After spending his senior year of high school at SPIRE Institute, holding down a backcourt with professional basketball player LaMelo Ball, freshman guard Rocket Watts is still making the transition to a new style of basketball.
To Head Coach Tom Izzo, that style is team basketball.
“I think he’s starting to learn what a team is all about,” Izzo said. “He went through a tough situation last year a little bit, and I really think he’s made some great progress.”
Izzo said Watts picked things up better than he thought he would.
“I’m really pleased with Rocket right now,” he said. “He’s just kind of learning how to get along with everybody. The situation he played in last year was a lot of individuals, and this is a team.”
Watts said the play style at SPIRE was different. Compared to a place where they were just playing basketball, Watts said he sees structure and form here.
“Really at SPIRE, we was just hoopin’, playing basketball,” Watts said. “We had a great team. Here it’s just way different, because we run plays, it’s a lot more structured … I picked it up and am ready for the season.”
After missing six weeks, as he was getting everything in order to come to East Lansing, Watts seems to be up to ‘speed,’ according to Izzo. Shooting is one place where he is still figuring things out.
“He’s up to speed, cause that’s one thing he has — speed. But he’s not ... shooting the ball clearly as good as he can shoot it,” Izzo said. “He’s had better days lately, but he missed six weeks that other kids had in here, and I’m not disappointed in him, because of all the things I know he can do, shooting is one of them.”
Luckily for Watts, he didn’t have to transition on his own.
“Lot of good guys around me that I can stand on,” Watts said. “Really just when I got here, all the upperclassmen talked to me because I came late.”
But even with help, the transition wasn’t easy. Watts has been able to rely on those upperclassmen, and has impressed both on and off the court so far.
“You know, we knew it would be tough, it’s tough for Rocket,” Izzo said. “He was at a different school last year than he was the year before, he’s kind of been moved around. I’m just really impressed with how he’s dealt with it. I think our players do deserve some credit for it and Cassius (Winston) is one that has just made it — I think — more comfortable for him, telling him what a play is helping him out there, and I am happy for him.”
The main thing the players wanted to do to help Watts was to provide him with what he needed to make the move and show him what it meant to be a Spartan.
“Be there for him and also let him know what to expect for practices, let him know what to expect for workouts, let him know what to expect for lifts,” junior forward Xavier Tillman said. “For school, let him know we go to tutor sessions, we take school serious here, make sure you take school serious, you go to all your classes … Just showing him the ropes kind of thing, just showing him what Spartans do, really.”
Watts’ seniors have been a big part of his shift, and he said they have already taught him many things — some even better than Izzo could.
“I give Cassius and Josh, Kyle Ahrens and Xavier a lot of credit, they’ve taught him a lot better than I can teach him,” Izzo said.
Coming in as a four star recruit, ranked in the top 50 players in his class, Watts knows basketball. But playing next to the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year — and fellow Detroit native senior guard Cassius Winston — as well as new graduate manager and former captain Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., Watts has gotten a unique experience to learn from two MSU greats.
“It feels really great being beside (Winston), learning stuff from him. I know it’s his last year so I’m just trying to get everything from him,” Watts said. “When it’s my time and I got to run the team, I can be good at that and have a good season,” Watts said.
He said Nairn is like a big brother to him.
“He always gives me good advice — never gave me bad advice — always telling me to keep shooting when my shot off, telling me the defense and plays and stuff like that,” Watts said. “Because he’s been here and played the game.”
Winston said he sees a lot of potential in Watts, and for someone who is so eager to get better, it has been easy to help Watts out when he needs it.
“He’s real open, he wants to get better, so it’s easy. Easy to tell him, easy to talk to him, easy to just help him out,” Winston said. “And you know every time he’s listening, ready to try to fix what he did wrong.”
Even in his short time here, the team has already seen changes and improvements in Watts’ game and attitude. Perhaps most importantly, Watts hasn’t been as down on himself when he makes mistakes. Instead, he looks for, and accepts, criticism.
“A big thing that he has grown on is being emotionally stable. Early on in the summer, when he got here, it was harder to talk to him, because if he would make a mistake he would already be down on himself before anyone came and corrected him, so you really couldn’t get through to him,” Tillman said. “Now he’s always upbeat, so he knows now when somebody is coaching him he’s ready to listen and ready to learn.”
Less than a week out from kicking off the season against Kentucky, Izzo said he believes Watts will play a big role this year, and with his potential, can do a lot to help the team.
“He’s passing the ball way more than we thought and way better than we thought,” Izzo said. “I’ve been really impressed ... he could be one of our best on-ball defenders, he’s quick as a cat and he’s strong and he’s tough.”