East Lansing — Gabe Brown was holding court in the Michigan State locker room Friday night after the Spartans’ 67-55 victory over Wisconsin when he stopped for a brief second.
Brown caught the eye of teammate Rocket Watts, who was headed around the group of reporters as he maneuvered toward his locker that sits just to the left of Brown’s.
“Oh, there he goes,” Brown said. “Best (jab step) in the country.”
Watts smiled with a quick shake of the head as he settled into his locker.
Brown had just had one of his best games of the season, scoring 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting while grabbing four rebounds and blocking a shot. But he wasn’t being asked about that or the fact that Cassius Winston had become the Big Ten’s all-time leader in assists.
Instead, it was about the showing from Watts, the lightning-quick freshman guard from Detroit who has spent most of his first season at Michigan State teasing everyone, offering only glimpses of his immense talent.
Against the Badgers, though, Watts gave the first indication that his adjustment to life at the college level — where everyone was the best player on their high school team — is all starting to come together.
He’d played a fairly ordinary first half, getting taken to school once in the post by Wisconsin guard Brad Davison. But with just less than 12 minutes to play in the game, Watts had the Breslin Crowd at a frenzy.
First came a quick jab on Davison into a step-back 3-pointer to give the Spartans a 15-point lead with 11:50 to play. On the next trip down the court, Watts stood on the baseline and faked like he was cutting toward the free-throw line, only to stop on a dime, grab a backdoor pass from Xavier Tillman and finish for the easy layup as Davison was picking himself up off the floor.
The crowd was finally seeing vintage Watts, but he wasn’t done. The next possession saw Watts pull off another step-back triple that had Davison spinning and the arena buzzing. A minute-and-half later, Watts took a pass in transition from Foster Loyer, pulled the ball around his back and buried another deep 3-pointer.
Watts hit the floor, then jumped up, flashing three fingers with each hand as he ran back down the court.
Eleven points in 2:50 of game time.
“I was just letting the game come to me,” Watts said. “I wasn't trying to force anything and was just trying to do more things to help my team win. When I started hitting some shots, I started getting hot a little bit, so I just kept shooting with confidence and it kept going in.”
The flurry ended less than a minute later when another triple failed to hit the rim.
But that was at the end of the shot clock and, to be frank, it was a relief for Watts and the Spartans to see his shot start to fall. He’s put in plenty of work while overcoming a leg injury that forced him to miss four games, and now it appeared to all be coming together.
“It was awesome,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Rocket got what he deserved, though. Let me tell you this: My graduate manager, Chris Fowler and him, have been spending more time on the shooting, and Rocket has really spent time this last week, week and a half.
“That's going to be a big lift for him, and I'll be able to say, ‘You earned that. You earned it the last 10 days.’ I think those things will start to grow.”
Admittedly, the progression has been a slow one for the former star at Old Redford Academy, who played his senior season at SPIRE Academy in Ohio.
Watts always has been the star, once scoring 64 points in a game at SPIRE while making 15 3-pointers. At Michigan State, it’s been a process to acclimate to a system that includes players who all bring something different to the table.
“I’m usually the best player on my team,” Watts said. “Now I feel like I’m playing with a lot of players that are really good and all eyes aren’t really on me. I’ve got to fit in and do the little things that my team needs for me to do. Right now, it’s X (Xavier Tillman) and Cash, and those guys shine right now. I’m just blessed to be playing with them and learning from them.”
There’s still a long way to go for Watts to become a consistent threat. Entering Friday’s game, he was making just 22 percent of his 3-pointers while shooting 34.8 percent overall.
The key, Izzo believes, is Watts getting better at determining what is a good shot and blending his style with what Michigan State is doing.
“He likes streetball,” Brown said. “When he gets the rock and starts making shots, that’s when you know he’s gonna get hot. And when he gets hot, he can’t be stopped.”
For a few minutes on Friday, that was true. If that progression continues, it’s hard to see any limit to what Watts can accomplish and what it will mean to the Spartans.
“He reminds me of a Sam Vincent back in the day,” Izzo said. “He just had a first step that was off the charts. And as (Watts) continues to practice and can keep getting time in there without getting injured, I think we are going to need him.”