Niyo: Draft dalliance has enlivened MSU's Nick Ward

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan State big men hang out under the basket, from left, Marcus Bingham, Kyle Ahrens, Kenny Goins, Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward during MSU men's basketball media day Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018.

East Lansing — Like most things involving young adults and the lure of easy money, a subject that came up repeatedly at Michigan State’s annual basketball media day, Tom Izzo has some pretty strong opinions. And some understandably conflicted feelings, given the current state of his profession.

But in between all the questions about FBI investigations and the cloud that hangs over college basketball, Izzo did find time Thursday to talk about his own team.

And in the case of one player in particular, junior forward Nick Ward, there was an acknowledgment that not everything is broken with the system that’s in place.

Izzo, for one, isn’t convinced the NBA’s early-entry rules are in everybody’s best interests, but he won’t argue with how it all played out for his own program last spring. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges both left as lottery picks, while Ward withdrew his name from the draft just before the May 30 deadline to return for his junior season.

“I always say it can work either way,” Izzo said of the emotional tug-of-war that goes along with decisions like the one Ward ultimately made with his parents.

Some players test the waters, find the NBA response is lukewarm, or even ice cold, and return grudgingly.

“They’re half in,” Izzo said. “They think they should be gone. They’re kind of halfway out the door, and that creates a problem.”

All the way in

But that hasn’t been a problem with Ward, the 6-foot-8 forward who was Michigan State’s third-leading scorer (12.4 points per game) and top rebounder (7.1) last season. In fact, if anything, it has been the opposite.

“Nick came back, and I swear to you, the day he walked in the building, he was doing two-a-days on his own,” Izzo said. “His whole demeanor changed.”

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And at least for now, so has the relationship between the coach and the player — a level of trust building that simply wasn’t there before.

“It’s funny for me, because Nick and I have had our differences, as everybody knows,” Izzo said. “The differences are usually because I think he has more to give than he sometimes thinks he has to give.”

And maybe that’s the difference here, frankly. Now Ward knows Izzo’s not alone in thinking it, or saying it.

Ward said he had workouts with nine NBA teams during the pre-draft process — visits with Detroit, Chicago, New York, Minnesota and Oklahoma City, to name a handful. He says he held his own in head-to-head matchups with players who got drafted and those who ultimately pulled back just like he did.

“I didn’t struggle against anybody, really,” he shrugged Thursday.

He says he also heard plenty of positive feedback from NBA scouts and general managers, and he admits he wasn’t necessarily ready to make a decision when the time came in May.

“It was a tough day,” Ward said. “I wanted to push it back but I couldn’t. I knew I had to make a decision.”

Ultimately, what made it for him — and what stuck with him, it seems — was all the criticism he heard from potential employers. For one thing, he needed to fix the flaws in his jump shot. For another, and he heard this wherever he went, he needed to improve his conditioning, which wasn’t exactly a surprise.

Questions about stamina

“I knew I was out of shape,” said Ward, who quietly endured a trying year away from basketball as his mother, Stephanie, dealt with serious medical problems throughout last fall and winter.

He’s been dogged by questions about his stamina since arriving on campus as a 270-pound freshman destined to try Izzo’s patience.

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And while he made improvements last summer, Ward, who now weighs in at a much-leaner 240 pounds, knew he hadn’t invested enough time in getting ready for his NBA auditions after Michigan State’s season ended.

All that was about to change, though.

“It changed my work ethic,” Ward said. “It just showed me that I have to work that much harder to get where I want to go.”

Renewed determination

The workout regimen that followed — in the gym at 6:30 a.m. Monday through Friday all spring and summer — was driven by a newly fueled determination, one he shared with teammate Xavier Tillman.

“That was the thing he told me (he learned),” Tillman said. “That when you step between these lines, it’s a business and you’ve got to take it seriously — everything you do.

“This summer he took that and ran with it. Him losing weight, him working on his mid-range jump shot, him working on this three-point shot, him working on his free throws, him working on his right hand ... everything he needed to improve on, this summer he improved on.”

It certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed back on campus, from his work in the gym to his success in the classroom or his discipline in the cafeteria.

“It sounds kind of crazy when you’re talking about things like this, but I think Nick Ward might have benefited from the offseason as much as any kid on our team,” Izzo agreed. “He’s one kid that going through the draft process, I really think it helped. He had an incredible summer academically. He started paying close attention to his diet, what he eats. And just in that maturing, growing-up process that we don’t give kids a chance to do very often.”

Just how that will translate on the court this season we’ll find out soon enough. Ward is coming off a season where averaged just 18.9 minutes a game for a variety of reasons, ranging from foul trouble to defense to the aforementioned conditioning.

Ward’s back-to-the-basket skills set him apart from most, but he’ll need to do a better job defending ball screens if he’s going to play 30-plus minutes a night.

Likewise, he’ll need to show scouts he can handle NBA length, whether it’s against Syracuse in an NCAA tournament loss — rightly or wrongly, that’s part of the reason Izzo sat him the final 10 minutes of that game — or next month’s season opener against top-ranked Kansas.

Izzo’s as curious as anyone to find out if he will. In some respects, the Spartans’ success this season depends on it. But after a month of practice, the coach admits, “I’m actually excited about the new version of Nick Ward.”

Twitter: JohnNiyo