By Blake Froling

Michigan State center Nick Ward announced ahead of Wednesday’s deadline that he will withdraw his name from the NBA Draft and return to school for his junior season. He might not have wanted to, but it was the right decision.

“It was a great opportunity for me to go through the process and I’m grateful for the feedback I received from NBA teams,” Ward said in a release.  “It is my dream to play in the NBA and I’ve learned a lot through my workouts and interviews that will help me when I am ready to make that next step. ”

It’s great that players like Ward are afforded the opportunity to hear from NBA teams about their draft stock and areas of their game they need to improve in without losing NCAA eligibility. In Ward’s case, it could have saved him from making a horrible decision.

“After talking to several different teams there were many positives from both his workouts and his interviews,” Tom Izzo said in a statement, “but each team gave him some suggestions for things to work on this summer as he strives to reach his full potential.  We’re very excited to have Nick back and look forward to him helping to lead our team in the successful ways he has since coming to Michigan State.”

Ward’s Michigan State tenure has been both exciting and frustrating, for himself and fans. He’s shown the ability to manhandle most defenders on the low block in one-on-one situations and has established himself as one of the most efficient scorers in the country with a 64.8 percent shooting clip. Ward’s average of 26 points per 40 minutes led the team by a wide margin.

But he struggled to stay on floor because of foul trouble, conditioning and boneheaded mistakes. Ward averaged 18.9 minutes per contest, fewer than five other Spartans, including the wildly inconsistent Matt McQuaid. There are a few things he needs to work on this summer and during next season to have a shot at an NBA career.

Ward lacks the foot speed to cover big men who could space the floor. This sequence where he “tried” to guard Moe Wagner might be the perfect example of that.

Versatility is key in the Association these days, especially for bigs who constantly have to switch onto guards in pick-and-roll situations. If a player like Wagner can make Ward look silly on defense, what would happen if he had to switch onto someone like James Harden? HIDE THE WOMEN AND CHILDREN!

It appears as though “Big Puddin'” has slimmed down since the Spartans’ season ended in March to help with those agility problems. In this workout video posted on May 22, you can see he’s got a bit more quickness in his step.

Granted, it’s just a workout video that’s specifically made to show off his skill set with no opposition, so take it with a grain of salt. But Ward knows this is one of his key weaknesses and appears to be working on it. He even flashes a mid-range jumper in the video, which has been totally nonexistent for Ward in his two seasons. Again, big grain of salt, but still nice to see.

If you’re looking for an NBA comparison to Ward, Izzo has repeatedly mentioned a former Spartan Zach Randolph. If that’s the mold Ward stays in, he has no shot at a decent NBA career.

In this more spread out and fast-paced NBA, the Randolph mold is quickly dying. Ward should look at how a player like Boston’s Aron Baynes has adapted by slowly adding a mid-range and now 3-point shot to his arsenal.

Is he a dominant offensive force now? No, but it allows the Celtics to pair Baynes with another big and not clog the lane. Ward could fit into that mold if he develops a shot and becomes a more willing passer, but don’t expect to see this in the upcoming season. A few years down the road, and with NBA coaching, this could be a real possibility.

Another glaring issue for Ward to fix is his handling of double teams in the post. He was atrocious at seeing the floor and finding the open man once a second defender covered him. This won’t likely be an issue in the NBA because no one will double him, but the Spartans certainly need to see him be more effective in those situations. Whenever the double came, he would either force up a wild post shot or throw the ball away. Teams knew this and took advantage of it repeatedly.

With the bevvy of 3-point shooters Michigan State had on the floor around Ward, opposing teams should have never been able to double team him. If he had better floor vision, Ward could have eaten defenses alive with kick-outs to open shooters. Instead, the ball usually went inside but never came back out if Ward was in the game.

With Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges now out of the picture, Ward is now fully entrenched as the leading big man on this Michigan State team. There should be no more excuses for a lack of playing time. Rising sophomore Xavier Tillman showed some nice flashes towards the end of last season and incoming freshmen Marcus Bingham and Gabe Brown will fight for minutes, but right now this is Ward’s frontcourt to lose.

The 2018-19 season will likely be Ward’s last in a Spartan uniform, and he has a list of things to improve on between now and next June’s draft. If he does some or all of the things listed above, he will be one of the most dominant big men in the country and his NBA draft stock will rise exponentially.

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