Michigan State basketball: How do Spartans’ 2020 draftees fit in NBA?

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 25: Xavier Tillman #23 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates with Cassius Winston #5 of the Michigan State Spartans late in the second half of the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at the Breslin Center on February 25, 2020 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 25: Xavier Tillman #23 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates with Cassius Winston #5 of the Michigan State Spartans late in the second half of the game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at the Breslin Center on February 25, 2020 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images) /
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Now that former Michigan State basketball stars Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman have found new homes, let’s take a look at their NBA outlooks.

Let’s start with Cassius Winston. The All-American point guard had to wait a while to hear his name called, but when the Thunder picked him and traded him to the Wizards at No. 53 overall, he breathed a sigh of relief. He’s in the NBA now and it was quite the road.

Cassius Winston, Washington Wizards

It didn’t take long for Michigan State to realize that Cassius Winston was the superior point guard when he shared the responsibilities with fellow floor general, Tum Tum Nairn. Sure, Nairn was an inspirational leader and speedy, strong defender but the incredible shot-making ability, exceptional basketball IQ and elite passing that Winston provided whenever he was on the floor, consistently trumped what Nairn could deliver.

Cassius is walking into a completely different situation as he begins his professional career with the Wizards due to the fact that his new mentors have no trouble scoring at will.

Winston will not start for Washington as they unquestionably have one of the NBA’s top backcourts in point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal (30.5 points per game last season). Both are in their prime.

Behind those two, the Wizards lack quality depth at the guard position, leaving a golden opportunity for Winston to secure a backup role during the audition of a lifetime (throughout fall training camp and the preseason to follow in December) and find some minutes relieving Wall during the 2020-21 season.

Wall is an explosive playmaker and he’s essentially a seasoned, stronger, more athletic version of Winston. The former Spartan is a more polished and accurate marksman from long-range than Wall is, though. He shoots it from deep 11 percent better than Wall.

This is not a bad fit for Cassius as he can learn from one of the best lead guards in the league. Wall is a five-time NBA All-Star and has career averages of 19 points and 9.2 assists per game.

There’s a chance that Winston may be handed the keys to Washington’s team sooner rather than later. Rumors are swirling that Wall is growing unhappy in the nation’s capital. The tipping point for his displeasure was when management reportedly considered sending him to Houston in mid-November for Russell Westbrook, straight-up. Wall’s current deal stretches through 2022-23 if he ends up remaining with the Wizards.

Another way Cassius can be in line for a quick promotion is if Wall is again plagued by the injury bug that has hampered him several times before. Last winter, he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon which cost him the entire season (during which he raked in over $38 million without ever lacing up his sneakers). Heel, hand, wrist, shoulder, and an assortment of nagging knee ailments have led to an injury-marred 10-year NBA career (2013-14 was the sole season where he appeared in all 82 games).

Winston was extremely durable for the Spartans and an underrated trait he possesses is his mental and physical toughness.

There’s a good chance that Winston can win the backup job behind Wall. Veterans Shabazz Napier and Ish Smith won’t be around long-term (Napier is a free agent now and Smith will be eligible to hit the open market during the summer of 2021). The other ball-handlers on the roster are Jerome Robinson (who is more of a combo guard) and Gary Payton II and neither player has career averages that exceed 4.5 points or 1.5 assists.

Payton II is hitting free agency this autumn while Robinson is under contract for three more seasons. They are planning to add Raul Neto to fill the vacancy of Payton II or Napier (or both). Neto is nowhere near the level of player Winston is. His stiffest competition will most likely be from either Smith or Napier. Both averaged over 10 points and three assists in 2019-20.

Washington drafting a point guard indicates they are not enamored with the aforementioned foursome (not including Neto who was added after they drafted Winston). The determination and work ethic of Winston is met by only a select few of his peers and he will use those attributes to seize this moment.

His new head coach, Scott Brooks, enjoyed a 12-year NBA career as a point guard. He teamed up with Hakeem Olajuwan to bring a championship to the Houston Rockets in 1994. We all know how well Winston developed under Tom Izzo (who himself was an All-American point at Northern Michigan in 1977) so this promises to be a continuation of Point Guard 101. Class is in session.

Brooks won 338 games in seven seasons, leading the Oklahoma City Thunder on deep playoff runs on numerous occasions. He also helped Westbrook, Kevin Durant and James Harden evolve into superstars. Look for Winston to thrive under the tutelage of Brooks, who surely will try to find ways to pair his new weapon with fellow rookie standout, Deni Avdija.

We may even see Brooks allow Winston and Wall to play together (similar to what teams like Toronto and Portland do so well) to give Wall more freedom on offense while spelling Beal at the same time.

The fact that 29 teams chose to ignore the production of an elite college prospect who nearly scored 2,000 collegiate points and came close to dishing out 1,000 assists, certainly leaves you scratching your head. There were 17 (!) point guards selected before he heard his name called. You can’t tell me there are 17 better point guards than Cassius in this 2020 draft class. It was a shock that Winston slid all the way to pick No. 53 but this could be a blessing in disguise because Washington loved him enough to acquire him in a trade from OKC and they envision him contributing early on.

Multiple teams passed on him, surprisingly. It’s up to Winston to let his play prove the doubters wrong and show that he was the ultimate steal of the 2020 NBA draft.

Cassius Winston Redemption Tour 2021, coming to an arena near you.