East Lansing — Rocket Watts admitted he needs to be more aggressive.
Malik Hall acknowledged that he needed to slow things down just a tad.
Not unlike most freshmen, Michigan State’s two most important first-year players were quick to accept their coach’s critiques after the top-ranked Spartans lost to No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Tuesday, the first game for each.
Watts, the prolific high school scorer, took only four shots and often deferred to his teammates while Hall, an athletic power forward, was often out of control and earned two quick fouls that limited his playing time. It wasn’t out of the ordinary, but both players are expecting to take a big jump as Michigan State prepares to host Binghamton on Sunday.
“I just feel like I wasn’t really like being aggressive,” Watts said. “Watching the film, I had lanes that I could have taken and could have gotten my teammates involved and that's something I need to work on, just being aggressive, locked in and staying aggressive.”
Watts was aggressive early in the Kentucky game but soon wasn’t looking to score. That mentality is something coach Tom Izzo has been trying to change, reminding Watts that he needs to be an offensive weapon for the Spartans.
“I thought Rocket, defensively, was dynamite,” Izzo said. “He missed a couple of good shots, but I didn't think he was aggressive enough. I think he's got to get in the paint a little bit more and we talked about that today. Offensively, he’s just got to get into the flow of things a little bit. Now remember, (Kentucky coach) John (Calipari) thinks that's one of his best defensive teams, so part of it was them. They did a good job and they contested a lot of shots and they had size and length.”
That length might have bothered Watts, but he was on the same page as his coach. Taking just four shots isn’t the role Watts will need to fill for the Spartans to be successful.
“I feel like I was just looking to pass first,” Watts said, “and that’s something I never did my whole career. Playing with a good team, I feel like they’ll make the shots that I pass on so that's something I need to work on.
“I mean, I didn’t really take a lot of shots and that’s something coach and I were talking about, shooting the ball more. So once I shoot the ball and get in a rhythm I feel like my shot will come together.”
When Watts first arrived on campus late in the summer, Izzo talked about how well the Detroit native shot the ball. In the weeks before the season began, Izzo said Watts’ shooting had dipped.
But missing his first four shots hardly has Izzo concerned.
“You’ve got to make shots and you’ve got to get your own confidence,” Izzo said. “You’ve got to man up, that's what everybody's got to do. But I don't look at 0-for-4 as anything major. I don't think he shot the ball as well, I did say that lately. Early on he shot the ball really well. So he'll get through that. I'm not worried about Rocket. He's tough enough to handle that.”
Hall is also tough enough to overcome a start to his career that was, at times, out of control. The 6-foot-7 forward was the first power forward off the bench but picked up two quick fouls, fired a deep 3-pointer just seconds into his first shift of the game and later had a wild turnover in the lane.
Again, it was all stuff that’s typical for a guy playing his first game, especially when it comes against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden.
“I kept saying, ‘Slow down, slow down, slow it down,’” Izzo said. “I told him when he went in, ‘Now, don't take the first shot. At least get a sweat going.’ He was in there what, 20 seconds, and he gets the first three and he takes it. But that's what freshmen are going to do. If you're beating a team by 25 because you're playing someone that you should beat, it’s no big deal. But if you're in Madison Square Garden playing Kentucky, every possession matters.”
It’s all part of the learning process, something Hall understood even as the game was going on.
“I think I got a little ahead of myself,” Hall said. “I tried to come in and do too much at the start when I know I need to just play my role. Eventually I ended up doing that in the second half and I think it ended up working out pretty well. I just have to keep doing my job and trying to help as much as I could.”
Foul trouble certainly affected the rotation for the Spartans in the opener, but it’s fair to say Hall will continue to be used early in the game as one of the first bigs off the bench.
And as tough as the opener was at times, Hall thinks he came away from it learning some valuable lessons.
“You come into your freshman year thinking you're gonna be able to save the world and make an impact right away,” Hall said. “I have the ability to make an impact but I have to know my role while doing it. I think I definitely was learning it as I was coming through the exhibitions, but I really solidified in that first game that I need to do this so that I can help the team win rather than trying to do something I’m not really quite great at.
“I think that was the biggest piece for me, just learning that and being able to grow off that now so that I can help my team as much as I can.”