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EAST LANSING — Sure, it was only a few days into an eight-week summer session. That didn’t stop Tom Izzo from feeling good about his new-look Michigan State basketball team.
“I think we sort of have each position covered,” Izzo said Wednesday.
Though many other programs around the country experienced a larger roster upheaval with the transfer portal, Izzo had a by-MSU-standards tumultuous offseason since finishing 15-13 and losing to UCLA in the First Four of the NCAA tournament.
Gone are forward Thomas Kithier and guards Rocket Watts, Foster Loyer and Jack Hoiberg. As well as Aaron Henry to the NBA draft and Joshua Langford to graduation.
In are Northeastern transfer point guard Tyson Walker and at the moment two of the Spartans’ three incoming freshmen with combo guard Jaden Akins and shooting guard Max Christie. Fellow guard Pierre Brooks II is expected to arrive late this month once he finishes high school at Frederick Douglass Academy.
So far, Izzo said he has been impressed with the 6-foot, 170-pound Walker, who was a first-team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection and league defensive player of the year in 2020-21. Walker is entering his third season of college basketball and making a step up to play against Big Ten competition, but Izzo feels the coaching he received from Northeastern’s Bill Coen has Walker prepared for the jump.
“I think Tyson is bringing something as a true point guard who's proven himself,” Izzo said. “He can shoot it, he can pass it, he's strong, he's tough. … That's been nothing but a positive. He's very well-coached.”
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Izzo said sophomore A.J. Hoggard, who started eight games as a rookie last season, continued to drop weight and is around 206 pounds. And Akins, who arrives after a strong finish at Sunrise Christian Academy and a spot in the Allen Iverson Roundball Classic, also has impressed his new coach.
“So I think we're going to be more solid and better there, more athletic there, for sure,” Izzo said.
Akins is also expected to see time at shooting guard, where classmate Christie could be MSU’s breakout star. The five-star recruit was recently named Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois, and Brooks — the Michigan winner of the Gatorade award and the state's Mr. Basketball — also could see time there once he arrives.
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The remaining roster is a bunch of returning veterans who have been long on potential but limited and/or inconsistent with their production going into this season.
Senior Gabe Brown appears locked in at Henry’s small forward spot, and junior Malik Hall will split time there and at power forward. Senior Joey Hauser is back at power forward after starting 16 games in an up-and-down, frustrating first season at MSU. And at center, Izzo sees senior Marcus Bingham Jr. continuing to develop his aggressiveness and physical capabilities but added that junior Julius Marble “had a very good spring and summer” and called sophomore Mady Sissoko “monster-looking” and up to 245 pounds.
“So where are we? I don't know. I mean, we just had one practice,” Izzo summarized as he heads toward his 27th season. “But we're a very good academic team. We're a very good, athletic team — I think we're more athletic. And I think, we’re a very, very good, together team. Is that anything against last year's team? No, it's against COVID.
“My hardest thing is I don't know what is what — what is COVID (related), and how are kids gonna respond to all this stuff now?”
Izzo also has two open scholarship spots with the departures. He said he could possibly give one to sophomore walk-on Davis Smith, son of MSU legend Steve Smith.
However, Izzo also said there is growing concern around the country that adding another player or two from the transfer portal to reach the limit of 13 could spark others on the roster to decide to leave.
“I mean, nobody's gonna be on a three-person depth chart,” Izzo said. “I think you're gonna see more schools and coaches that have 10 guys on scholarship.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Tom Izzo feels Michigan State basketball more athletic, 'together'