Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said true freshman guard Rocket Watts has made "incredible strides" in his three months on campus.
Come Tuesday night, the Spartans will see how far the Detroit native has actually progressed.
Injuries to seniors Josh Langford and Kyle Ahrens left a vacant spot at the 2-guard position in Michigan State's starting lineup that Watts will take over to start the season. The Spartans play in their only exhibition game Tuesday night against Albion College at the Breslin Center (7:30 p.m., BTN plus).
"When I look at the guy when he came in, he’s been an unbelievable teammate," Izzo said. "The one thing he does give us he's got that tenacity like Keith Appling as defensively he can get after it a little bit. And he didn't shoot very well early, but he's starting to shoot the ball better just probably because he's feeling more comfortable.”
An issue in the same foot that kept Langford out for 26 games last year re-surfaced, Izzo announced last week, and will keep him out of action until January when he will be re-evaluated. Ahrens, who dealt with a lower back injury throughout most of last year, and a right ankle injury suffered in the Big Ten Tournament championship against Michigan, sprained the same ankle in Michigan State's secret-scrimmage against Gonzaga last week in Denver.
The injury occurred stepping out of bounds rather than on somebody's foot, which gives Izzo optimism it won't be a long-term issues. Ahrens will miss Tuesday's exhibition game, but beyond that his status is uncertain.
In steps Watts, who will form an explosive backcourt with fellow Detroiter Cassius Winston, who will be playing against younger brothers Khy and Zach when the Britons travel to East Lansing.
“Me and Rocket are pretty close. you know, talented kid, he scores the ball, plays hard," Winston said. " It's not hard to get accustomed to players like that. We’re going to go out there, probably going to have a couple lumps, but nothing too major.”
The Spartans open the regular season next Tuesday against No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic, played at Madison Square Garden. With Michigan State's injury situation, the likelihood that Watts is in MSU's starting lineup opening night is trending up. Tuesday night's exhibition game will give a Izzo a great look at what he has in his freshman player.
Because, ready or not, Watts appears to be a major part of Michigan State's near future.
“I'm really proud of where he’s come and what he’s doing, and I don’t know if he’s ready for the moment," Izzo said. "I really don’t care if he’s ready for the moment. We’re going to get him as ready as we can get him, but we’re also going to understand that he’s going to make the same freshman mistakes as Miles Bridges made, and Jaren Jackson made, Josh Langford halfway through his freshman year ... Aaron Henry.
"The kid has been fun to coach. The kid has been confident without being cocky and I've been really impressed with what he’s done.”
Kithier gets the opening nod
Izzo is still waiting for someone to step up and take control of Michigan State's biggest question mark — the 4-spot in the starting lineup.
Sophomore Thomas Kithier will get the first shot against Albion.
Marcus Bingham, Malik Hall and Julius Marble were other options that Izzo considered, but with the experience and chemistry Kithier has developed with Xavier Tillman, Michigan State's starting center, Izzo felt comfortable enough to give him the nod.
Kithier will also be an option to provide an offensive left off the bench behind Tillman.
“Thomas knows how to play, that's one thing he’s really good at," Izzo said. "I'm a little concerned whether I start both guys (Kithier and Tillman), going back to the Morris Peterson days where you gotta have somebody coming off of the bench that does something that you can rely on."