Spartans' Nix slims down, bulks up productivity
Michigan State's Derrick Nix nearly ate and drank himself out of college basketball.
"It was close," Nix said. "I almost fell off the edge."
He's a big guy with a big grin, and he can smile about it these days.
But Nix, a junior center listed at 6 feet 9, weighed more than 320 pounds at one point during his MSU career. He took part during the offseason in what amounted to a daily "boot camp" workout, and he's a new man because of it.
At a comparably slim 270 pounds, Nix is the Spartans' "Biggest Loser" and part of why they're winning big — 15 straight victories entering Saturday's game at Northwestern.
"I'm feeling good," said Nix, who was Michigan's Mr. Basketball in 2009 while leading Detroit Pershing High to the state Class A title. "Everything's falling into place for me.
"It just comes with maturing as a person. When you mature as a person and you see stuff from a coach's point of view, you learn more. You take it more serious."
A little over a year ago, it appeared this wasn't going to work out for Nix at Michigan State. He had gotten himself into better shape at one point but couldn't maintain it. Amid rumors that he might leave the program, Nix didn't join the Spartans on a trip to Hawaii to play in the Maui Invitational. That was in November 2010.
He returned to the team the next week, but averaged only 2.7 points and 2 rebounds while playing about eight minutes a game for the season.
Nix needed to do some soul-searching. He could overcome his conditioning issues in high school because he was so much bigger and stronger than the competition. It's not so easy in college.
His career had reached the fork in the road, and he had to put down the fork.
"I love to eat," Nix said. "That's one of my favorite things to do. Now it's about eating the right foods and knowing what time to eat.
"I'm not saying I eat salad every day. I might pick one day where I have a hamburger or a few slices of pizza. But it's not an everyday thing."
The body transformation has made all the difference for him on the basketball court. Nix possesses standout athletic skills for such a large man, but they often weren't apparent when he was so grossly overweight because he didn't have enough stamina to play more than very short stretches.
The down-sized version of Nix is still a massive wide-body presence in the lane, but he is able to move around so much better, even running the floor impressively in transition at times.
The turnaround by Nix has been important for the Spartans, especially considering forward Delvon Roe's decision to end his career before the season because of chronic knee problems. Although he still needs to work on his consistency, Nix has helped fill the void up front.
He is averaging 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 18-plus minutes a game while sharing time at center with sophomore Adreian Payne.
Nix's numbers are up even more since the start of Big Ten play. He's averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds per game in nearly 22 minutes a night during MSU's 4-0 start in the conference.
Considering his combination of size and skills, a NBA future isn't out of the question at some point if he continues to eat right and work hard.
While his teammates took a break to return to their hometowns for a while over Christmas, Nix went back to Detroit for only one day. He stayed in East Lansing the rest of the time to continue working out because he didn't want to risk gaining weight during that always-dangerous period over the holiday.
Coach Tom Izzo has said that Nix's body "causes 80 percent of his pluses or minuses."
As the coach so eloquently put it before the season, "His ability to get up and down the court has quad-zippled from what it was."
"This kid has matured," Izzo added.
Because he's not huffing and puffing seconds after he enters a game, Nix is finally starting to put his ability on display, and he really is an intelligent, skillful player.
He has good hands and footwork for a player so enormous. He also has a solid understanding of the game. He made two passes out of the post earlier this week against Iowa that led directly to 3-point baskets. Many college big men can't make those reads.
When he's asked more questions about his personal development — the "before-and-after" significance — Nix tactfully shifts the conversation to how well the entire team has been playing lately.
"All that hard work I did, it's got to pay off somehow," Nix said. "I'm just staying positive. I hope we keep winning so we can win this Big Ten championship. I think we're going to win it. Seriously, I really do. Our team is too good. I don't mean to talk cocky, but I feel like we're going to win the Big Ten championship.
"With the way college basketball is going right now, everybody's losing, all these top teams, all these pro prospects . . . we still seem to be right up there with them. I'm not trying to brag or anything, but we're doing good.
"Nobody probably thought this because we were so young, but we're sticking together. We're going to try our best to win it."
It's a bounce-back season for both Nix and the overachieving, sixth-ranked Spartans. His loss has been their gain.