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Couch: 3 quick takes on Michigan State’s basketball team from the Moneyball Pro-Am



Couch: 3 quick takes on Michigan State’s basketball team from the Moneyball Pro-Am

1. Frankie Fidler looks the part

HOLT – I’m old enough to remember A.J. Hoggard and Tum Tum Nairn shooting more like Steph Curry than themselves at the Moneyball Pro-Am. I’ve watched Pierre Brooks average 40 points per game and Nick Ward put up 50-plus multiple times. 

So when new Michigan State forward Frankie Fidler scored 45 in his team’s win Tuesday night, with six 3-pointers — a couple of them launched from closer to half court than a college 3-point line — the numbers and makes alone didn’t mean all that much to MSU’s fortunes this season, even if the performance was tremendous summer entertainment.

If you watched the game, however, it’s clear Fidler is going to be an impact player for MSU this season. At minimum, after Tuesday night, he’s more intriguing than he was before. He’s big, he’s seasoned, he’s a smooth offensive player, a strong secondary ball-handler, a proven shooter — beyond the pro-am — and he appears to see the game instinctually, be it a no-look pass off the catch or finding a cutting teammate out of a trap.

“He’s a traditional small forward,” senior Jaden Akins said of Fidler. “It’s good to have someone of that skill level to play that position.”

Akins is all too happy to slide over to shooting guard, a position more fitting of his own size (More on Akins in this column from Wednesday.).

Fidler on Tuesday had a nasty bruise on his upper cheek, just below his eye, a battle scar from Akins’ head during a one-on-one game earlier that day at MSU.

Everyone knew Fidler was a big-time player at a smaller school — he averaged 20 points per game last season at Omaha, a low-major Division I program. The question is how his game translates to the Big Ten level. Nothing Tuesday night suggests it won’t. He might not be a star at MSU, but he has a chance to be a piece that makes life easier for everyone else.

“Being a floor-spacer, being a guy who can score,” Fidler said, “and having length on defense, versatility on offense, just kind of being that that lengthy dude in the 3 spot.”

I think it’s going to be a nice fit.

2. First impressions of MSU’s other newcomers

This is a compelling MSU basketball roster from a Moneyball Pro-Am perspective. Five newcomers are playing this summer and a number of returners are heading into new roles this coming season. Akins, Coen Carr and Jaxon Kohler all have something to prove, they’ll tell you. Xavier Booker is unquestionably stronger and wiser and more ready looking. He’s always been good in conversation. He’s even more thoughtful now.

A year ago, Booker didn’t know what he didn’t know. Just like three incoming MSU freshmen this year — guards Jase Richardson and Kur Teng and big man Jesse McCulloch, all of whom played Tuesday night. One of the best elements of the Moneyball Pro-Am is the first look at MSU’s incoming class.

Richardson has a fun energy to him and a bounce to his step. He and Gehrig Normand went back and forth with big shots late in their game against each other Tuesday. I don’t know how ready Richardson is for the Big Ten or how many minutes there will be for him behind Jeremy Fears Jr. and Tre Holloman at the point or Akins and Holloman off the ball, but I’m curious to see him in action. He looks like he could be a fairly complete guard in time.

Teng is not flashy. But he knows his game and knows his spots. That’s obvious. He’s not built to shine at Moneyball, but he looks like he’s got some versatility and old man to his game (I mean that as a compliment). It’s impossible to tell how ready he is to push for minutes, given the number of players battling for those same minutes.

McCulloch is going to need some time. But he’s got some skill. You can see the appeal on the offensive end. On one play he faced up from the wing, dribbled into his defender and let it fly over him. You don’t see that sort of dribble-face-up very often. I’d be surprised if McCulloch plays much, if at all this season. But he wasn’t recruited for this season.

That’s partly why MSU’s coaches brought in center transfer Szymon Zapala. While the pronunciation of his first name still confounds some of his teammates, his size (7-feet, with some strength) and experience are his value. He seems to have decent hands — he threw down a one-handed alley-top dunk over a defender at one point — and moves well enough. And, like Richardson, he has an enjoyable energy to him. Beyond that, the pro-am is a tough place to properly assess centers. 

RELATED: Moneyball Pro-Am summer basketball league 2024 guide: What to know

3. A healthy changing of the guard

It’s probably best that the extra year of eligibility — the COVID year — is ending. College basketball teams are meant to turn over. New identities, new leaders, fresh roster dynamics — these things were all stunted by having 23-year-old fifth-year guys in programs throughout the sport, including MSU’s program. And while the Spartans were almost certainly better last year for having Tyson Walker and Malik Hall still around, you can tell this group this year is ready for something new. 

Akins has waited for this shot at being a go-to guy. Holloman has been waiting for his turn to lead. Kohler, who’s healthy again and enjoying the big man group around him, sounds like a man reborn. Booker and Carr sound eager. Normand is excited to be part of things. This is their time. Their turn. I don’t know if they’ll be better. But, as of July, they’re starting from a good place.

MORE: Couch: Saddi Washington didn’t plan on winding up at MSU. But lifelong connections have him feeling home.

Contact Graham Couch at Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

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