Standing at 6-foot-8 and weighing a bulky 250 pounds, Michigan State basketball’s freshman forward Nick Ward has never been in the shadows. He was a star averaging 21.0 points and 8.5 rebounds as a senior at Gahanna Lincoln High School and was a top 50 recruit nationally heading into this year by both ESPN and 247sports.
Ward was planning on adjusting to the shadows, destined for a minimal role, if any, in 2016-2017 as additions like prized top-10 recruit Miles Bridges and UNLV transfer forward Ben Carter gave commitments to Michigan State,. The Spartans also had senior center Gavin Schilling returning to the team and the emergence last season from former walk-on Kenny Goins slotted him in the Spartans rotation down low.
That’s when the injury bug hit MSU shortly before the season. Carter went down with a likely season-ending knee injury and Schilling busted his knee, resulting in a projected timetable of return at the start of Big Ten play.
Ward, the “poor poor poor man’s Ze-Bo (Zach Randolph)” as MSU head coach Tom Izzo called him, was suddenly thrust into a much larger role. And despite his potential to be a sparingly-used role player coming into this year, his 6-foot-8, 250 pound body has been a vital force for the Spartans this season.
“He has a great skill around the basket to score. He has vacuum hands and shoots a little better from the line than I thought he would. The big key with him would be keeping him out of foul trouble would be one, and get him in the best shape of his life,” Izzo said. You have to think of him in a completely different role. But I think he’s capable of filling that role.”
Ward has been more than capable in that filler role with two key projected contributors riding the bench with injuries. The problem for Ward, however, is the issue Izzo brought up –– his weight.
“I cut down 23 pounds. I feel a lot lighter, I jump a little higher and feel a little more explosive,” Ward said. “I cut back on my portions, and I can’t eat past 8:30. I’m not a sweets person, but I can’t eat a lot of fried food that I normally would. Maybe instead of two steaks and a baked potato, I’ll now have one steak, baked potato with just a little butter.”
Ward is only averaging 17.1 minutes per contest after 10 games, but is putting up quality numbers at 12.1 points per game (third on team), 6.2 rebounds per game (second on team) and 16 blocks (first on team). Looking at advanced metrics, such as Ward’s statistics per 40 minutes, the numbers tell the story of Ward’s impact even more.
Compared to other great big men in recent Spartan basketball history, like current NBA players Draymond Green and Adreian Payne, Ward is overpowering them in the three statistical categories that big men influence most in the college game –– points, rebounds and blocks. He is putting up better stats than the more heralded recruit in Bridges, it’s just a matter of getting him on the court and keeping him there without the frequent substitutions he is seeing now.
“He’s a bully on the block and when he calls for the ball, he’s generally going to do something good with it,” Bridges said of Ward. “He loves being a bruiser and the physical nature and aspect (of playing). It’ll definitely be even more of a help in Big Ten play.”
Looking at Ward per 100 possessions, Ward is far better than his former Spartan greats in points and blocks and leads in rebounds as well. His stats are influenced by the physical play he exhibits on game days and he has a good touch around the rim, shooting 60 percent from the field on the year.
Ward has made his presence felt in the limited time he sees, primarily in three of Michigan State’s early non-conference wins. He shot a perfect 8-8 from the floor against Mississippi Valley State in the Spartans first win, good for 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds as well. Against St. John’s in the Spartans first game at Battle 4 Atlantis, Ward posted nine points and eight rebounds in just twelve minutes, providing the spark to propel Michigan State to the next round.
Bridges, who had been Izzo’s main freshman workhorse, went down with an injury after the loss to Duke, giving Ward a bigger opportunity to shine. Ward didn’t let that chance slip through his hands, posting a career high 24 points in a season high 26 minutes against Oral Roberts while garnering eight rebounds, three blocks and two steals while shooting just under 73 percent from the field.
“I thought I played okay (against Oral Roberts),” Ward said. “Need to make my free throws and finish more. Make better decisions. I felt my first half defense was great but I got a little fatigued. I just went out there and played my best.”
Ward is a very humble player, as he’s never the first to point out his stat line but always the first to acknowledge his teammates’ performances. He was critical of himself in a game where he seemingly had his way down low, but was quick to call freshman point guard Cassius Winston’s 14 point, nine assist performance “phenomenal”
“And he’s a point guard too, just makes what he did that more special,” Ward said.
Overall, Ward and the rest of the freshman class have bought into the culture at Michigan State, and they are all showing it. All four freshman are in the top six on the team in scoring, and have found a connection with each other on and off the court.
“I think what separates us from other teams is how close we are, simply because at Michigan State we really promote a family environment and this is a big family,” Ward’s fellow freshman teammate Joshua Langford said. “You’re not going to see separate groups, we’re always all together. I think that really helps us on the court. I think it’s the chemistry and the camaraderie that we have. We really have each other’s backs.”
That chemistry off the court is shining through the Ward’s recent performances as he looks to continue his growth as an emerging star at Michigan State. The numbers speak for themselves, and the poor man’s Zach Randolph hopes to follow his comparison’s footsteps to the league.
“To be in the NBA has been my dream since I was a child and I have to think about that every time I step foot on the court,” Ward said. “I just have to keep my composure and honestly just have fun. It’s a blessing to be here, so really I have to appreciate what God gave me.”