership role and being a little more depended on. It’s something that every player wants, but it’s more difficult.”

As important as it is for Forbes to score, it’s hard to become everything Valentine is for the Spartans. It’s too much to ask from one player, but Izzo is pushing Forbes to be more than just a scorer.

“Bryn’s got to get back to guarding,” Izzo said. “Because we look at Denzel and we say, ‘Great passer, great rebounder, pretty good 3-point shooter.’ In the last two or three games we’re averaging about 13-14 threes a game and we were up to 21-22. Some of that is Zel taking them. Some of that is Zel delivering for somebody else to take them.

“And I think what Bryn can realize is Zel is out and he was our second-best defender. … And there was a day when he wasn’t second best, he was second to the last. Right now Bryn is stepping up a little bit and now there’s more pressure ’cause now instead of guarding the third-best player maybe you gotta guard the second-best player, and most wing guys are their best players, and that’s an adjustment.”

Valentine has been helping push his friend as much as anyone. During games, Valentine is often in Forbes’ ear.

Forbes calls Valentine “a great coach,” and combined with the work he’s putting in, the Spartans should be in good hands until Valentine is back, which could be by the end of this week.

Forbes, who is averaging 13.8 points a game, is happy to step into a larger role these days, but he’s looking forward to getting his running mate back.

“That thing about them playing since they were 4 or 5 years old — that was real. It wasn’t fake,” Izzo said. “And man, Zel got him some shots. And if he gets an open shot, I like his chances of making ’em. And if you make some shots you usually guard better. That’s just the American way, it’s kind of like a religion, it’s just the way it is.

“I think Bryn, the last game, made some strides rebounding-wise. Hopefully he’s making a few more strides defensively and learning how to get a shot for himself a little bit. I think he’s gotten better at it.”