Nick Ward had options when it came to choosing where to play college basketball. Plenty of big-time programs were recruiting him, including Ohio State. Ward is a Columbus guy, and the Ohio State campus was maybe a 10-minute drive from his family’s home.
Proximity alone wasn’t going to be the deciding factor for Ward. He sat down on numerous occasions with his parents, Jeff and Stephanie, and discussed the pros and cons of the different schools that were his favorites.
“It wasn’t one of those decisions that we took lightly,” Stephanie Ward said.
Ward chose Michigan State.
Jeff, Stephanie and a whole lot more of Ward’s family and friends get their first chance to take that short drive to Ohio State to watch him play in his hometown on Sunday when Michigan State (12-6, 4-1 Big Ten) faces the Buckeyes (10-7. 0-4) at Value City Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
“We have a humongous crowd coming,” Stephanie Ward said. “My husband has a lot of sisters and brothers who have children. On my side, my brother and my sister and his pa pa. Everyone is really proud of him, so they just want to support him while he’s in town.”
Watch: Michigan State associate head coach Dwayne Stephens previews Spartans’ game at Ohio State:
Surprise choice? Not really
Nick Ward was the first of this season’s freshmen class to commit to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. No other freshman class had come to East Lansing with more hype and anticipation than this one. Miles Bridges and Joshua Langford were McDonald’s All-Americans, while Cassius Winston had been named Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan his senior season. Ward’s accolades weren’t as gaudy.
Maybe that’s why people have been so surprised at what Ward has done this season, averaging 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, blocking 41 shots and having won Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors three times.
It’s not a surprise to anyone who knew Ward at Gahanna Lincoln High School.
“Nick has always been a confident player. I mean, he was on the varsity as a freshman,” Gahanna Lincoln coach Tony Staib said. “Nick could go up against LeBron James and basically say, ‘yeah, I could beat him 20-to-nothing.’ He’s always been a confident kid. One he learned the Michigan State system, he had the skill and the confidence to play at that level. He excels at that.”
Winston chuckles an affirmative, you-ain’t-kidding laugh when you mention Ward’s name and confidence in the same sentence. The two are roommates.
“That’s part of his game,” Winston said. “You name it, whatever you’re doing, he’ll think he’s the best at. You might be playing a video game, you might be playing cards. Whatever it is, he’ll think he’s the best player at it. Confidence is a big part of his game. He’s very talented, but his confidence and his belief in himself takes him over that hump.”
Call it the dawg
Michigan State trailed Minnesota by 14 points, 54-40, with 11 minutes, 21 seconds left in the second half of the Big Ten opener on Dec. 27. Ward scored 12 points, grabbed three rebounds and blocked a shot in that final 11:21 to help the Spartans rally in regulation and send the game to overtime, where they won 75-74.
If Ward had been better from the free throw line, where he made just four of 13 attempts, the Spartans would have won in regulation. Regardless, Ward was the best player on the court for that 11:21. He knew it, and played like it.
“I always told Nick that he doesn’t know how good he’s going to be,” said Jeff Ward, who is still the all-time leader in scoring (2,532), rebounding (1,212) and blocked shots (226) at Tiffin University in Ohio, and who played professionally overseas. “He has something that I didn’t have. We call it the dawg.
“He has that dawg in him, and that aggressiveness. He’s really determined. When he sets his mind to do something, he makes sure he gets that accomplished. That’s one thing he’s always been good at, especially in big games. It brings out the best in him and he has that drive. He really wants to be great.”
Ward has taken to Michigan State coaching on and off the court. Strength and conditioning coach Todd Moyer has helped Ward re-shape his body, including losing more than 25 pounds since arriving on campus last summer. Ward has also learned to listen to Izzo and the rest of the staff.
“My attitude,” Ward said about his biggest improvement. “Before, when things didn’t go my way, I’d shut down. But I’m not like that no more. I think that came with maturity. I just had to mature and see things in a different way.”
Taking advantage of an opportunity
Izzo wasn’t expecting Ward to play a lot this season, but preseason knee injuries to graduate transfer Ben Carter and senior Gavin Schilling forced a new timetable. Ward played no more than 18 minutes in any of the first six games of the season, but in the last 12 games he’s played 20 or more minutes eight times, including starting the last six games.
“He was pretty lazy at the beginning of the season,” associate head coach Dwayne Stephens said. “He still has his moments where he still takes plays off, but the biggest thing is he’s running the floor well. He’s posting hard. He’s playing with a little more energy and he’s been pretty good on the ball screens. That was one of the things he really needed to improve at, and I think he’s done that.”
He played just 13 minutes in Wednesday’s return matchup against Minnesota, a 65-47 victory at the Breslin Center, because of foul trouble. Ward eventually fouled out, scoring nine points and grabbing eight rebounds in his limited action. That snapped a streak of 11 straight games in which he scored in double figures.
It was another learning experience for Ward, Izzo’s most pleasant surprise who probably shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
“My mom and dad told me not to back down from any challenge,” Ward said. “I’ve been like that my whole life.”