Branden Dawson arrived in East Lansing with high rankings and high expectations. The 6-foot 6-inch 216-pound forward from Gary, Indiana was a McDonald's All-American and the most highly ranked (#17 RSCI) incoming freshman for Michigan State since Delvon Roe. Dawson was an immediate starter and started all 31 games he played before a collision with William Buford of Ohio State put a premature end to his season with an ACL tear.
The injury was an unfortunate end to what had become a successful season for Dawson. He had an impressive 35 minute, 10 point, 7 rebound debut against North Carolina, a game which provided some foreshadowing when Dawson went down with a knee injury after slipping on the center court decal. He returned to the game but was not the same player, in the rest of that game and through the first part of the conference season. After playing just 12 minutes in a loss to Michigan he broke out in a big way in MSU's thrashing of Purdue, beginning a streak of 5 straight double-figure scoring games. His momentum slowed a bit in the final conference games prior to his injury, but he had made an impression and his loss was widely viewed as a serious blow to the Spartans' national championship hopes.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Dawson's play was how well he understood his role and played to his own strengths. He arrived with a reputation as an aggressive rebounder and did not fail to deliver, finishing the season as the top offensive rebounder in the conference, by a comfortable margin. This also meant that he could provide offense, and keep possessions alive for others to score, without needing to have plays run for him, a valuable skill. (Stats from Ken Pomeroy.)
|Branden Dawson||Michigan St.||13.3%|
|Jared Sullinger||Ohio St.||12.4%|
|Ross Travis||Penn St.||11.0%|
|Adreian Payne||Michigan St.||10.9%|
|Derrick Nix||Michigan St.||10.7%|
|Deshaun Thomas||Ohio St.||9.8%|
As far as shooting goes, Dawson was very efficient. Although only Draymond Green and Derrick Nix were more likely to shoot the ball when on the floor, Dawson still recorded an eFG% that was higher than any Spartan save Austin Thornton. He took shots that he was capable of making, avoiding threes and recording a two-point shooting percentage of 58.6%, by far the best on the team and 5th among all players in the conference. Here are his offensive stats per 40 minutes of play last year.
His offensive efficiency was nicely mirrored by his defensive efficiency. He created a lot of turnovers without committing a lot of fouls, a rare and effective skill. The site teamrankings.com tracks a statistic called defensive plays per foul, which looks at how many steals and blocks a player has relative to the number of fouls he commits. Dawson checked in at 1.341 defensive plays per foul, 47th best mark in the nation and behind only John Shurna in the conference.
Like many Spartan freshman he struggled initially to master Tom Izzo's defensive system: during his early season struggles he admitted that "with the defense, with everything being thrown at me, sometimes, I get a little confused. I get caught up in the game and things like that." Eventually, however, he became a very effective one-on-one defender, who could use his quickness and length to cause problems on defense.
For the upcoming season much depends on how well Dawson bounces back from the injury. By all accounts his recovery went well and was ahead of schedule. The starting job is his to lose and, if he can pick up where he left off last year, the sky is the limit for Dawson, including a possible early departure for the NBA. With the departures of Green and Brandon Wood we should expect more than the 20 minutes per game he played last year and more productivity with those minutes. His skill set makes him especially versatile and he can play with virtually any combination of teammates on the floor. The following will likely be the keys for him this season:
- Health - Not much to say here, other than that we hope he can avoid any repeat of the sort Robbie Hummel suffered two years ago.
- Motor - Being left to find his own offense means that Dawson can also tend to disappear at times. Izzo noted last year that Dawson needs to learn to play at high intensity all the time to be effective on both ends of the court: "His whole issue is he’s got to keep that motor running. And it’s something that he’s not used to. And that’s pretty normal (for a freshman)."
- Defense - Dawson's athleticism enables him to make a lot of plays on the ball, but he needs to continue to grow in Izzo's system. Especially important is his off-the-ball defense, which was exposed by a team like Northwestern, which burned him on a number of backdoor cuts.
- Shooting Touch - The Spartans don't need Dawson to take a lot of outside shots, but developing even the threat of a jumper will help him create space for his inside game. And he left at least 28 points at the free-throw line last year, barely exceeding his field goal percentage with a 59% mark. Given how effective he is getting to the line, he can really help himself, and the team, with an improved free-throw stroke.
We'll close with Dawson's signature moment, the "trampoline and two scoops" windmill jam he dropped on Purdue at Mackey.