So I read Seth Davis' Jig-Saw Man post today on SI, you can read it here (CLICK HERE). I generally like Seth Davis, I think he is one of the better pundits out there (I like Bilas too, and a few of the others), but when he suggested that Keith Appling be moved from the point guard position to accommodate a new "pass-first point guard" my jaw hit the floor. I know this is all hypothetical and good fun, but I view it as continuing to add to a completely erroneous narrative that has developed around Keith Appling, one that mirrors the often poorly-informed narratives that spring up when people talk about MSU. While I understand that these guys have jobs to do, and complex lives, and families, etc. I often feel like they just don't really do their homework; part of this is because there are so many games, and they are expected to publish something every couple of days, and be right about it, and be incisive, and inflammatory, etc. but honestly, I think I could do a better job at the analysis part than a lot of the pundits on national TV.
This article is a case in point--the narrative about Keith and MSU is that our offense always struggles because Keith is not a "natural" point, not a "pass-first" point, he should move back to the off-guard position where he can score more...you know...like he did in high school!...Right...about that...look...where do I even begin? I am not a D1 basketball coach, nor a hall-of-famer, I was never good at basketball, I have never coached basketball... I have played sports my whole life (Soccer, Lacrosse, Rugby) and now coach all of the above. If I have learned anything over the long course of my personal athletic career, and now my coaching career, it is that narratives are best constructed retrospectively, if at all...
While they make for great news articles and stories and interviews and talking points...they rarely, if ever, do a sufficient job of telling even a part, let along the whole, of a story of a team or a player. You HAVE to, when you are looking at individuals and teams look at the specifics of every case, every action, every word, every practice, every game. To paraphrase one of my favorite philosophers, Aristotle, who you are is the sum of what you have done over time, and who you will be in the future is determined by what you do in between now and then. An athlete in stasis is not going to be a great athlete, no matter the sport or level.
When looking at college basketball and the punditry surrounding it, it is a no-win situation. They have to make guesses, they have to pretend like they have all the answers, like they know what will happen before it does. The saying "this is why we play the games" is one of the most poignant sayings there is both in sports and in life, and when we view college basketball, and our own Michigan State Spartans through this lens, what is clarified is not what we know will happen in the future, but how we understand what happens in the present and what happened in the past.
I will say it right now: I love Keith Appling, I love every single MSU basketball player and coach that has ever been a part of the program, because I feel that both Jud Heathcoat and Tom Izzo understand this phenomena (the need to look at the specifics when coaching, and the fact others rarely do) as they coach. They understand that journey, that growth, is everything. This year's team, and Keith Appling specifically, are a great example of the journey and development philosophy on sports. When we look at Keith's journey, the specifics of what he has done and where he is now, we can begin to see an very
positive remarkable incredible trajectory taking shape before our eyes.
Even before this season, even games into this season,
probably definitely right now (oh wait...Seth Davis...) there are people who are trying to fit Keith and his burgeoning game and character into their narrative. Even if their narrative is one that was formed last year, or the year before that...It is just more convenient that way! But we here in the TOC community are not satisfied with convenient and easy answers, we seek TRUTH or at least as close as we mere mortals can get to it! What I have below is the email I wrote to Seth Davis that I am sure he will never read, but this whole thing got me so steamed up that I just had to share it with you all, and to expand on it (as I have done in this way-too-lengthy intro). The bottom line is this: Keith Appling is growing right before our eyes, and we ALL should HAVE to remember what the proper metrics for success are in life, sports, and especially with our Spartans; they are: growth of individuals and the team, cohesiveness, leadership, effort, wins (pretty if we can, ugly if we must, but always with class), and championships (pretty if we can, ugly if we must, but always with class). Our metrics for success do not include perfection, playing how people want us to play, or playing within people's preconceived roles/styles or how they think we should play...
Without further ado, here is my email that I sent to Seth Davis:
Not a question, a comment. I am a huge Michigan State fan, have been for years. I also happen to do a lot of coaching myself--not basketball, but lacrosse and soccer. I have watched every minute of every single MSU game from 1998 on. I know all of MSU's sets, I read EVERY article published on MSU, any of their players, coaches, or recruits. I am a bit obsessed. I also generally think that your insights, mentality, and analysis are dead on.
On your Jigsaw bit on MSU though, I contend that you are way off. Keith Appling, is absolutely the right man for the point position at MSU. This year he is averaging 14 ppg, 3.5 boards, and 4.3 assists. While I watch a ton of college basketball (I pride myself on knowing the rosters, styles, and individual players of the top 30 or so teams in the country, if not more), I am not familiar with your proposed replacement for Keith--Jake Odum (who leads the Sycamores in scoring at 14 ppg, and averages 4.5 assists, but who would also sublimate his scoring to be a pass first point guard at MSU, according to your projection/guess)--so I will just stick to a brief set of comments about Keith and then make my own hazardous guesses/analysis...
In short, you make yourself sound/appear either uninformed, unable to analyze basketball games you watch, or you make it seem as if you just don't watch MSU games... (again I think that you are pretty awesome as far as most pundits go, but I am guessing that you have watched...let's say 6 of MSU's games this year--the UCONN game, the Kansas game, maybe the Miami game, Minnesota, and maybe 1-2 others... so I think more than anything you just haven't watched a ton of their games...) This is not meant to be an ad hominem attack, more a comment on what reading your analysis of MSU makes you look like/sound like to a well-informed/reasonably competent MSU afficionado.
The fact is that Keith may actually be one of the most impressive point guards in the nation. He is asked to do the following: be A) the #1 scorer, B) to run the offense and lead the team in assists, C) to be the teams best leader (I am sure that you read that he was recently promoted to Captain), and to also be D) the #1 defender on the team. That is more than just about every single other point guard on a similar program is asked to do (Cook at Duke is not asked to do A, C, or D; Craft at OSU is not asked to do A; Burke at UM is not asked to do D; the IU guys Hulls and Ferrell are asked to combine to do all 4; Napier at UCONN comes close; there is no real lead point at KU; Carter-Williams at CUSE is definitely not asked to do A, C, or D; Siva is not asked to do A or D-although he is terrific on D; and, to shorten this exercise, the points at Arizona, Florida, Butler, Gonzaga, K-State, Minnesota, UNM, Oregon, Creighton, NC State, VCU, Wichita State, Ole Miss, Missouri, Cinci, or Miami are asked to do all of the 4)...
In fact, Tom Izzo has repeatedly mentioned this year how impressed he is with Keith in terms of the amount that he is being asked to handle, and with how he is shouldering every single duty...While he obviously does not accomplish every one of these feats in every game, in all three losses, he clearly has:
UCONN (4 pt loss; Keith had 17 pts and 4 assists-both lead the team)
Miami (8 pt loss; Keith had 14 pts and 4 assists-both lead the team)
Minnesota (13 pt loss; Keith had 15 pts, 5 assists, and an incredible 6 steals-all three lead the team)
Furthermore, in MSU's biggest wins of the season, Keith Appling has come up HUGE:
vs Kansas (3 pt win; Keith had 19 pts, 3 assists, and 3 steals-pts 1st, assists 2nd, steals 1st)
vs Boise State (4 pt win; Keith had 22 pts, 5 boards, 7 assists, and 3 steals-all lead the team)
vs OSU (3 pt win; Keith had 15 pts, 3 assists, 2 steals-all lead the team)
vs Wisconsin (2 pt win; Keith had 19 pts, 6 boards, 2 assists, and 2 steals-pts 1st, other 3 2nd)
As you know, being a "pass-first point guard" is a trendy way to label some point guards in an effort to differentiate them and to identify an ideal point guard. However, I think if we are all being honest we all know that this is bunk-the best point guards are the point guards who get their teams wins; sometimes they need to pass a ton, sometimes they need to score, sometimes defend, sometimes lead vocally, sometimes all 4.
In Keith Appling's case, his numbers speak for themselves. But maybe the most impressive number is the number of minutes he has not played all year: 109; or to put it another way he averages a team high 34.1 minutes per game...more than everyone on Kansas, Louisville, Arizona, Indiana, Florida, Butler, Gonzaga, K-State, Minnesota, OSU, Duke, Syracuse, Oregon, Creighton, VCU, Wichita State, Cincinnati, and Ole Miss.
In terms of individuals, Keith averages at least 1 minute more per game than Cook, Burke, Craft, and Carter-Williams, in addition to others of the commonly cited top PGs in the country. The only individuals on top 25 teams who compare with Keith's minutes/game are:
Kendall Williams gets 1 more minute per game, same ppg, rpg, apg, and tpg
Lorenzo brown averages same minutes, 2 fewer ppg, 1 more rpg, 2.5 more apg, 1 more tpg
Durand Scott 1 more minute, same ppg, 2 fewer apg, 1 more rpg, same tpg
Shane Larkin 2 more minutes, 2 fewer ppg, .5 more rpg, .5 fewer apg, 1 more spg, and same tpg
Erik Atkins 3 more minutes, 2 fewer ppg, 1 fewer rpg, 2 more apg, same tpg
Jerian Grant 1 more minute, 2 fewer ppg, 1 fewer rpg, 1 more apg, same tpg
Phil Pressey same minutes, same ppg, same rpg, 3 more apg, 1 more tpg
Another guy to add is Matthew Delllavedova who is a heck of an offensive player and clearly a great leader, but simply not a defender that could even be put in a conversation with Keith Appling
And of these players, again, none are asked to do all 4 jobs Keith Appling is asked to do.
No one questioned Kyrie Irving two years ago, who, in my opinion, is the best point guard the college game has seen since probably Jay Williams (it is just a shame we did not get a full season of him...). Kyrie was sometimes a scoring machine, sometimes a passer, and was never even asked to be the number 1 leader and defender... In fact, he was second in scoring (as the 3rd option behind Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler), and second on the team in assists (in his 11 games he only averaged 4.1 assists per game...did that change the narrative that he was the best point guard in the country, even as a freshman? No...it did not)...
I guess the point is this: I guarantee you that no one in their right mind, who has been paying attention, would trade Keith Appling when looking at the MSU team. MSU and Coach Izzo need him to full-fill all 4 of these roles and he does so with aplomb. No other point guard has more asked of him, no other point guard discernibly or clearly gives a better "overall package" (i.e. scoring, running an offense and assisting, being a captain/leader, and being the #1 defender), which is what MSU needs from its point guard. In fact, I would hazard that Tom Izzo has never asked more of a point guard other than Mateen Cleaves with such incredible returns (even Kalin Lucas and Neitzel were never the great leaders and defenders that Keith is both asked to be and is, or is becoming before our eyes).
While Keith is still developing in all 4 aspects of his game, he is clearly clutch, he is competitive, he is, according to Tom Izzo the hardest worker on the team, and he is helping MSU win games. In summation, I reject your offering Jig-Saw man... we don't want another "piece," we already have our guy, and I wouldn't trade him for anyone else, ever!