EAST LANSING, Mich.–They’ve only practiced 11 or so times, but Michigan State freshmen Kyle Ahrens, Deyonta Davis, Matt McQuaid and walk-on Conner George each looked relatively comfortable during Wednesday’s media-invite workout session at the Breslin Center.
Starting this weekend, they will each have another opportunity to learn more about the next level during a trip to Italy, where they’ll play about four games versus all-star competition before returning stateside Sept. 1.
Spartans coach Tom Izzo has spent some time with each new guy, discussing the ins and the outs of the game plans and such; however, based on what was witnessed Wednesday, it’d appear that former player/graduate assistant Austin Thornton has evolved into some sort of freshman specialist.
But he’s quickly becoming more than that, say the players. He’s a coach, yes, but he’s also a mentor and a friend.
“He’s honestly kind of like my older brother, telling me what I need to do, where I need to be,” said Ahrens, a 6’6,” 200-pound-plus shooting guard out of Versailles, Ohio. “If I’m not in the exact spot, he’s going to tell me where I need to be, and where everyone else needs to be. He’s doing a really great job for us.”
Back in 2012, Thornton was a finishing a “really great job” for Michigan State, where he survived a five-year gauntlet presented by Izzo. A (former) 6’5″, 205-pound shooting guard, Thornton has a lot to offer in terms of direction and connection.
While in college, he was praised for his maturity, leadership, toughness and dedication. And today, he’s more than happy to share his experiences with the newcomers.
“Yeah, you know it’s been three years since I’ve been removed and I have been through what these guys are going through,” he said while standing underneath the north basket as Davis and McQuaid knocked down shots.
“Now, the rules are a little bit different–when I was here, we didn’t practice in the summer–but I tell you what: For a summer time, not having a lot of time to run with the young fellas, these young freshmen–between Matt, DD and Kyle–they pick things up really fast and really quickly. Conner’s done a hell of a job as well. It’s a fun role.”
Once Ahrens’ left leg completely mends, he’ll be golden. Once McQuaid adds some mass up top and eases into the mix, college ball will seem much simpler. Thornton believes in them. He’s also confident in George, a preferred walk-on from Okemos who passed up DII scholarships so he could “wear green” in East Lansing.
They’re each promising in their own way, but Thornton perked up a little more when talking about Davis–who is just about “there” in every sense of the word. And for the record, the comparisons to Adreian Payne are real.
“Absolutely–and actually, what DD has right now, he has size…already…in terms of strength and weight,” Thornton said. “AP came in at about, I want to say, probably 215 or 220. DD’s already about 235, 240. So he’s already got the weight there.
It’ll be interesting to see how he responds to the college game. There’s always that transition, the intensity of practice, the intensity of games. But he’s picking things up quickly, really fast and he’s doing a heck of a job. It’s fun to see him continue to gain confidence.”
By the looks of things, the 6’8″ former Muskegon star has a bright future with Izzo. He’s an inch shorter than Payne was back in 2010, but he’s more physically developed.
During Wednesday’s practice, he rebounded well and showed off some of his inside prowess with a few shots. He’s tough in the paint, but he was bumped around some by Matt Costello, a 6’9″, 240-pound senior.
Of course, Davis returned the favor. Bodying it up in the Big Ten comes with time, and he just arrived this past summer.
Meanwhile, there are certainly noticeable shades of “AP” in Davis; he doesn’t mind the comparisons, but he wants to carve his own niche at Michigan State.
“I mean, either way I’m going to be the best that I can be,” he said. “I try to compare my game to him sometimes. He’s just a good player. I want to be like him sometimes.”
The trip to Italy will only help him further adapt to the higher level of play and fit into his future mold. It’ll also be his first trip out of the country.
“It’s going to be a great experience,” he said. “I’m just going to try to live it up. Hopefully next year we go somewhere like that.”
Like Ahrens and Davis, McQuaid is eager to fly over the Atlantic, see a few sites, eat wonderful food and run the floor with some of the best Europeans available.
The past 11 practices have made a strong impression on the 6’5,’ 175-pounder out of Duncanville, Texas. And because of them, he feels well prepared for the trip. With that said, he knows that he has to do everything to the best of his ability–and then better that effort the next day.
And then he has to repeat that the following day. He has an edge, though, just like the other freshmen–and that’s their ‘Izzo 101’ tutor who’s straightening the learning curve one meeting at a time.
“Austin, he’s really helped me out a lot,” said McQuaid. “He’s really kind of taken me under his wing. When we’re running plays, he’ll help me out. I’m new to this and everything’s moving so fast. He knows everything there is to know about all the plays, and he’s just a really good guy who helps out.
“We’re staying after and going over plays. I’m starting to get ‘it’ a little better with him.”
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