MSU's Rocket Watts, once a top-30 recruit, enters the transfer portal

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Rocket Watts era of Michigan State basketball appears to be coming to a close.

Watts, a Detroit native who was a top-30 national recruit when Michigan State landed him for the 2019 recruiting class, entered the transfer portal Monday as part of a "mutual decision" to part ways with the Spartans, coach Tom Izzo said in a statement.

It's the first significant departure on the Michigan State roster front since the season ended in an NCAA Tournament First Four loss to UCLA.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo talks with Michigan State guard Rocket Watts (2) in the first half.

In the last week, Michigan State got a commitment from Northeastern transfer point guard Tyson Walker, a major get for Izzo, who has decried the transfer-happy era but knows he must get on board. The Spartans are also welcoming three highly recruited guards in the 2021 recruiting class, including five-star wing Max Christie as well as four-star point guard Jaden Akins and four-star shooting guard Pierre Brook.

"Spartan Dawgs, my love remains forever no matter the circumstances," Watts wrote in a Twitter post Monday afternoon. "We didn't even realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.

"Seasons end but memories last forever."

Watts played high school ball at Old Redford Academy, averaging 26.8 points as a junior, before transferring to SPIRE Academy in Ohio, where he once scored 64 in a game on 15 3-pointers, for his senior season. Watts' first season at Michigan State, made the Big Ten's all-freshman team, averaging 9.0 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists. He played 27 games, starting 16.

But Watts took a step back this season, averaging 7.7 points as Michigan State struggled to find consistent point guard play. He was moved from the point to shooting guard in January.

"The way we live our lives and how we operate were drastically changed by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year," Izzo said. "Even under normal circumstances, making a change like we did this year with Rocket would have been challenging.

"In preparation for last season, we had asked Rocket to take on a new role. It’s the type of position change where a spring, summer and fall of practice would have been extremely beneficial for him. Unfortunately, the pandemic created circumstances beyond anyone’s control. As a result, he didn’t get the necessary practice time, which put him in a difficult and challenging situation.

"After several discussions over the past week, we mutually agreed that he may benefit from a fresh start elsewhere and is putting his name in the transfer portal. Rocket has made progress in all facets of his life, especially making tremendous strides academically. We appreciate the contributions he’s made over the last two years and wish Rocket nothing but the best in his future. He’ll always be part of the Spartan Family."

The season started in promising fashion, with a 20-point showing in a win at Duke, then 23 in a home win over Detroit Mercy. But he only scored in double figures three more times until a 21-point game in the win over Michigan.

Twice during Big Ten play, Watts scored zero points; once he scored two; and twice he scored three, including the Feb. 13 loss at Iowa, when he was sick at halftime and was quarantined for the second half out of precaution.

Inconsistency on offense, starting at the point, was a major source of frustration for Michigan State (15-13). Its streak of NCAA Tournament appearances looked like it would end at 22 until the Spartans rallied to beat Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan and Indiana twice in the final two weeks.

Michigan State then lost to UCLA, 86-80, in overtime in a First Four game. UCLA remains alive, and will play Michigan in the Elite Eight on Tuesday. Watts had nine points on 4-for-12 shooting against UCLA, in what likely will be his last game in a green-and-white Spartans uniform.

"I wish you all the best as I weigh my options on making the best decision for my future," Watts wrote.

Watts was a three-time Associated Press all-state first-team selection in high school, and ESPN ranked him the No. 27 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class.

He has three years of eligibility left, with this past season being a "free" year because of NCAA COVID-19 alterations. Watts is likely to be able to play immediately at his next stop, with the NCAA preparing to extend the no-sit waiver for next season, and make that rule permanent for the following season.

He is joined in the transfer portal by backup guard Jack Hoiberg.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984