Nick Ward is coming back to MSU. Here’s what he needs to work on

By Blake Froling

Michigan State center Nick Ward announced ahead of Wednesday’s deadline that he will withdraw his name from the NBA Draft and return to school for his junior season. He might not have wanted to, but it was the right decision.

“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 release.  “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. ”

It’s great that players like Ward are afforded the opportunity to hear from NBA teams about their draft stock and areas of their game they need to improve in without losing NCAA eligibility. In Ward’s case, it could have saved him from making a horrible decision.

“After talking to several different teams there were many positives from both his workouts and his interviews,” Tom Izzo said in a statement, “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.”

Ward’s Michigan State tenure has been both exciting and frustrating, for himself and fans. He’s shown the ability to manhandle most defenders on the low block in one-on-one situations and has established himself as one of the most efficient scorers in the country with a 64.8 percent shooting clip. Ward’s average of 26 points per 40 minutes led the team by a wide margin.

But he struggled to stay on floor because of foul trouble, conditioning and boneheaded mistakes. Ward averaged 18.9 minutes per contest, fewer than five other Spartans, including the wildly inconsistent Matt McQuaid. There are a few things he needs to work on this summer and during next season to have a shot at an NBA career.

Ward lacks the foot speed to cover big men who could space the floor. This sequence where he “tried” to guard Moe Wagner might be the perfect example of that.

Versatility is key in the Association these days, especially for bigs who constantly have to switch onto guards in pick-and-roll situations. If a player like Wagner can make Ward look silly on defense, what would happen if he had to switch onto someone like James Harden? HIDE THE WOMEN AND CHILDREN!

It appears as though “Big Puddin'” has slimmed down since the Spartans’ season ended in March to help with those agility problems. In this workout video posted on May 22, you can see he’s got a bit more quickness in his step.

Granted, it’s just a workout video that’s specifically made to show off his skill set with no opposition, so take it with a grain of salt. But Ward knows this is one of his key weaknesses and appears to be working on it. He even flashes a mid-range jumper in the video, which has been totally nonexistent for Ward in his two seasons. Again, big grain of salt, but still nice to see.

If you’re looking for an NBA comparison to Ward, Izzo has repeatedly mentioned a former Spartan Zach Randolph. If that’s the mold Ward stays in, he has no shot at a decent NBA career.

In this more spread out and fast-paced NBA, the Randolph mold is quickly dying. Ward should look at how a player like Boston’s Aron Baynes has adapted by slowly adding a mid-range and now 3-point shot to his arsenal.

Is he a dominant offensive force now? No, but it allows the Celtics to pair Baynes with another big and not clog the lane. Ward could fit into that mold if he develops a shot and becomes a more willing passer, but don’t expect to see this in the upcoming season. A few years down the road, and with NBA coaching, this could be a real possibility.

Another glaring issue for Ward to fix is his handling of double teams in the post. He was atrocious at seeing the floor and finding the open man once a second defender covered him. This won’t likely be an issue in the NBA because no one will double him, but the Spartans certainly need to see him be more effective in those situations. Whenever the double came, he would either force up a wild post shot or throw the ball away. Teams knew this and took advantage of it repeatedly.

With the bevvy of 3-point shooters Michigan State had on the floor around Ward, opposing teams should have never been able to double team him. If he had better floor vision, Ward could have eaten defenses alive with kick-outs to open shooters. Instead, the ball usually went inside but never came back out if Ward was in the game.

With Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges now out of the picture, Ward is now fully entrenched as the leading big man on this Michigan State team. There should be no more excuses for a lack of playing time. Rising sophomore Xavier Tillman showed some nice flashes towards the end of last season and incoming freshmen Marcus Bingham and Gabe Brown will fight for minutes, but right now this is Ward’s frontcourt to lose.

The 2018-19 season will likely be Ward’s last in a Spartan uniform, and he has a list of things to improve on between now and next June’s draft. If he does some or all of the things listed above, he will be one of the most dominant big men in the country and his NBA draft stock will rise exponentially.

Wagner, MAAR, Beilein discuss National Championship loss

By Blake Froling

This one’s gonna sting for a while.

The Wolverines lost 79-62 to Villanova on Monday night in San Antonio, a disappointing end to an incredible ride. ‘Nova started off slow in the opening minutes, falling behind as many as seven thanks to the harassing defense of Michigan. Then the shots started falling and Donte DiVincenzo erupted, and John Beilein’s crew couldn’t make a shot.

That shouldn’t take away from the incredible season the Wolverines had. A Big Ten Tournament title, a school record 33 wins and most importantly, a trip to the National Championship game. Moe Wagner told everyone to keep their heads up after the loss.

Right out of the gate, it looked like Wagner was going to dominate like he did against Loyola Chicago in the Final Four, scoring nine points in the first five minutes. But Villanova clamped down and he scored seven points in the final 35 minutes to finish with 16.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led Michigan with 23 points and tried to will the Wolverines back into the game. Villanova was just too strong, DiVincenzo too hot.

It’s tough to beat an offensive juggernaut like Villanova when you shoot 3-23 from beyond the arc, no matter how good your defense is.

Michigan held the National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson to nine points on 4-13 shooting and Big East Freshman of the Year Omari Spellman to eight. Normally that’s a recipe for success when you play Villanova, until the Big East Sixth Man of the Year goes off.

John Beilein has a legitimate case for Coach of the Year for the job he did with this team. No one expected them to make this kind of a run, except for maybe Seth Wells. Beilein had a revolving door at point guard, Charles Matthews was up and down and Duncan Robinson couldn’t hit a three to save his life. Then it all clicked.

Next year’s team could be just as dangerous. Wagner and Matthews might go to the NBA, but neither is a lock to go in the first round. Jordan Poole and Isaiah Livers impressed as freshmen and will see their roles expand. Zavier Simpson turned into a lock-down defender and capable floor general. And don’t forget about the recruiting class that includes three four-star prospects, according to ESPN.

It may hurt now, but Michigan fans will look back on this run with immense pride, and look ahead to years of competing with the blue bloods. They might even become one pretty soon if they keep this up.

Tigers season preview: Let the tanking begin!

By Blake Froling

March 27 — Let’s start this by stating the obvious: the Tigers are going to stink. Unfortunately, that’s not a hot take. It’s a fact.

General Manager Al Avila spent the second half of last summer remodeling an aging and expensive team and actually did a decent job, as far as we can tell so far. The farm system is not barren anymore, and some might say it’s in the upper half of baseball in terms of talent depth.

But we’re not here to talk about the 2021 Detroit Tigers, we’re here to preview the 2018 Detroit Tigers. It’s not going to be pretty, but what you see on the field this year is necessary to making sure the club returns to its former glory. As for when exactly that will happen is anyone’s guess.

ESPN writer Sam Miller described the Tigers’ upcoming season perfectly:

Everything the Tigers…do this year will be sad, the product ugly, the philosophy underneath it uncomfortably crass. Lots of things will happen that will nudge up their chances of being good in 2020 or 2021, but the rewards are so far off — not even “wait ’til next year” — and uncertain that it’ll be hard to be emotionally moved by them.

He’s referencing tanking in the first sentence. Yes, the Tigers will be tanking. Is it morally responsible to intentionally field a noncompetitive team in order to get a better draft slot? If it’s within the rules and you have a plan, yes. The Tigers appear to have a plan at least. The Marlins, who Miller was also referring to in that quote, do not.

Be glad you don’t root for the Marlins.

 Bright spot at the hot corner

Yes, believe it or not, there are a few bright spots on this Tigers team. One of them is Jeimer Candelario.

The rookie third baseman came to Detroit from the Chicago Cubs via the Justin Wilson/Alex Avila trade. Candelario hasn’t even played a full season in a Tigers uniform and I’m already confident Detroit won the trade.

Here are Avila’s stats in Detroit and Chicago last season:

Justin Wilson’s splits were even worse:

Tigers fans got a brief glimpse at Candelario last season once he was called up from Triple-A Toledo and he didn’t disappoint, hitting .330 with three home runs in 94 at-bats. Candelario has already proven to be a far superior fielding third baseman than Nick Castellanos, who will be manning right field this season.

Some baseball pundits have even projected Candelario to be a possible AL Rookie of the Year candidate. The 24-year-old doesn’t even have to be that good to give Tigers fans hope. If he maintains a batting average above .280 and has a decent glove, that would be a win.

Candelario is projected to hit second in the batting order.

Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera are healthy — for now

The two sluggers both slogged through horrible seasons at the plate in 2017, largely due to various maladies, but now it appears the aging stars are finally healthy again.

Cabrera injured his back at the World Baseball Classic back in March and never fully recovered. His numbers reflected the pain he was fighting through all season, posting career-lows in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.

Spring training numbers are not always a great indicator of regular season success, but Cabrera says he feels healthy and the numbers reflect it. In the grand scheme of things, Cabrera’s performance this year won’t add very many wins because of the lack of talent around him, but could help in a possible trade scenario, however unlikely that may be.

Martinez had heart problems at the end of last season and dealt with other injuries that kept him out of 55 games, the most he’s missed in a season since 2008 (not including 2012, when he missed the entire regular season due to a knee injury). When Martinez was in the lineup, he was devoid of any pop his bat, and don’t even get me started about his baserunning.

The best-case scenario for the Tigers would be for Martinez to rediscover some of the power he lost in 2017 and turn into a viable trade chip at the deadline. Worst-case would be if he posts similar numbers to last season and becomes a liability in the batting order.

Manager Ron Gardenhire will also have to decide if it’s worth keeping Martinez in the lineup if (when) the team is out of contention. Those at-bats would be better used by a younger player who might have a future with the team.

The tanking starts early this year

Jordan Zimmermann is starting on Opening Day.

Yes, that same Jordan Zimmermann who posted a 6.08 ERA last season. While this is largely a ceremonial title, it’s embarrassing that the Tigers have to trot out this guy on the only day Comerica Park won’t be half empty.

I do appreciate how Gardenhire wants to get the tanking started as soon as possible. This is a great first step in that regard.

All reports indicate that Zimmermann is again fully healthy and feeling confident, looking better blah blah blah. Insert all the spring training propaganda you want, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Zimmermann has been one of the worst free agent signings in franchise history, and he’d have to have one of his best seasons of his career to erase that.

As for the rest of the rotation

I am excited to see what new pitching coach Chris Bosio can do with the rotation. Bosio has earned a reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in the MLB thanks to the success Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks had under his tutelage. . He was with the Chicago Cubs when they won the World Series, so he has a pedigree of success.

Several Tigers pitchers have mentioned how he’s already helped them in the short time he’s been with the team. Maybe I’m falling for the spring training propaganda, but he’s got my hopes up.

As for the rest of the starting rotation, there is one bright spot and four or five question marks.

Michael Fulmer is healthy after undergoing season-ending elbow surgery last season. He should be poised to reclaim his spot atop the rotation and provide Tigers fans relief every fifth day. He also could be the most valuable trade chip Al Avila can dangle in front of other teams in July.

Francisco Liriano was brought in solely to be traded, that much is obvious. He had a fantastic spring and if he pitches well in the first few months of the season, he’ll surely have a one-way ticket to a contending team. That should be plenty of motivation.

Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris have been perennial breakout candidates ever since coming to Detroit. Both were up and down last season, both in performance and professional level, as both spent time in the minors.

Both had ERAs above 5 but both are dripping with potential. If one or both have decent years, the Tigers could have a fighting chance to not be the worst team in baseball.

Mike Fiers was brought in from the Houston Astros to be a veteran presence on the staff, but he’ll start the season on the DL and his spot in the rotation is far from safe, especially if Norris and Boyd get off to fast starts.

About that bullpen…

It’s going to be a disaster once again. Shane Greene will be the closer until he’s inevitably traded. After that, I honestly have no idea who will step up. All eyes will be on young flamethrower Joe Jimenez, who had a disappointing brief stint in the majors last season.

If the team accidentally gets a lead in the 7th inning, the bullpen will aid the tanking effort by promptly blowing said lead. Call it tanking insurance.

Bottom Line

You know what to expect this season with the Tigers. A whole lot of losing. Knowing this before the season should make it somewhat more tolerable. At least there’s a method to the losing, unlike back in the dark days before 2006.

Instead of focusing on wins and losses, focus on individual performances. There will be plenty of new faces you won’t recognize, but that’s OK! They could turn into the group that brings the Tigers back to relevancy. Or they could be shipped out in July, who knows.

It might be more worthwhile to check in on the Toledo Mud Hens if you’re bored on a summer evening instead of a Tigers game.


Record: 70-92, 5th in AL Central, not the worst in the MLB!

All-Stars: Nick Castellanos, Michael Fulmer

Trade candidates: everyone

The Jump: What it takes to go from high school basketball to college

By Blake Froling

So you think you’re a pretty good high school basketball player, huh? Good enough to play at the next level, right? Well you better listen up, because the transition isn’t a layup. Continue reading The Jump: What it takes to go from high school basketball to college

Are basketball skills eroding among young players?

By Blake Froling

We hear the refrain from coaches all the time: “Back in my day…”

You’re going to hear it some more here.

I talked with local high school basketball coaches to see what skills they thought young players were lacking as they reached high school. What did they have to focus on the most in practice? Why is this happening? Most coaches didn’t hesitate in their answer. They’ve thought about this before and discussed it with their peers. Continue reading Are basketball skills eroding among young players?

Lions are locked in, for better or worse

By Blake Froling

A sudden realization hit us during Monday’s episode of the SportsPen.

Sam Ali from ABC 10 and I were talking about the Lions, and how the expectation was that they need to make the playoffs and win a game. Then, Sam asked me, “Who gets fired if they don’t? Does anyone?” Continue reading Lions are locked in, for better or worse

Pistons season preview

By Blake Froling

We all know where the Pistons stand in the NBA hierarchy: not good enough to win a title, not bad enough to get a top-3 pick in the draft. Most likely, the Pistons won’t inch any closer to either of those extremes this season. That doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy the race for the playoffs, even if that means a likely first-round exit. Here are three questions that will be answered in the coming months. Continue reading Pistons season preview