East Lansing — It might have taken Rocket Watts a little bit longer to get to Michigan State, but that might be the only thing the Detroit native will do slowly during his time with the Spartans.
Watts, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound guard who played two seasons at Detroit Old Redford High before spending his senior season at SPIRE Academy in Geneva, Ohio, didn’t get to East Lansing until late in the summer after he finished up some high school courses. Once he did, though, it was clear the Spartans were getting the lightning quick combo guard they expected, plus a little bit more.
“Speed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after practice Thursday when asked about what stood out about Watts. “He’s Rocket, you know, but he hasn’t shot the ball as well, and he’s a really good shooter. But he’s passed the ball way more than we thought and way better than we thought.
“You know, he went through a tough situation last year a little bit and I really think he’s made some great progress. He could be one of our best on-the-ball defenders. He’s quick and he’s strong and he’s tough. So right now, they’re all good.”
A four-star prospect who was ranked as the 39th-best player in the 2019 class, Watts is part of a three-member freshman group that includes wing Malik Hall and forward Julius Marble. The 6-7 Hall is another four-star who was ranked No. 50 in the nation by Rivals.com while Marble was the late-bloomer who capped the class.
Both will push for playing time, but it’s Watts who will be grabbing the early attention.
A prolific scorer in high school, Watts scored 64 in a game last season at SPIRE while making 15 3-pointers. The shooting is still a work in progress, but Izzo thinks the young guard is right on track for the season, which begins Nov. 5 against Kentucky in the Champions Classic.
“He’s not shooting the ball nearly as good as he can shoot it, but he missed six weeks that other guys had in here,” Izzo said. “I’m not disappointed with him at all because of all the things I know he can do. Shoot it is one. So it’s been good. He’s really picked up things better than I thought he would. I’m pleased with Rocket right now.”
Where Watts fits in with the rotation will get sorted out over the next few weeks as the Spartans get set for next weekend’s scrimmage against Gonzaga before hosting Albion in an exhibition game toward the end of the month.
Watts has been working at both guard positions, primarily seeing time at shooting guard while learning the point guard spot as well.
“I’m comfortable with the one and two right now,” Watts said. “With the one it’s just I’ve got to get the plays down pat and stuff like that. So that’s what I’m working on now.”
With Izzo hoping to manage the minutes for senior Cassius Winston better this season, that means someone will have to spell the Big Ten Player of the Year. Watts is a natural choice, but sophomore Foster Loyer has been taking steps, too, Izzo said.
“Foster has played good, shot the ball well, and he’s 20 pounds heavier, which he needed to be,” Izzo said. “Now it’s learning how to play with that weight, which is a little different, too. But you look at us and we can be a 10-, 11-man playing group, maybe even 12 and we’ve got to see somebody separate. That’s what happens at this time of year.”
For Watts, there’s been an element of playing catch up, he admitted.
The early practices were physically demanding, but he’s been leaning on veterans like Winston, Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens to help guide him through the process.
“So far it’s been great, just being around a lot of great guys and being coached real hard,” Watts said. “It’s a lot different than high school because now practices are way longer. I feel like I’m getting better every day, picking up the little things from Cassius Winston and all the seniors, so it’s been great.”
While the on-court adjustments Watts is making are critical, meshing with the team is nearly as important. While at SPIRE, Watts was part of an atmosphere unlike most high schools considering he was teammates with LaMelo Ball.
Izzo said to this point, things have gone smoothly, saying the team chemistry has been outstanding.
“He’s just kind of learning how to get along with everybody,” Izzo said. “The situation he played in last year was a lot of individuals, you know, and this is a team. That’s where I give Cassius and Josh and Kyle Ahrens and Xavier (Tillman) a lot of credit. They’ve kind of taught him a lot better than I can teach him.”
It’s all an effort to have Watts ready to be the player everyone expects by the time the season begins and Michigan State pushes to repeat as Big Ten champions and get back to the Final Four.
“I’m just happy to be here,” Watts said. “I can’t wait for Midnight Madness, to see all the fans, see my family. I’m just happy to be here coached by a great coach and being around a lot of good guys.”