Michigan State Basketball: Who’s going to replace Rocket Watts?

Mar 7, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Rocket Watts (2) shoots as Michigan Wolverines guard Chaundee Brown (15) defends during the second half at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 7, 2021; East Lansing, Michigan, USA; Michigan State Spartans guard Rocket Watts (2) shoots as Michigan Wolverines guard Chaundee Brown (15) defends during the second half at Jack Breslin Student Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports /

Rocket Watts has entered his name into the transfer portal. It’s a move that makes sense for both himself and Michigan State basketball.

This season saw Rocket Watts’ numbers and confidence drop. He was by no means a team cancer but his body language could have been better at times. The coaching staff was hoping that he would evolve into a stronger leader after losing a pair of incredible contributors from the 2019-20 unit. Inconsistent play plagued his overall effectiveness this past autumn and winter.

His field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, rebounds per game, steals per game, and points per game were all categories that dipped for Watts from his first to second season as a Spartan. A fresh start may be just what he needs.

In all fairness to Watts, he was asked to make the tough transition from shooting guard over to point guard with a condensed offseason and a regular season littered with interruptions stemming from the pandemic, both in non-conference and Big Ten play. The season that just ended for MSU didn’t have much of a flow to it as a result. Limited practice time threw a wrench in Tom Izzo’s aspirations to get Watts comfortable enough to be successful manning his new position.

Filling the shoes of a Spartan legend is a tall task, too. Speaking of Cassius Winston, Watts was a perfect complement to his fellow Detroiter. Winston allowed Watts to play freely and all of the defensive attention placed devoted to Winston and Xavier Tillman by opponents, gave him the luxury of seeing plenty of clean looks at the basket. When the backcourt mate and mentor of Watts took his talents to the NBA, Watts seemed unable to handle the demands of running the show for Izzo.

There is also bound to be a squeeze for minutes during the 2021-22 season to come with three decorated incoming perimeter recruits (in Jaden Akins, Pierre Brooks and Max Christie) set to step foot on campus in a few months. The straw that broke the camel’s back though was the recent commitment of Tyson Walker who will immediately slide into the lineup as the starting point guard yet Walker has played off the ball quite often for Northeastern. He’s too similar to Watts in that combo guard mold to have both coexist on the roster.

The loss of Watts will sting because he had such high expectations placed upon him when he finished his freshman season on a tear. He never lived up to his true potential in a Spartan uniform other than the aforementioned hot streak late in the winter of 2020 and a couple of electric performances this season. The impact of his absence will be felt more than had a Julius Marble, A.J. Hoggard, Thomas Kithier, or Foster Loyer decided to give it a go at a different university.

The departure of another Michigan State guard (Jack Hoiberg) a few days before the announcement of Watts didn’t create nearly as many waves. That’s because Watts is an incredible talent. He has shown flashes of being a tenacious defender. He’s a tremendous athlete and can score in bunches. He will thrive at a program where he can be the focal point of the offense, see the floor for 35 minutes or more per contest, exclusively play shooting guard, and be plugged into a system that gets up and down the court in a league where high scoring contests are not uncommon.

His game translate better to the pros than it does to college ball. We could see him in the NBA someday. Sure, he lacks the ideal size for a two-guard but look at what a superstar like Damian Lillard has been able to accomplish at the highest level of basketball in the world — they’re both 6-foot-2. If Watts can develop a reliable 3-point shot, there is no limit to how high he can soar.

There were moments where Rocket was as out of this world. Here are a few of them (in chronological order):

  • November 2019, December 2019, January 2020 — Rocket Watts never scored more than 12 points in a single game over the course of his first three months of college basketball. Once February 2020 hit, the awakening of Watts occurred. He started to catch fire with a 21-point game to help defeat Illinois on the 11th. Then he saved his best in playing a huge role to seal a Big Ten title for Michigan State as they beat four conference foes in a row (all ranked in the top 20 nationally) to close out the regular season and help the Spartans hang another banner. Watts put 21 points up on Iowa, then 13 on Maryland, 18 on Penn State, and finally 19 (to go along with five assists) on Ohio State. There is no downplaying the brilliance of Winston, Tillman and even Aaron Henry (as a second-year player) but without Watts going off at the end of last season, Michigan State doesn’t win its third straight Big Ten title.
  • Late November 2020, early December 2020 — Rocket strings together four double-digit scoring games in succession, including two consecutive 20-point games (against Duke and Detroit Mercy).
  • Feb. 23, 2021 and March 7, 2021 — Watts puts up 15 vs. Illinois in February and then had a game for the ages by torching Michigan for 21 points in March. Both ballgames were tight. If Watts hadn’t been outstanding in both games, the Spartans wouldn’t have clinched a birth to their 23rd straight NCAA tournament.

Yes, he performed poorly in stretches but he also helped the Spartans achieve multiple milestones. It’s a shame that it didn’t work out but now, he’s on his way to a new planet.

Projected starting 5 after Tyson Walker pledge. dark. Next