Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks about the Spartans as they enter their second week of practice. The Detroit News
East Lansing — “Come on, Foster!”
It echoed through the Michigan State practice gym this week as the Spartans were nearing the end of a typically intense practice under coach Tom Izzo, and someone was imploring freshman guard Foster Loyer to sprint back on defense as fast as he could.
It’s nothing out of the ordinary at Michigan State, or around most practices, someone pushing someone else. Sometimes it’s a coach. Sometimes it’s a teammate.
But what made this one a little different was that it wasn’t Izzo or one of his assistants. It wasn’t a captain like Joshua Langford or Matt McQuaid. It wasn’t Cassius Winston or senior Kenny Goins.
Instead, it was Nick Ward, racing back down the court and pulling his first-year teammate along with him.
“Yeah, a lot different,” Izzo said when asked if he senses a change in his junior big man.
Ward has been pushed plenty in his first two seasons with the Spartans. First it was the shed a few pounds from his 6-foot-8-inch frame, then it was to be a complete player, contributing on both ends of the floor. So, when it came to leadership, that was normally handled by others.
However, things took a turn this offseason. Ward dipped his toe into the world of the NBA, declaring for the draft, working out with teams and getting feedback on where he stood. He decided, ultimately, to come back to Michigan State for his junior season.
That process, Izzo believes, was important for Ward.
“You can get disappointed and figure that, ‘I’m really half in and half out.’” Izzo said. “And I warned him about that just like I warned Miles (Bridges) last year. If you’re thinking about it, once you decide not to go it can’t be half in and half out. So what Nick did that I was really impressed with is right when he got done and decided to come back, he started to work out with two-a-days and dropped more weight. He spent more time on his shooting and his game.
"So, what Nick did on the court and then in classroom — he had his best (semester) and they kind of go hand-in-hand if you’re focused in. I’d say the focus and the energy has been a lot better, and everyone in this room knows that Nick and I had our differences on how hard he played. But that’s one thing I don’t complain about now.”
The key will be if it all pays off on the court. Ward has always been one of the most efficient low-post scorers in the game, averaging 13.9 points as a freshman and 12.4 last season. But defensive lapses — primarily on ball screens — have hurt his playing time.
In the first practices of this season, however, Ward has a new look. He’s down a few more pounds and, officially, checks in at 245. And, as importantly, he’s becoming a leader.
“He’s just handled himself differently,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “Last year he was more self-motivated and now he’s more of a motivator. He’s motivating the freshmen, he’s motivating me, he’s motivating the older guys just to compete in practice and have high energy.”
That change is showing, to the coaches and Ward’s teammates.
“Nick had a phenomenal summer,” Izzo said. “The players see that. The respect factor from the players has doubled, to be honest with you.”