Hoffman Estates, Ill. — The soft touch on the jump hook is still there. So, too, is the sometimes awkward looking gait running up and down the court.
The smile is there too, the one that has always come easily for Nick Ward, comfortable knowing he’s exactly where he wants to be.
“Nick is doing really well,” the former Spartan said last week as he and his teammates for the NBA G League’s College Park Skyhawks prepared to take on the Windy City Bulls in suburban Chicago.
That same big smile spread across Ward’s face. He’s playing professional basketball, fulfilling a dream he’s had since he was a little kid growing up just outside of Columbus, Ohio.
Ward understands there are plenty of folks out there who might not get it. He had one year of eligibility left at Michigan State and instead of sticking with one of the premier programs in the country that had just won its second straight Big Ten title and reached the Final Four, Ward opted to enter the NBA Draft.
It seemed a risky proposition. Ward was considered a borderline draft prospect. A prolific low-post scorer at the college level, it was difficult to see where the 6-foot-9, 245-pounder would fit in the NBA, and when his name was not called on draft night, many of Ward’s detractors rolled out the I-told-you-so takes.
Ward admitted it was disappointing not to get drafted. He’d had his share of workouts with NBA teams and the feedback was positive. Still, draft night ended and Ward did not have a team, but soon his phone was ringing.
“I got a couple calls,” Ward said, “but of course you really don't pay attention to that. You’re just more worried about getting your name called when that would have been the best situation for you at that time.”
The disappointment waned quickly, though, as Ward contemplated his next step. Teams wanted him to play in the NBA’s Summer League and potentially come to training camp. That was good news for Ward, who, after all, was convinced he just needed a shot to prove he belonged.
That led to his decision to play with the Atlanta Hawks. In five games in Las Vegas, Ward averaged 6.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in 16.4 minutes a game. It was enough that the Hawks were interested in having Ward attend training camp.
However, Ward was soon on the move.
“Basically, in August I got an offer I couldn't refuse in Israel,” Ward said. “So I took that. And then a month later, I went to Turkey when I got a nice offer from them and spent two months there.”
Three months of international basketball — one with Hapoel Gilboa Galil of the Israeli Premier League and two with Fethiye Belediyespor of the Turkish Basketball First League for a grand total of five games — was the extent of his time overseas.
Then, Ward’s phone rang again.
“When you get a call and you see the 404 number you get excited,” Ward said, referencing the Atlanta area code. “(The Hawks) said they wanted me to come back and whatever happens from here I would be able to work for it. You never know, but it’s always a good sign when somebody calls you overseas and tells you there's an opportunity for you.”
Ward is making the most of that opportunity.
Through 22 games with the Skyhawks — the Hawks’ affiliate in its first season playing in suburban Atlanta — Ward is averaging 12.2 points and 6.1 rebounds a game while playing 17.8 minutes. He scored 21 and had eight rebounds on Friday against Windy City which followed up a 25-point night against Erie.
Whether a call-up to the NBA is next for the former Spartans is tough to predict. He’s been consistent for the Skyhawks and continues to work on his defense. In the meantime, he’s enjoying life as a pro.
He’s living in Atlanta some 10 minutes from the practice facility while relishing the less structured approach.
“In college everything is this time, this place,” Ward said. “Here we have 45 minutes to an hour of practice like three times a week. We play a lot, like two three times a week and then whatever we do is on us from there. Whether it's extra lifting time, extra conditioning, whatever you want to do, it is on us.”
There’s a decent chance Ward might not have done well without that structure a couple of years ago. But his time at Michigan State with coach Tom Izzo and his staff was invaluable.
It instilled Ward with the one thing he sees in every former Spartan.
“Toughness,” Ward said. “Coach Izzo got us mentally prepared. I think about how they taught us with knowing the scouting report and apply that today. The way that I defend sometimes, I think about all the times that we did the war drill and stuff like that at Michigan State. I always think about those times and I apply it to the game.
“A great example of that is Draymond (Green). Intense, tough, gritty, you know, all that stuff. That really describes Michigan State players.”
While Ward is chasing his NBA dreams, he’s still keeping up with his former team. He’d just finished texting Aaron Henry and “you better believe I watched the Michigan game.”
He also hears from assistant coach Mike Garland often on parts of his game to work on while his conversations with Izzo are often about much more than basketball.
“It’s not about a scouting report or anything,” Ward said. “It's more, ‘How are you doing?’ It's really just checking in because we all care about each other.”
Ward knows he’s got the backing of his Michigan State family.
Yes, some wonder why he left, and Ward understands.
“I made the right decision,” Ward said. “I will always be watching the Spartans. I will always be thinking about them. But this has been my dream since I was little, so I felt like I was following my dream.”
The smile spread across his face one more time. Ward was right where he wanted to be.