On the night Cassius Winston became the Big Ten's all-time assists leader, Michigan State got a peak into the possible future of the position. And it looks very different. Whereas Winston the magician is unequaled at creating opportunities for others, freshman Rocket Watts is capable of creating his own shot, any time and any place.
Watts put up 11 points in a 2:49 second-half stretch as the Spartans pulled away from Wisconsin Friday night and coasted to a 67-55 win to maintain sole possession of first place in the conference.
On three consecutive possessions, Watts knocked down a step-back triple, sent Brad Davison sprawling to the floor after going backdoor for a layup, and crossed over for another isolation three-pointer. He'd add a third from distance, this time at the expense of D'Mitrik Trice as a dagger.
His first step, already elite, was on full display. Tom Izzo said Watts is as skilled at creating his own shot as any player he's ever coached.
"Best jab step in the country," Gabe Brown proclaimed. Aaron Henry agreed. There was disagreement, though, on who -- if anyone -- had been worked by it in practice. Or was willing to admit it.
"It just creates so much space," Xavier Tillman said. "And if you don't bite on it, he's going to rip through and go to the rim."
"He earned that," Winston said. "He went through some struggles. The guy scored the ball a lot in high school, hasn't done so well, so when he hit two you knew the next one was going."
Watts' first year in East Lansing has been challenging. Thrust into a starting role early due to injuries, he's struggled to find his shot. After a 1-for-7 shooting performance against Duke, his accuracy was floundering at 27 percent. He's found his stroke over the last six contests, going 19-for-37 to raise that number to 36 percent.
The uptick can partly be attributed to getting healthy. Watts was sidelined with a leg injury and was unable to practice for a stretch in December. More reps have brought more consistency.
"It was only a matter of time," Winston said. "He's a scorer and that's what he does."
"I was just letting the game come to me, " Watts said. "I wasn't trying to force anything and was just trying to do more things to help my team win. When I started hitting some shots, I started getting hot a little bit, so I just kept shooting with confidence and it kept going in."
His explosiveness has been evident in back-to-back double-figure games. It could prove to be an invaluable weapon for the Spartans if they realize lofty preseason expectations. That they were able to cruise against a quality opponent while the record-breaking Winston struggled (3-for-12, a season-low six points, and five turnovers) is both encouraging and tantalizing.
Watts' ability to be that spark-plug, especially when Brown and Henry have complete games, takes some of the heavy burden off the shoulders of Winston and Tillman. And when he's in the zone, everyone knows it. It's palpable. The heat-check is coming.
"No matter what, If he gets two, expect the third one one to go up," Tillman said.
"The whole gym expects it," Henry added.
Watts did airball his fourth attempt in a late-shot clock situation. His fifth try also missed the mark. Even in standout games, there are reminders he's still getting acclimated to this level, a process he said has humbled him.
But the potential is there and feels special when realized. Watts has been working in more at point guard recently and could find himself as the starter there next year. His special three-minute stretch makes one wonder what he'll look as a finished product and if, eventually, the only person who can stop him is himself.