Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. will not be walking through the doors of the Breslin Center any time soon. They are jetting around to NBA cities, living the life afforded to players so blessed with talent they get the rare opportunity to become lottery picks.
Back in East Lansing, the men’s basketball team has to find a way to win without its former stars. This season falls on Cassius Winston, the junior point guard from Detroit and classmate of Bridges from the heralded 2016 class that hasn’t quite lived up to expectations.
Winston knows on a team that will much more closely resemble past Tom Izzo teams than the most recent vintages, the point guard is the unquestioned most important player.
The safety net is gone. The junior point guard can no longer toss the ball to a future lottery pick and hope something happens. Winston said as much when asked about the departure of Bridges and Jackson Jr. after practice Monday.
“Everybody has to be more reliable,” he said. “You can’t really take a day off, you can’t really take a game off, because every player is needed this year. That’s how we’re going to approach each game.”
Winston is listed at 6’1”, 185 lbs, both of which might be generous. But his toughness has been on full display since he arrived in East Lansing two years ago, initially as the understudy to since-departed Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. During his freshman season, his unique ability to penetrate defenses despite not possessing ideal size became a trademark. His game is all hesitation-based, using geometry and deception to free up space.
Last season, Winston became — seemingly out of nowhere — a knockdown jump-shooter. He improved his 38 percent shooting clip from behind the line his freshman season to an eye-popping 49.7 percent last season. This year, as his ball-handling duties increase, his ability to shoot if teams go under screens will take on even more importance.
“I don’t know if I’m going to shoot it at that high of a rate, that was kind of ridiculous,” Winston said. “But I’m still going to be a very good shooter. I’ve been working on it, still knocking down shots at a very consistent rate, so I’m still going to be a very consistent shooter.”
While his scoring and shooting will need to continue, the number one area Winston must improve is discipline. He has a tendency to make careless passes, which you can sometimes get away with if you have two adept, professional-level shot-blockers on your team. This year, those turnovers will be points for the opponent.
Oct. 27 in Minneapolis, the Spartans faced No. 3 Gonzaga in a closed-doors scrimmage. According to The Athletic, Winston shot and distributed the ball well, but had six turnovers, including some which a staff source described as unforced.
“I definitely have more responsibility. My role just changed for this team,” Winston said. “Some of the turnovers I made, I wasn’t thinking. Those are easy fixes at the end of the day, just being more solid. But my role has definitely stepped up on this team.”
Against an experienced, talented team like Gonzaga, a lack of thinking in critical moments cost the Spartans. Gonzaga outscored MSU 110-92 over the four-part scrimmage, mainly due to an advantage in turnover margin and fouls, according to reports.
The Gonzaga scrimmage doesn’t matter for statistical purposes. It won’t show up on the Spartans’ tournament resume come March. But make no mistake: They went into a game against the No. 3 team in the country, and by all accounts shot and defended well enough to win. When your undoing is turnovers and discipline, that falls on the point guard.
“We’re not as far off as we think. We can be one of those top-whatever teams,” Winston said. “We were in that game. It’s just little mistakes, little details that we can fix. Everything that went wrong was fixable, and that’s a positive we got from it.”
Winston played better Oct. 30 against D-II Northern Michigan in the Spartans’ easy 93-47 victory. He looked smoother — he wasn’t forcing anything or turning it over by trying to make highlight-reel plays when the defense didn’t allow it. The easy lobs and exciting rim-runs won’t be there against every opponent, but the demeanor should be.
The season opens Nov. 6 in Indianapolis against top-ranked Kansas, another tough test for this Spartan team. But the result of this game matters far less than how well the Spartans play overall — particularly their point guard.
The Spartans are going to win a lot of games this season in a weak Big Ten conference where they are the consensus favorite despite losing their two best players. Winston was right when he spoke about the issues against Gonzaga: The turnovers and mental mistakes are fixable. But as any procrastinating college student will tell you, saying you’ll fix it and actually doing it are two different things.
Come March, when the five freshmen on this team have grown up a bit and the rotation is all sorted out, the Spartans will have one goal: Get back to the scene of the Gonzaga loss — Minneapolis, the site of this year’s Final Four.
They’ll go exactly as far as their star point guard takes them.