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Nick Ward returning to Michigan State for junior season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Nick Ward has until Wednesday's early entrant withdrawal deadline to decide whether to return to Michigan State for his junior season or turn pro.

Michigan State has already lost Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges to the NBA Draft.

But Nick Ward won't be following suit.

Ward, a 6-foot-8 big man, announced on Tuesday that he will withdraw his name from draft consideration and return to Michigan State for his junior season.

“It was a great opportunity for me to go through the process and I’m grateful for the feedback I received from NBA teams,” Ward said in a statement. “It is my dream to play in the NBA and I’ve learned a lot through my workouts and interviews that will help me when I am ready to make that next step. 

"I know what I need to work on and I’m committed to coming to the gym every day and striving to be the best player I can be. I’m really excited to return to Michigan State, to be in front of our fans at the Breslin Center and to be back with my teammates and coaches as we work to reach our team goals.”

Ward declared for next month's NBA Draft but did not hire an agent, giving him the chance to test his pro prospects and gain feedback from NBA teams up until Wednesday's early entrant deadline.

"I’m glad that Nick had the opportunity to go through the process and was able to receive feedback from NBA teams,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said in a statement. “It was a great opportunity for him to explore his draft stock and to see what he needs to work on in order to play at the highest level. After talking to several different teams there were many positives from both his workouts and his interviews, but each team gave him some suggestions for things to work on this summer as he strives to reach his full potential.

"We’re very excited to have Nick back and look forward to him helping to lead our team in the successful ways he has since coming to Michigan State. Nick has been a valuable member of our program and I think this experience will not only be helpful to him, but others on our team striving to reach the same dreams and goals.”

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It might've seemed like a clear decision for Ward, considering he did not receive an invitation to the NBA Draft Combine. However, he has had several workouts with NBA teams, including the Pistons, meaning teams are at least interested in seeing what Ward could provide.

Getting drafted, however, seemed like a long shot for Ward. Forget that he doesn't show up on most mock drafts, but the odds grew increasingly long when he did not receive a combine invite.

Since the NCAA altered the NBA Draft rules for underclassmen in 2016 — allowing players to test the draft waters and return to school as long as they didn’t hire an agent — 255 college players have declared early the past two drafts.

Of the 255, 160 didn’t receive an invitation to the combine. The majority (115) who faced this situation withdrew their name from draft consideration and returned to school, while 45 opted to stay in the draft. None of those 45 players were drafted.

Since Ward would've been rolling the dice on his NBA future if he stayed in the draft, the easy choice, it seemed, was be to return to the Spartans where he averaged 12.4 points and 7.1 rebounds as a sophomore.

With Ward back, the Spartans return three starters after losing lottery picks Jackson and Bridges, giving them a reliable scoring threat on the block. But as efficient as Ward was offensively in less than 20 minutes a game, there are things he'll need to improve, namely his ball-screen defense and developing his mid-range jump shot.

His return also solidifies Michigan State's frontcourt as Xavier Tillman is coming off a strong finish to his freshman season and would share time with Ward. Add in incoming freshman Marcus Bingham and the Spartans will have options up front, along with versatile senior Kenny Goins.

Without Ward, the Spartans would've expected to compete for a second straight Big Ten title. But with him back, it seems those chances improve significantly.

"I like the roster we have,” Izzo said after the Spartans were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. “I think you saw a lot out of (Tillman). ... I think Nick is gonna get better. Cassius (Winston) has gotten a lot better in the last month, a lot better. (Joshua) Langford has gotten lot better.

"I woudn’t feel sorry for my roster. I like what we’ve got coming in, I like what we’ve got coming back.”