MINNEAPOLIS — A difficult decision looms for Michigan State forward Nick Ward.
It was the same decision he faced at the end of last season: leave or come back. And after the Spartans' 61-51 loss to Texas Tech in the Final Four on Saturday, Ward, the 6-foot-9 junior, could have possibly played his last game for MSU.
"These guys mean the world to me," Ward said of his MSU teammates following the loss to the Red Raiders. "And I’m not really focused on that decision yet. I’m just really trying to spend some time with my guys."
Ward tested his draft stock without the help of an agent and withdrew his name from the 2019 NBA Draft after working out for several franchises, including Detroit, Oklahoma City, Chicago and New York. He can again declare for the draft — and under new rule changes this year sign with an agent — to perhaps come back, or forego his final season of NCAA eligibility to dedicate himself to the NBA or basketball abroad.
Despite suffering a hairline fracture in his left hand against Ohio State on Feb. 17, Ward finished this season playing in 34 games, starting 25, and averaging 12.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 20.8 minutes per game. After returning from the injury against the Buckeyes on March 15 in the start of the Big Ten Tournament, Ward's averages dipped to 5.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 13.1 minutes in the final eight games. Ward was not put back in the starting lineup after returning, and sophomore Xavier Tillman instead started in his place.
Ward never minded giving up his starting spot.
"This is a great group of guys," Ward said. "I love playing with them. They played hard."
This season, Ward shot 58.0 percent from the floor, which marked the lowest shooting percentage at the collegiate level. In 26 games pre-injury, he averaged 23.2 minutes and shot 60.4 percent and 6.6 boards. Post-fracture, he played 13.1 minutes and shot 43.9 percent on field goals.
Ward was MSU's only player to test his professional prospects and return after last season. Forwards Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. were lottery picks.
Should Ward leave, he would join departing seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins. Junior point guard Cassius Winston could also forego his final season or explore the draft process.
"Being good enough to be great is one thing, being good enough to be an NBA player is another," Izzo said Saturday, when asked if Winston had approached him about exploring pro opportunities.
"If we think somebody is, we’ll advise them of that."
But no matter what Ward decides, the memories of making the Final Four and winning the Big Ten Tournament and regular season championships will remain in his mind forever.
"I love these guys," Ward said. "We won the Big Ten, won the Big Ten Tourney, went to a Final Four. I can’t ask for a better year."