Ward continuing freshman development, looks to adjust to new role
Nick Ward finished the 93-65 blowout win over Rutgers with 15 points and six rebounds through 24 minutes on the floor Wednesday, but head coach Tom Izzo still wasn’t satisfied with the freshman forward’s performance against the Scarlet Knights, still winless in conference play.
“They took away Nick pretty good, and I think Nick took away Nick a little bit,” Izzo said during his postgame press conference. “He should get a gold star for defense, himself, on himself.”
He gets a gold star on defense because Ward tallied four defensive rebounds and blocked four incoming shots, three in the first half, while the entire Rutgers roster combined for three blocks. Ward now has 35 total blocks on the season, an average of 2.2 per game — a stat that ranks third among conference players.
Ward has gained notoriety from opponents as well, after a 25-point performance against Oakland University on Dec. 21 and a 22-point outing in MSU’s come-from-behind victory at Minnesota on Dec. 27, the 6-foot-8 Ward earned back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
“When you do that, all of a sudden Nick Ward doesn’t do as much, but welcome to the big time,” Izzo said in accordance to the team’s dispersed offense. “Welcome to being the first page of the scouting report instead of the third. He has to adjust to that.”
Izzo has said Ward’s emergence has been a work in progress all season long, a player who was unconditioned and had to work on building stamina. Ward has appeared in every game this season for the Spartans, but until MSU’s win against Wichita State on Nov. 25 had not played more than 20 minutes. Since the injury to Bridges on Nov. 29, however, Ward has averaged 22.4 minutes a game while averaging a Big Ten freshmen best 13.7 points per game.
“Nick is getting better each day, it’s a daily process,” assistant coach Dwayne Stephens said after the team’s practice Thursday. “He’s a guy that was very talented coming here but he was a little out of shape, lazy and we still see flashes of the laziness, but he’s learning how to play hard. ... He has extremely long arms and he has pretty good timing, and that’s some of the reasons I think he’s been able to get some on the ball.”
Ward was able to make an impact for the Spartans and will remain an instrumental part of MSU’s lineup moving forward as Bridges transitions himself back into the starting lineup, Bridges said. He appeared in a limited role against Rutgers after missing the last seven games because of an injury.
“We’ve been really working on him on defense, being in the gaps, being on the help side," Bridges said. "Him being on the help side is really a threat to other teams and he’s really learned that so I give props to Nick on that. ... He was one of the main people — him, Alvin (Ellis III), Cassius (Winston). They all stepped up, mainly
Izzo was unavailable to the media on Thursday, as was Ward, but with the status of Bridges in the starting lineup still up in the air, Ward is still a candidate to start against Penn State on Saturday, after starting each of the last four games for the Spartans. Tip-off is scheduled for 1 p.m.