There aren’t many things that keep Tom Izzo up at night. Presumably one of the few things that may have the 61 year old coaching legend tossing and turning right now is the Michigan State’s point guard position for its 2016-17 season. Sure, he will be welcoming in Cassius Winston; one of the top freshman point guards in the country. But in a competitive conference like the Big Ten, experience and continuity at the point guard position is a must.
There is only one returning true point guard for the Spartans, Lourawls 'Tum Tum' Nairn Jr. At the moment, unfortunately, Izzo may have a tough time playing him. The cause for concern with Nairn is largely centered on the trials and tribulations of turning him from a young guard who is an offensive liability into a consistent, dynamic starting point guard that many, including Izzo, believe he can be. The transition will mainly take place as Nairn works to develop his shooting.
The primary issue for Nairn stems from his inability to stretch the floor. The rising junior shot a mere 23.1% (6-26) from three-point range in his first two seasons. That number may be decent for a center, but is unacceptable for a guard. His poor shooting impacts his playing time because defenders sag off of him around the perimeter, often doubling down on forwards in the post.
Playing alongside sharp shooter Bryn Forbes in the backcourt last year allowed the Spartans to play Nairn frequently because teams would still cover the three point line tightly as long as Forbes was on the floor. Sadly, Forbes graduated and can no longer suit up. Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid have the potential to turn into the elite shooter Forbes was last year, but even surrounding Nairn with shooters seems unlikely to work if he himself poses no threat from deep.
Last year, Sparty was able to mask its weakness at the point guard position thanks to Denzel Valentine. Izzo could afford to play a pair of shooting guards in the backcourt because of Valentine’s abilities to handle the ball and run the offense as a point forward. Unfortunately for the fans in East Lansing, Valentine’s eligibility has run out and the team’s point guard issues could be thrust into the limelight this year without him.
For a guy who played 18.7 mpg (fifth highest on the team), Nairn actually had a negative impact on the Spartans while on the offensive side of the floor. In fact, he posted the team’s second lowest offensive plus-minus with a score of -1. The only player with a lower offensive plus-minus was Greg Roy, who played only 3 minutes all season.
What Tom Izzo needs to happen is for Nairn to make similar improvements to those Rajon Rondo made early along in his NBA career. A talented player, Rondo was always criticized for his inability to knock down shots. He worked on that part of his game and became a better shooter. This opened up driving lanes and passing options for him to exploit with his superior abilities in those areas.
Nairn doesn’t need to become a knock down shooter or magically develop elite range, he simply needs to be able to knock down mid to long range jump shots somewhat consistently. If he can do this, his other skills are so impressive that he will be able to take his game to a whole new level.
If he can gain the ability to take and make some outside shots, keeping defenders honest, then Nairn will no longer be a liability on the offensive side of the floor. The fact that he was already able to play so many minutes last year on a championship contender despite his inability to shoot should demonstrate just how confident Izzo is in Nairn’s other abilities. A great defender, he also has explosive quickness and can get out in transition, attacking the basket like few others.
On a team with a highly touted frontcourt, however, transition opportunities will likely be few and far between as Michigan State will resort to running a half-court offense more often. For them to be able to do that, Nairn will need to stretch the floor or else the Spartans will basically be playing 4 on 5 at the offensive end when he is on the floor.
Even though Denzel Valentine was able to handle being double teamed by his own defender and Nairn’s, incoming freshman bigs Miles Bridges and Nick Ward do not have the experience to be able to make quick decisions in the face of constant double teams. Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling have experience operating out of the post, but neither are renowned as the great post passers they would need to be to handle the frequent double teams.
If Nairn can’t get his shot to where it needs to be, the only other solution for Izzo will be to rely on his freshmen guards a lot more than he wants to. Josh Langford will need to come to East Lansing already shooting at a competitive level and Cassius Winston will have to take the keys to the offense and run with them; a lot to ask of a guard fresh out of high school. The talent may be there, but decision making is a skill that must be developed through experience.
Is there a scenario where the freshman guards could come in ready to play, Izzo’s big men could be effective passers, and the Spartans will be successful? Absolutely, but the likelihood of everything falling into place, especially early along, is slim.
If Nairn can develop his jump shot this offseason, a lot of question marks will go away for Tom Izzo. The freshman can develop in due time with experienced veterans guiding the way and Mr. March will likely have his team dancing far into the NCAA Tournament once again. But it all starts with Nairn and his jump shot.