Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Rocket Watts talk about the exhibition victory over Albion with the regular season opener up next. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — As first games go, the debut for Michigan State’s Rocket Watts was fairly typical for most freshmen, even those who arrive with high expectations.
There were flashes of the ability that made the Detroit native such a highly touted recruit and there were moments where the 6-foot-2 shooting guard made all the typical mistakes of a guy just getting his feet wet at the college level.
But even after 2-for-7 night shooting that included missing on all five of his 3-pointers, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo couldn’t hide his excitement when talking about what he sees coming from Watts.
“He’s a tough S.O.B,” Izzo said Tuesday night after Michigan State’s exhibition victory over Albion. “He’s got some toughness to him. He wants to do it, so it makes us so we can play other people because we can move some guys around.”
To Izzo, Watts reminds him of a young Keith Appling or even Gary Harris, two past guards for the Spartans that could attack the basket as well as get after some of the opponents’ top players.
Watts could be the next to do that as No. 1 Michigan State prepares for the season-opener Tuesday against No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic. He had the defense and the intensity against Albion, and now he just needs to the offense to follow.
“I think Rocket attacking and being able to do all the things he can do…he really has rockets for legs,” Izzo said. “He gets on that break and he's a lot quicker than you think. I was impressed with him defensively today. He did a pretty good job defensively. I was surprised he rebounded the ball pretty good. It was a shame he didn't shoot the ball at all like he can shoot it. He's been shooting it really well in practice lately. That was a little bit disappointing.”
That’s typical for most freshmen. There will be good nights and bad. Consistency can sometimes be hard to attain.
But Watts will likely remain in the starting lineup with senior Joshua Langford out until at least January and fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens still nursing a high ankle sprain. That alone will allow him to quickly become a consistent offensive option as the Spartans move through a difficult non-conference schedule.
It also helps that at 185 pounds, Watts is physically ready to play at this level. That allowed him to bounce back from a strained Achilles suffered a few weeks ago.
“I always brought up Chris Webber because he was physically ready to go and start right away,” Izzo said. “For us, Miles Bridges was physically ready and that's a big thing. Rocket’s put on a little weight, but he's tough enough so what he isn't physically big enough on — which he's still 185 pounds — he's mentally tough enough.
“I think we're going to see some as he gets that leg better and better. It's not bothering him, but he's just coming back from that and just the last couple of days he's started dunking again. He's going to be an exciting player to watch and exciting player to coach and I think a player that can play both ends of the court, which he gets that shot back and that's going to be dynamite.”
The Joey Hauser wait continues, but Izzo said he is hoping the team hears by Friday whether the Marquette transfer will be given a waiver to be immediately eligible.
“We think we may hear something by Friday, but that's what happened a couple of weeks ago,” Izzo said. “We are running out of time, so I do think that they're trying to get everything done. Joey is a heck of a player so we'll see what happens.”
The initial waiver submitted by Michigan State was denied by the NCAA, but the team is currently in the process of appealing, hoping to get a decision before the season opener.
After the Albion game, Izzo was asked what he’d be comfortable with Hauser doing against Kentucky if he were eligible.
“Lots,” Izzo said with a smile.
Izzo’s son, Steven, saw the first action of his career against Albion.
In a little more than three minutes, the freshman walk-on missed his only shot but split a pair of free throws, giving fist pump and looking toward his dad after the make.
“After I made it, I gave my dad a look to make sure he wasn't tearing up,” Steven Izzo said. “He seemed to have a smile on his face with a little bit of water in his eye. It was awesome to be a part of and to get my first bucket.”