MSU’s Izzo puts focus on education, team

Ty Lawson, Blake Griffin, Hasheem Thabeet and James Harden all won the player of the year awards in their respective college basketball conferences last season. Then they all chose to forgo the remainder of their collegiate careers and enter for the NBA draft.

Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas is different.

After winning the Big Ten Player of the Year award last season, the junior guard decided to stick with the Spartans. Maybe it’s because his lack of size would have pushed him into being a late second-round prospect. Or perhaps it’s because of Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s philosophy.

Izzo pushes all of his players to grow to the next level, but at the same time he stresses the importance of being a student and learning the concept of a team before becoming a professional athlete.

“I don’t want anybody that doesn’t want to be in the NBA,” Izzo said. “I really don’t. I think every recruit should have a goal of going to the NBA. If not, he’s not thinking very good. Now, how he manages that is where I come in. If he thinks he’s (an NBA player), we’re in trouble. If he wants to be one, we’re in good shape.”

Although it’s inevitable in college basketball nowadays to have one-and-done players, the four-time national coach of the year added that he doesn’t want to make the idea of producing one- or two-year stars an “obsessive goal.”

Lucas is the perfect example of the player Izzo’s philosophy tries to form.

“You can’t even think about the NBA right now,” Lucas said. “You think about the NBA, and you’re not going to have a good season. You might put too much pressure on yourself. I’m not even thinking about that. I’m just trying to think about our team, and how we’re going to grind this year.”

In addition to the rematch against defending national champions North Carolina on Dec. 1, Lucas is looking forward to being a team player by “showing the younger guys the way.” The Detroit native doesn’t appear to stand alone in his career approach either. In fact, the entire all-Big Ten preseason team this year is composed of juniors who have NBA aspirations — Lucas, Michigan’s Manny Harris, Ohio State’s Evan Turner, Penn State’s Talor Battle and Purdue’s Robbie Hummel. Izzo believes any one of the five could have been in Lucas’ spot at the end of last season.

“Could Evan Turner have been MVP? Yeah. Could Manny Harris have been MVP? Yeah. It’s whether their teams played well, and that’s the way it is,” Izzo said.

Harris’ coach, John Beilein, agrees with Izzo that teaching players to juggle academics will keep players from disturbances once they are in the NBA.

“If our guys go to the NBA, we want them to have careers in the NBA,” Beilein said. “If they are going to have careers in the NBA, there are a lot of things that you need to be able to do … all of the things off the court. Handling your personal business is a big thing.”

As someone who helped produce 12 NBA draft picks in his career, including six who went in the first round, Izzo would rather get all of the NBA talk with Lucas out of the way now in order to prevent any distractions once the regular season begins next week. He emphasized Lucas must direct more of his attention to his teammates.

“If he can improve even more to make some of those guys who aren’t as good make a layup, he can be a leader. If he does that, he goes from good to great.”

But as a coach who has been with the Spartans for 15 years, Izzo keeps things in perspective, even if he doesn’t choose to share them with his players.

“I never shun away from that,” Izzo said of NBA thoughts. “I think we put our heads in the sand if we do. If you think Kalin Lucas doesn’t think about the NBA or Manny Harris doesn’t think about the NBA, you have to be an idiot.”