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Building the dream Michigan State basketball pickup team with Izzo players

Line up with these four guys and you’re not losing a pickup game.

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Michigan State basketball
© Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re picked to select your dream Michigan State basketball pickup team with Tom Izzo-coached players, who do you pick?

For the last 15 months, I’ve played pickup basketball once a week. I knew it would be a great form of exercise and a way to meet new people. What I didn’t know was how much I would enjoy keeping score and playing to win. We’re all friends and immediately after we’re done playing, it’s normal chatter about work, sports, the weather, etc.

But during that race to 21 points, winning matters.

If you’ve ever played pickup basketball before, you already know this. Because if you don’t win, you don’t play. You’re left standing on the sideline waiting for the next game to finish. If you’re like me, and you play with the same group of guys on a normal basis, you usually know how the game is going to play out before it even starts. You get to know everyone’s game really well.

It got me thinking about building the perfect pick-up basketball team with guys that I would love to play with. Because I’m a lifelong Michigan State basketball fan, and I’ve watched the Spartans more closely than any other team, I figured that would be a good pool of players to choose from.

So, before we get to this list, there are a couple things to keep in mind.

First, since this is my dream team, I’m playing with the four guys mentioned below. There is absolutely nothing special about my game. I am your prototypical 6-foot, 170-pound white guy who can shoot. If I have a smaller defender on me, I can drive and finish. I’ll grab the occasional long rebound and give average effort on defense. But make no mistake, I am not a difference-maker out there.

Second, in the words of Herb Brooks from the movie Miracle, “We’re not playing for a national championship, Craig.” I say this for anyone that doesn’t play pickup basketball. It doesn’t look like the NBA. It doesn’t look like Big Ten basketball. It doesn’t even resemble high school basketball. It’s a complete mess that is filled with terrible shot selections, endless fouling, random stoppages to count the score, and most importantly, out of shape guys playing hard one out of every three possessions. Keep these things in mind as we go through the roster.

Let’s get to my teammates.

Tim Bograkos, Guard, 2002-05

I feel like the guy in the Capital One commercial that has the line, “The easiest decision in the history of decisions” as the young girl selects Charles Barkley for her pickup team. Except I’m not taking Chuck, I’m taking Tim Bograkos.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Out of all the guards to play for Tom Izzo, how could you possibly want Bograkos? Because, once again, we’re playing to keep the court at the local health club. We’re not playing the 76ers or North Carolina. Bograkos is the ultimate pickup basketball teammate. He’s going to do all the little things that I don’t want to do for our team. He’s going to give max effort on defense. He’s going to go for steals. He’s going to box out and go for rebounds. He’s going to dive on the floor, fight through screens, and just be an absolute pest for our opponents. Tim is the ultimate guy you want on your team that you hope you never have to play against.

Best of all? There’s not a lot of offense to Tim’s game. We all know the guy that thinks he can finish like Kyrie Irving at the rim or shoot it like Damian Lillard from three. Not a concern with Tim. He might not shoot even if he’s open. His offensive production is going to come on offensive rebounds and hustle in transition.

Tim was my inspiration for this piece. Watching him during his time with Michigan State basketball, I could never understand how he earned minutes. Now that I’m older, and wiser, with more basketball experience, I can’t imagine a dream team at the health club without Tim Bograkos.

Nick Ward, Forward, 2017-19

There’s nothing quite as reassuring as playing with a dominant big man in pickup basketball. For starters, there’s no awkward looking around at your own teammates while you all silently wonder “who is going to play down low and grab rebounds?” That guy already knows it’s his job.

Second, it’s like a possession of rest for everyone else when you can just feed the big guy and let him back someone down for a basket.

Nick Ward checks both of these boxes. He relished in his role as a low block big man at Michigan State. Even as a true freshman, Ward was Michigan State’s best offensive option in 2017.

Did you know that, as a sophomore, Ward shot a whopping 64.7 percent from the field? It’s easy to forget now, but before MSU’s Final Four run in 2019, it was a hand injury to Ward that had many thinking MSU’s season was ruined. We all know it was a blessing in disguise because it unlocked the Cassius Winston/Xavier Tillman pick and roll game. But the point remains that Ward’s offense was so good, that people didn’t think MSU could survive without it.

His most team-friendly characteristic is tied to that shooting percentage from 2018. You won’t catch him trying to masquerade as someone he is not. We all know that big man that wants to play on the perimeter and shoot threes and act like Nikola Jokic. Not Ward. He attempted a grand total of three shots from 3-point range in his three seasons with Michigan State basketball.

Quick side note: he made all three. One hundred percent from three-point range for his career.

Anyways, Ward is going to park his behind on the block and be content.

Aside from his offensive game, I always thought he played hard and was a better rebounder than he got credit for. In fact, in that 2018 season, Ward led the nation in offensive rebounding percentage. At 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, he’ll be impossible to move on either end of the floor. He’ll be dynamite at setting screens and has great hands around the rim.

Denzel Valentine, Guard/Forward, 2013-16

Admittedly, our team is a little light of offensive talent at the guard spot. Time to change that.

At 6-foot-5, Denzel Valentine is a little bigger than your typical college guard, but he really grew into the point guard role as a senior. It’s a shame that Michigan State’s 2016 season ended so abruptly with the loss to Middle Tennessee because that team was really special.

Izzo has built his program on defense and rebounding. The 2016 team was an offensive juggernaut. They finished the season second in the nation in offensive efficiency according to KenPom. That is the highest offensive rating of the Izzo era. The Spartans led the nation in 3-point shooting percentage and assist to made field goal percentage. Valentine’s shooting (44 percent from three) and decision-making with the ball undoubtedly played a massive role in these numbers.

On the court for our team, I’d expect more of the same. He’s big enough to get where he wants to go in the paint, and has the vision to find cutters and open shooters. My one concern is that he does have a tendency to take over a game with a lot of shots for himself. But for our team, I actually think this will become a positive. When it’s late in the game and we need a bucket, we’ll go to Valentine.

Everyone has played with that guy that is just better than everyone else and knows it. He tends to take over when it gets tight. But perhaps Valentine’s best quality is his ability to raise the level of play for those around him. His last two seasons at MSU featured some of the least talented rosters that Izzo has ever had. Valentine (along with Travis Trice) dragged that 2015 team to the Final Four with the likes of Matt Costello, Branden Dawson, Gavin Schilling, and Bryn Forbes. The following season, with almost the same roster (minus Dawson and Trice), he was the catalyst for the best offensive team in Izzo’s tenure.

I’m confident Valentine can run our offense and (most importantly) find me open looks from three. That’s all I can contribute to our team. He did a tremendous job with it when he had Forbes, Eron Harris, and Matt McQuaid. Why can’t he do it with me?

Raymar Morgan, Forward, 2007-2010

I had a very tough time selecting the last player for our team. I ultimately went with Raymar Morgan over some other guys because of his versatility.

At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds, he’s a mismatch with his length and quickness. What I was ultimately looking for with this last spot was a physical presence. Someone that our opponents fear. Robbie Hummel has said numerous times on air that Morgan had “the sharpest elbows” of anyone he ever played against. I want people to be in fear of those swinging elbows when they think about crashing the boards or taking it to the cup.

Morgan was whistled for 373 fouls during his time with Michigan State basketball. That ranks third in program history. Best part of pickup basketball? Call your own fouls. Raymar can reach in, go over the back, set moving screens, and lower his shoulder all he wants because most of the time it’s not getting called. And if it does? That’s fine. Check it up top. Nobody is shooting free throws.

Because of his athletic ability, he’ll be all over the court. He can stick with a guard. He’s tall enough to guard in the post. He’ll bring that junkyard dog mentality that, let’s just face it, I don’t have. Morgan will be our match for the stereotypical ex-football player that always finds his way onto the basketball court.

On offense, he has a good mid-range game that we’re currently missing. He’s also got the length, athleticism, and physical nature to be a menace on the glass. Morgan is fifth all time in Michigan State basketball history in offensive rebounds. We’ll need that when I throw up a couple bricks from three after Denzel dishes me a perfect pass in the corner.

Just missed the cut: I had a lot of fun building this team. Here are a couple players that just missed and why they were under consideration.

  • Aloysius Anagonye: 398 career fouls. Huge presence down low. Nobody would come into the paint while he’s there.
  • Drew Neitzel: Knockdown 3-point shooter. Drew can probably walk into any gym right now and hit seven threes and win the game on his own.
  • Andre Hudson: A more skilled version of Borgrakos that does all of the dirty work in the post. Probably my most glaring omission.
  • Branden Dawson: Potential for highlight reel dunks and alley-oops. Tremendous on the offensive boards.

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