LANSING - Russell Byrd made a few more strides in what is turning out to be a feel-good summer for him, during Sunday action in the Moneyball Pro-Am Basketball League.
Byrd scored 34 points in helping Team Black to victory in the final regular season game of the Moneyball League season. Team Black will be the No. 1 seed in next weekend's four-team playoffs.
More importantly, Byrd ran, jumped and shot without pain, and with encouraging levels of success.
Byrd, who missed the 2009-2010 season with a foot injury and then continued to be hampered by severe soreness last season, shot an energetic 15-of-29 from the field in loose, free-wheeling action on Sunday. He ran the floor hard in spurts and looked to create offense for himself and his team during a 117-103 victory over Derrick Nix and Team Light Blue, before a crowd of more than 300 at Pattengill Middle School.
"It felt good," Byrd said. "Where I'm at now, obviously I'm getting a lot better with my body. But I get about three good days and then I have to take a break for two or three days, and then my foot and my ankle starts to hurt. So this is all about being smart and continuing to pre-hab and taking care of my body.
"A year and a half is a long time, much longer than we expected. It's just part of the process. It will continue to improve as time goes on."
His body looked in good shape during a runout in the first half which ended with a soaring, one-handed, tomahawk jam, near Nix's air space. The dunk drew hoots and smiles from the crowd, and even a few arm-waving bird motions from young fans.
Byrd punctuated the dunk with a mock stare-down of Nix after the flush.
"That's one of my best friends, Nix," Byrd said. "Me and him, we chill all the time. So it wasn't nothing but a little fun love.
"But I knew he wasn't going to go up with me."
The Moneyball League is sometimes a defense-optional type of league. There are few whistles, little contact, limited team defense, hence the big scores and high volume of shot attempts.
It makes for a good run for a guy like Byrd - who needs shots and hasn't played much organized basketball in the last two years, and Nix - who is working successfully to get down near 270 pounds.
Nix scored 23 points on 11-of-14 shooting. The undersized Team Black squad was playing without incoming freshman center Matt Costello. Nix found little resistance in the post, although Team Black met him with double-teams and tried to body him the best they could, with a lineup that included no one over 6-foot-5. Former Spartan Kelvin Torbert, a rotund 6-foot-4, even took a few turns guarding big Nix.
Nix found success with a pretty good right-handed jump hook.
Nix and Byrd left the gym soon after the game ended at 6:30 p.m. for an 8 p.m. MSU practice at Breslin. MSU coaches put the Spartans through two practices a week, each for one hour, per NCAA rule limitations.
"I'll be in the cold tub for a few minutes, getting ready for our practice," Byrd said.
Byrd said he didn't consider canceling his date with Team Black in the Moneyball League after MSU's single-hour practice was scheduled.
"This is only going to help my body, getting out here and playing," Byrd said. "And it only helps Nix, too."
Byrd was 3-of-11 from beyond the NBA-length 3-point line on Sunday.
"The shot feels great," Byrd said. "I didn't make many jumpers but I ain't going to stop shooting, and it'll be there."
Tom Izzo, who is unable to attend Moneyball League games, says Byrd has been shooting well in MSU's bi-weekly practices.
"He is shooting the ball like the guy we recruited," Izzo said during an interview for the August issue of SPARTAN Magazine. "He has finally been close to healthy. He is not 100 percent, but he is 90 percent back or 95 percent. Keith Appling says it's been a thrill to throw it to somebody who is making shots."
Byrd, of Fort Wayne Ind., averaged 1.5 points and 5.5 minutes per game. He shot 27 percent from 3-point range (9 of 33).
"Everybody has forgotten about him, but Russell shooting well," Izzo said. "He is getting his athleticism back, because he was a pretty good athlete."
The 6-foot-7 Byrd carries pretty good bulk and leaping ability to the court. He played a few minutes at the four last year, and Izzo plans to continue to use him at both forward positions.
"I think he can play the three," Izzo said. "When we recruited him he was a pretty good athlete. The three foot surgeries dampened that a lot, but I think he is getting back to being an adequate defender on the perimeter, and he is getting to where he can play some four. So we could go Byrd or B.J. (Branden Dawson) at the four; one that can shoot it and one that could be a physical post-up rebounder."
As for Nix, Izzo has been pleased with the physical condition of the Detroit junior.
"Shape-wise he is pretty good," Izzo said. "He is down into the low 270s; we are heading for the 260s by August. I'd like to see him play at 265 and level off right there. He has five or six pounds to go. But he has done a good job. His conditioning is better, his shot is better, his free throw shooting is better. He has always been a pretty good passer."
Torbert scored 14 for Team Black. He doesn't leap like he used to, but he managed to get up for a two-handed cram in the second half ... Byrd's 34 points didn't stand alone as the game-high in scoring. Former University of Toledo standout combo guard Justin Ingram had 34 for Team Light Blue. ... Former Oakland University mismatch power forward Derrick Nelson scored 32 for Byrd's team. Nelson played professionally in Finland for a year but retired from pro basketball last year ... Former Oakland University standout Johnathon Jones, who plays professionally in Slovakia, had 15 for Byrd's team. ... Byrd's Team Black squad finished the regular season in first place of the Moneyball League and will be the No. 1 seed for next weekend's playoffs, which will be played at 4:15 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, with the championship game at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. ... As for other Spartans in the Moneyball League, Gary Harris, Matt Costello, Keith Appling and Kenny Kaminski participate occasionally. Adreian Payne and Denzel Valentine play a little more frequently.
COMP'S TAKE: Give Byrd credit for showing up and putting forth good effort and getting some shots up in this game. He is coming along, no question about it. But please don't equate a 34-point output in the Moneyball League with a double-figure performance in a Big Ten game.
Byrd's shot behaved well on the rim. He had nice lift and rotation. His off-the-dribble game is coming back to life. Most importantly, his leaping ability jacked back up again. Physically, he is gaining steam.
As for his lateral movement and man-to-man defensive ability, we didn't get a real good look at those aspects of his game on Sunday. His on-ball defense wasn't severely tested, as the players he was covering (former Grand Valley State power forward Melvin White and current Lansing Community College forward Montel Smith), were usually willing to launch jumpers rather than try to drive against Byrd.
Michigan State needs a player or two to emerge as perimeter shooters this season. Byrd is making progress toward gaining a strong look for such a role. But 34 points in Moneyball, in all due respect to the league, doesn't bring an equal exchange rate to Big Ten play. I don't want Michigan State fans to get carried away with these statistics and over-value this performance. It was merely a good Sunday night run for a guy who hasn't done much running in the last couple of years.
The takeaway here is that Byrd is feeling good, getting up and down the court, enthusiastic about getting up 29 shots in a Pro-Am League on a day in which he also had to bust his gut over in East Lansing for an Izzo practice. This sophomore gym rat is back in his natural habitat. He knows he still has a lot of work to do on the consistency of his shot, and his lateral movement for defense.