Photo: Mateen Cleaves honoring Cassius Winston
Now that Cassius Winston is Michigan State’s career assist leader, let’s consider his legacy, even though half of the season remains. Especially when compared to the point guards ranked ahead of him in the recruiting Class of 2016.
Winston passed Mateen Cleaves with his fourth assist for 817 and counting in Friday’s win over Wisconsin. Cleaves’ 816 stood 20 seasons, and he was at the Breslin Center to congratulate Winston. The mark also is the Big Ten record.
The Spartans' senior point guard from U of D Jesuit High also remains in position to tie Cleaves with two Final Four appearances and a national title if he can carry the Spartans on his shoulders as Cleaves did in the 1999 Final Four trip and 2000 NCAA title.
Let that exulted position in Michigan State annals sink in for a moment.
Now, let’s back up and consider how many highly touted point guards Winston has passed in career achievements from the Class of 2016 four seasons later.
Rivals.com ranked Winston a 4-star recruit as the No. 29 overall player and fifth among point guards. He was a 6-foot, 175-pounder in high school (he’s now listed 6-1, 185 as a fourth-year senior). The other four ranked above him we’re all NBA-sized 6-3 or taller. They were 5-stars and McDonald’s All-American picks.
Yes, I understand Lonzo Ball (No. 4 overall player/No. 1 PG), UCLA; De’Aaron Fox (6/2), North Carolina; Frank Jackson (12/3), Duke; and Kobi Simmons (23/4), Arizona we’re all one-and-done NBA players (Ball and Fox went in the first round, Jackson in the second and Simmons was undrafted).
But I’m talking about a personal career legacy a player has established at his school, and the trickle down he leaves behind to his alma mater’s recruiting shine.
Years from now Winston may be sitting in the stands waiting to watch a Spartan break his career assist record as Cleaves was at Breslin. He might even have grey in his beard liked Cleaves in the television shots of him. Nothing wrong with aging, but it sure makes me feel old when I think back to having watched Cleaves while he was still a kid leading the Spartans.
Winston has built a legacy more secure than the four ranked ahead of him. Make it five if we count Markelle Fultz, who was ranked the No. 5 player overall and No. 2 shooting guard in high school but was drafted out of Washington as a one-and-done point guard.
--- Ball was supposed to be the next Magic Johnson. Pfft! You know how many “next Magic Johnson” recruits there are that never panned out? Ball didn’t deliver UCLA anything but headaches from dealing with his megalomaniac father, LaVar Ball.
Do you think Ball will be welcomed back to campus the way Cleaves was Friday and Winston will be in the future? UCLA only finished third in the Pac-12 standings, although the Bruins did make it to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. In the NBA, he’s already been traded once after he failed to lift the Los Angeles Lakers to the playoffs. Now he's in the shadow of rookie Zion Williamson with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Do you think Ball will be welcomed back to UCLA?
--- Fox was supposed to be the next John Wall due to his quickness and, like Wall, as a Kentucky recruit. I’ve interviewed both, and when it comes to class and team leadership, Fox should be insulted by any comparisons to Wall.
Even though Fox was ranked behind Ball and drafted after him --– Ball, second, Lakers; Fox, fifth, Sacramento Kings – Fox schooled Ball when Kentucky beat UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen. Fox scored 39 points with four assists and one turnover to Ball’s 10 points, eight assists and four turnovers.
--- Jackson didn’t turn out to be the point guard Duke has been searching for since one-and-done Tyus Jones led the Blue Devils to the 2015 NCAA title. Duke was the preseason No. 1-ranked team with Jackson among a class of one-and-dones that included Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles along with upperclassmen draft picks Grayson Allen (2018) and Luke Kennard (2017). Allen, a shooting guard, often had to play out of position as the Blue Devils finished second in the ACC and were eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Jackson, a second-round pick, comes off the bench for limited minutes for the Pelicans after spending last year in the NBA G-League.
--- Simmons declared as a one-and-done but went undrafted. The Memphis Grizzlies played him in 32 games and waived him after the season. Other than one game with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2018-19 on a two-way contract, he has spent the rest the time in the NBA G-League playing in such glamour cities as the Canton, Ohio, and Greensboro, N.C.
--- As for Fultz, he was the top pick of the 2017 NBA draft. He was supposed to be part of a dynamic 1-2 guard punch with Ben Simmons (another player embarrassingly considered another Magic Johnson), but he has been one of the bigger NBA busts in recent seasons as a point guard, a shooting guard or a bench player. He played in only 36 NBA games his first three seasons (out of 246). He’s enjoying a bit of slight resurgence this season with the Orlando Magic starting 36 of 41 games and averaging 11.7 points a game.
It's still hard to say how Winston's NBA career will turn out, but only Fox hasn't been a disappointment at the next level.
The Spartans have 13 regular-season games and the post-season remaining for Winston to put his record probably out of reach for future Spartans and Big Ten players. It will take a player with that middle ground of talent to contribute starting as freshman year yet the lack of NBA draft projections to leave before his senior year.
Even Magic Johnson, who had 491 assists in two years, with his pace of 245 a year would have totaled only 636 if he had returned for a third season.
The hypothetical record-breaker, like Winston, will have to be level-headed enough to also recognize he wasn’t ready for the NBA after his junior year despite a Final Four trip and All-American honors.
Now, let's Imagine the scene at the Breslin Center on senior night when it’s time for Winston to take his turn kissing the Spartan logo pained on at center court.
Better yet, imagine the scene of Michigan State Top 10 career assists leaders if they were on hand to honor Winston. Here are their totals with all but some guy named Earvin Johnson having played four seasons: 2. Cleaves, 816; 3. Scott Skiles, 645; 4. Denzel Valentine, 639; 5. Eric Snow, 599; 6. Drew Neitzel, 582; 7. Mark Montgomery, 561; 8. Kalin Lucas, 558; 9. Travis Walton, 555; and 10. Johnson, 491.
No wonder Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has said Winston was the best passer he’s seen in high school since Magic.
* * *
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055
Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.
Don’t believe the myths at Duffy Daugherty’s expense about Bear Bryant’s motivation to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game or myths about the Charlie Thornhill-for-Joe Namath trade. Bear Bryant knew nothing about black talent in the South while he dragged his feet on segregation.
David Maraniss, Pulitzer Prize winner and biographer; "History writes people out of the story. It's our job to write them back in.”