EAST LANSING, Mich. — Injuries to senior forward Gavin Schilling and grad-transfer Ben Carter had already thrown Michigan State’s Nick Ward onto the fast track of development.
And because of that depleted frontcourt, the Spartans freshman had been all but forced to quickly adapt or risk falling behind the curve.
With that said, through the first eight games, the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder has more than delivered on his end of the bargain — so much that Spartans coach Tom Izzo has constantly raved about “how much better” Ward has been than originally anticipated.
With two down, Ward has grown.
But how would he do with three absentees?
Due to Miles Bridges’ ankle injury, Ward will have to learn how to do even more with even less for the next two weeks.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a burden,” he said, mentioning how the Spartans (4-4) would “have to go a little harder” with the day-to-day operations. Boxing-out. Running. Everything during practice and games must now be increased.
Again, something that Ward and his teammates have grown accustomed to doing this year.
Three critical injuries. Eight games against tournament-quality competition, with four bouts against top-10 opponents. They’ve been knocked down and, to an extent, temporarily cast aside — but Ward doesn’t mind the uphill climb.
It’s part of the thrill for the self-proclaimed “underdog.”
“When the lights come on, I don’t shy away from the lights,” said Ward, whose parents taught him to remain persistent. “I always love competition. I say it all the time: I love competition and having a challenge… that’s just me, personally.”
According to Team Rankings, Michigan State ranks No. 336 in extra scoring chances (-7.0 vs. competition). Past Spartans teams have dominated the paint. This year, they’ve barely found their way into the rectangle, averaging an uncommonly low 22 points.
Compounding matters, the Spartans rank No. 78 in total rebounding percentage (53.1), per Team Rankings.
They’re among Izzo’s smallest players. The majority of them have found themselves in new roles. A lot of them can shoot the ball. A lot of them can pass.
But there aren’t many — available, at least — who can establish ownership in the post. That’ll be Ward’s job — and it’s a job of the utmost importance. Physical play has long been a part of the Spartans’ identity.
With or without Bridges, Michigan State needed a bully: Someone who could get nasty in the pursuit of rebounds. Someone who’d menace while attacking and defending the rim, just like Ward had done during a 78-69 loss Tuesday night to Duke.
“It comes natural,” said Ward, swaying and smiling. “I just grew up with that.”
While in seventh and eighth grade, Ward played football, a game that enhanced his pro-contact nature.
“I didn’t love football,” said the former fullback. “I just like to hit people.”
So, of course, blocking and playing with his back to the basket rank among his strengths. Having the chance to play his preferred style was the reason why he chose to play for Izzo, who often jokes about being a football coach who happens to coach basketball.
Back in the day, Ward ran through a gauntlet of double-team drills designed by his father Jeff, who played at Youngstown State. Afterward, they’d watch film. As a result, Ward developed a high level of awareness and an extra set of eyes.
Today, it’s all about putting together the entire package for Ward, who averages nearly 11 points and six rebounds per game. Oddly enough, those numbers pale in comparison to what could be possible.
“Nick gets in some foul trouble once in a while, and Nick is still learning to play with his new body — you know, his new weight,” Izzo said. “He’s learning how to play harder, longer. And sometimes foul trouble and fatigue get in the way.
“But we’ve got to play him more minutes, too. I mean, I’m playing him 14, 15 minutes — and again, last game, there was some foul trouble early — but I think Nick’s minutes were going up anyway, whether Miles was here or not… (Bridges’ injury) had nothing to with Nick’s minutes.”