Tyson Walker delivering on promise as Spartans start Big Ten play strong

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — Slowly but surely, Tyson Walker is proving to be everything Michigan State expected.

From the moment last season ended —  a miserable slog through a difficult year on and off the court — with a loss to UCLA in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans knew they needed to upgrade the point guard position.

Michigan State guard Tyson Walker goes up for a shot past Minnesota guard Payton Willis, left, and forward Eric Curry (1) during the second half.

Coach Tom Izzo had a clear favorite — Northeastern’s Tyson Walker. Before long, Walker was committed to the Spartans and along with the anticipated development of sophomore-to-be A.J. Hoggard, Izzo and his staff were confident they’d made the requisite moves to improve the team’s most glaring deficiency.

Things don’t necessarily change immediately. Walker was making the transition from the Colonial Athletic Conference to the Big Ten, a significant jump that has proven difficult for many. And playing point guard for Izzo is no walk in the park. The Hall of Fame coach demands a lot from the position and it requires the right personality to thrive.

There were early growing pains. But in No. 19 Michigan State’s 75-67 victory over Minnesota on Wednesday in the Big Ten opener, Walker displayed all that made him such a hot commodity in the transfer portal.

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Against the Golden Gophers, Walker was the spark early on, bursting to the basket, scoring at the rim and kicking out to open shooters. All the while, he was looking for his own shot, burying a couple of 3-pointers, one that quelled a potential Minnesota rally and put the home crowd back in their seats.

Walker scored 15 points, his best effort in a Michigan State uniform, grabbed five rebounds and handed out three assists.

“That’s what everybody's been preaching to me, to be more aggressive and look for my shots,” Walker said. “So, that’s what I did. I came out, got an easy layup, got an easy three. I felt like I was going after that.”

It was the latest sign things are starting to come together for Walker, who averaged 18.6 points last year at Northeastern and was named first-team All-CAA while also being recognized as the conference’s defensive player of the year.

In Saturday’s win over Toledo, Walker scored 11 points, had six assists and didn’t commit a turnover. The game before that — a victory over Louisville in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge — Walker only scored two points but dished out a career-high 10 assists.

It appears Walker is beginning to find a rhythm.

“He's probably gonna get arrested because that's illegal, to actually get better through the process,” Izzo said, taking a shot at those who believe players need to be great immediately. “The process is something that nobody wants to deal with anymore, but that’s what I keep harping on with him.

“We’re very young on the perimeter. Sometimes we’re playing three freshmen there and we're playing Tyson, who has not been in the program. We’re playing A.J., who did not play much last year. The only one was Gabe (Brown) that has been around, and sometimes that (inexperience) rears its ugly head and that makes it even harder for Tyson. But I was really proud of him the last three games. I think he's getting better and better and better.”

As good as Walker has been offensively the last handful of games, he’s been even better on the defensive side.

With Walker bothering opposing point guards and rarely allowing deep penetration, Michigan State has become a defensive nightmare for opponents. According to KenPom.com, the Spartans are fourth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency and are allowing teams to shoot just 26.8% from 3-point range.

It’s a huge swing from a season ago. Walker is a big reason.

“It starts off with the point guard,” Brown said. “They’re lock-down defenders. Max (Christie) is a lock-down defender and I just do my job. But it really starts off with Tyson. Tyson is the head honcho of the group, so we just follow his lead.”

As Michigan State prepares to play host to Penn State on Saturday, Walker will likely continue to evolve.

"He’ll still make some mistakes,” Izzo said. “But what I really liked is he starting to understand. He laughed out on the court and said, ‘Now I see why.’ It was because we had some guys that didn't do what they were supposed to do and made him look bad.

“So I think the more he gets after people and talks to them on the floor and runs my team, the better we're going to be.”

Akins' big play

It didn’t show up in the box score, but the play Jaden Akins made in the second half on Wednesday might have been the biggest of the game.

With Michigan State leading, 50-37, with just more than 13 minutes to play, Akins missed a deep 3-pointer. The rebound went off Brown’s hands and Minnesota’s Payton Willis knocked the loose ball into the backcourt. He was on his way to an easy layup that would have cut the Spartans’ lead to 11 with the crowd eager for any sign of life.

That’s when Akins, nearly three-quarters of the court from the basket, raced down the floor and bothered Willis enough that he missed the layup. Akins didn’t get a block, but when Brown buried a triple at the other end, it was a punch to the gut for the Gophers.

“That was a hell of a play,” Izzo said. “Those are game changing. Those are deflating from their standpoint and uplifting from ours, and that makes a big difference.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau