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Dawson's Defense: The Case for Branden Dawson as DPOY

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Why not Dawson?

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Last week on btn.com four writers voted on mid-season All-Big Ten team and individual awards. While Michigan State’s Branden Dawson was voted onto the All-Big Ten team, he was not one of the three players that received votes for Defensive Player of the Year. Josh Gasser (Wisconsin) received 2 votes, while Nnanna Egwu (Illinois), and Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin) had one apiece. I was personally surprised with his omission because the consensus on MSU (and some UofM) twitter is that he is the current favorite. With Dawson being the Spartans’ best individual defender and occasionally dominating the game with his defense, I took a look at how he compares to both other DPOY candidates this year and previous winners of the award.

One issue with a DPOY award is that defensive contributions are much harder to track than offensive contributions. The three main statistics that can be used to track individual defensive prowess are defensive rebounds, steals, and blocks. With available KenPom tempo-free stats you can also look at the percentage of these three numbers along with the team’s defensive efficiency.

Former Winners

First taking a look at previous winners and how they came about winning their award.

Former B1G DPOY Winners (B1G rank)
Year Name MPG DRPG STPG BLKPG Team AdjD Conference Standing
2015 Branden Dawson 30.1 6.7 (1) 1.48 (10) 1.33 (10) 94.1 (3) 4th
2014 Aaron Craft 34.4 3.3 (30) 2.5 (1) 0.09 (93) 89.6 (1) 5th
2013 Victor Oladipo 28.4 3.8 (18) 2.24 (1) 0.82 (16) 92.3 (5) 1st
2012 Aaron Craft 32.2 2.6 (40) 2.41 (1) 0.21 (55) 89.7 (2) 1st
2011 JaJuan Johnson 35.4 5.9 (4) 0.94 (22) 2.31 (1) 92.9 (3) 2nd
2010 Chris Kramer 27.8 2.7 (38) 1.63 (6) 0.38 (33) 87.8 (1) 1st
2009 Travis Walton 28.2 1.7 (64) 1.53 (5) 0.03 (90) 90.4 (3) 1st

One common denominator with the winners is that each one was that they were all on the All-Defensive Team the previous year. The returning players from last year’s team are AJ Hammons, Shannon Scott, and Josh Gasser. Hammons is blocking shots and rebounding at about the same rate as last year, Scott’s steal% is still good but has dropped off, and Gasser is the rare case where he doesn’t have the numbers but is a very good on-ball defender and has been on the All-Defensive team twice already. Frankly it’s hard to watch all the B1G games and therefore hard to see the defensive impact of some of the players. One of the easiest ways to pick the DPOY is to look at last year’s All-Defensive team and give them award partly as a "lifetime achievement" award. Dawson somewhat surprisingly has never been on an All-Defensive team (although he missed 10 games last year) but despite that, he has had the reputation throughout his career of being a great defender. Although it’s somewhat of a flawed system, that reputation will work to his advantage when people are voting for DPOY.

Another common denominator amongst the DPOY winners are that the players’ teams either won the conference or led the conference in AdjD, with the exception being JaJuan Johnson’s Purdue team which was 2nd and 3rd respectively (he did, however, win POY that year). While Michigan State is currently tied for 4th in the standings and 4th in AdjD, they are currently 1st in conference play in Defensive Efficiency. No offense to the other MSU starters, but Dawson is the only one who you would consider more than somewhat athletic. Despite they have put up quite a few solid defensive performance holding 17 of 24 teams to under 1.0 PPP. Right now there’s neither a dominant defensive point guard on a good team nor dominant big man on a good team to stand out and be the frontrunner.

The Current Contenders

B1G DPOY Candidate Conference Stats (B1G rank)
Name MPG DRPG BLKPG STLPG DWS Team DE
Branden Dawson 34.5 7.55 (1) 2.00 (2) 1.55 (7) 1.0 (1) 95.8
D’Angelo Russell 36.2 5.92 (4) 0.17 (81) 1.58 (6) 0.8 (2) 99.0 (2)
Maurice Walker 27.2 4.82 (10) 1.00 (11) 1.91 (3) 0.7 (3) 99.6 (4)
AJ Hammons 27.4 5.27 (6) 3.00 (1) 0.64 (48) 0.6 (5) 100.4 (6)
Nnanna Egwu 30.2 3.91 (22) 1.73 (3) 1.18 (16) 0.5 (12) 100.6 (7)
Frank Kaminsky 33.1 7.00 (3) 1.00 (11) 0.40 (77) 0.5 (12) 103.3 (9)
Shannon Scott 31.5 2.83 (45) 0.17 (81) 1.17 (17) 0.5 (12) 99.0 (2)
Josh Gasser 33.2 3.45 (31) 0.18 (70) 0.55 (58) 0.3 (38) 103.3 (9)

According to sports-reference, Branden Dawson leads all conference players in Conference Defensive Win Shares with 1.0. The next closest player is at 0.8. D’Angelo Russell is rightfully mentioned as one of the best B1G players because of his extremely efficient offense, but he really should be getting more attention for his defense along with it.

In conference play Dawson is ranked in the top 10 in DReb% (3rd), Stl% (5th), and Blk% (9th). The only other player ranked in the top 10 in all 3 categories is Minnesota’s Maurice Walker. Dawson defensive rebounding is a significant reason that MSU is currently 9th nationally in DReb% despite being ranked 232nd in average height. Using the averages and standard deviations of the 85 B1G players with greater than 40% of minutes played, I made this chart showing how Dawson stacks up to the rest of the B1G.

This stat clearly favors taller players but it also illustrates Dawson’s defensively versatility and athleticism despite being only 6’6". He’s been extremely active this year and has set the tone to dominant defensive team performances against both Indiana and on the road against Northwestern.

Branden at his Best

Some of Dawson’s most dominant defensive performances this season include four games with at least 3 blocks, four games with at least 3 steals, and three games with at least 10 Drebs. In the three games prior to the MSU-Iowa game, Iowa star player Aaron White averaged 21.3 points and 9 rebounds (3.7 ORebs). When matched up against Dawson he only scored 8 points and collected 4 rebounds (1 offensive). In the two games prior to and the three games after the MSU-Indiana game, forward Troy Williams averaged 17.4 points and 7.8 rebounds. In the MSU game with Dawson guarding him? 0 points 1 rebound. He can switch onto both point guards and centers in a pinch and guard them as well as anyone in the conference. He has both the reputation and defensive statistics to contend for the DPOY this year and at this point he is truly the most deserving candidate.

Also, not a defensive play, but it is fun:

Alright, one more: