Know Thy Conference is a series of feature stories and Q&A’s with Big Ten men’s basketball players based on interviews conducted at the Big Ten Basketball Media Day in October. The second feature story is about Michigan State senior guard-forward Branden Dawson.
Down by two points to UConn in the Elite Eight with two minutes to play, Michigan State had a chance to tie the game or take the lead.
It did neither.
Keith Appling’s entry pass to Adreian Payne on the left block was thwarted by a double team from the Huskies and the ball was knocked loose. Branden Dawson hit the deck and grabbed the ball but he slid over the baseline, turning the ball over to UConn.
The eventual national champions closed the game on a 9-5 run to defeat the Spartans 60-54. The loss marked the first time in Michigan State coach Tom Izzo’s tenure in East Lansing that four-year players — in this case, Payne and Appling — hadn’t reached the Final Four in their collegiate careers.
After the season, the Spartans lost three of their starters as Payne and Appling graduated and sophomore Gary Harris declared for the NBA Draft.
Dawson could have joined Harris and Payne, who were both first round draft picks, in the NBA. He wanted to test the waters of professional basketball to see if he’d be better off forgoing his final year of eligibility and entering the draft instead of finishing his college career at Michigan State.
However, a promise Dawson had made to his mother, combined with feedback from NBA scouts kept him in East Lansing, Mich. for his senior season.
“I always told my mom that I wanted to get my degree, that I wanted to graduate,” he said at the Big Ten Basketball Media Day in October. “I was never pressed to go to the NBA because the NBA’s not going anywhere so I just sat down and wanted to ask a few questions about it.”
The answers to his questions told him that he likely would have been a late second round pick if he had entered the 2014 NBA Draft. Scouts told him that he needed to improve his ball-handling and perimeter game in order to play on the wing at the next level.
Self-evaluation is something a lot of players struggle with, Dawson said, and it shows every spring when a handful of college players listen to bad advice and ignore the cold hard truth, and enter the NBA Draft prematurely.
Dawson wasn’t one of those players. He came back.
“I took it in consideration and came back and got back to business,” he said of the scouts’ critiques of his game. “So after we lost to UConn I was back in the gym the next few weeks.”
The 6-foot-6 guard-forward is a self-proclaimed film junkie, but his actions speak louder than his words regarding his passion for the film room. He missed nine conference games last season after breaking a bone in his right hand after slamming his hand on a table in frustration while watching film after Michigan State’s home win against Indiana.
Dawson has watched Michigan State’s loss to UConn on multiple occasions and while the pain of the loss is still fresh in his mind, it fuels him in his final season wearing green and white.
“It was hurting because we were so close,” he said. “I go back and watch it, kind of a lot now.”
He still wonders how the result could have been different if he had grabbed another rebound or made a defensive stop, but he has moved on.
“Coming from having that experience from losing to those guys, it’s kind of helped me, Travis (Trice) and Denzel (Valentine),” Dawson said. “We now know what to expect and we’re now on the same page. That pushed us a lot knowing that we were so close.”
Michigan State followed up its Elite Eight exit to UConn with what Dawson describes as the team’s best summer since he joined the program in 2011.
Last summer he watched more film than he ever had in the past, specifically focusing on film of Kawhi Leonard, Andre Iguodala and LeBron James — all of whom are wing players who play tenacious defense in the NBA.
He also changed his diet.
“No more McDonald’s, no more Wendy’s,” he said. “(I) stay away from that.”
Dawson’s dietary changes allowed him to lose weight in the “right way,” while also toning up a bit. He still has a playing weight ranging from 220 to 225 pounds, depending on the day, but he’s in the best shape of his career.
The senior’s focus on fitness was sparked by the advice from former teammates. Harris, Payne and Appling spent time in East Lansing last summer and worked out with current Michigan State players.
“Adreian told me ‘Hey, bro, you really have to be in shape,’” Dawson said. “Gary told me the same thing. They worked a lot on conditioning, so they just told me to make sure that I’m in shape, make sure everything is taken care of.”
Dawson has benefitted from playing at a university that has sent 41 players to the NBA, many of whom are still in close contact with their college program. Draymond Green, a third-year NBA player for the Golden State Warriors who played alongside Dawson at Michigan State during the 2011-12 season, spent most of last summer in East Lansing.
“Going up against him this summer in open gym and in workouts made me a lot better,” Dawson said.
The senior has modeled himself as a player, on and off the court, with Green in mind. Like Green, Dawson prides himself on defense. He’s nationally ranked in defensive rebounding percentage, block percentage and steal percentage, per the advanced metrics of kenpom.com.
“Most guys really don’t like playing defense, but I like getting up in a guy’s skin,” he said. “I like getting steals, getting rebounds and you know, just doing the little things to help my teammates out.”
The season that Dawson and Green were teammates is paying dividends three years later, as Dawson attempts to be the senior leader that Green was for the Spartans.
“When I came in my freshman year, I kind of watched Draymond Green,” he said. “I watched … how he carried himself on and off the court. Just to watch his demeanor, I’d say that it kind of carried over to how I lead.”
Green has a similar build as Dawson and he has made a successful transition from often playing in the post in the Big Ten to becoming a small forward in the NBA. Dawson’s size makes him versatile in the college ranks, but he’s kind of a tweener in terms of how his game translates to the NBA — having a skill set built for playing around the rim but lacking some of the perimeter tools necessary for a player who has the body of an NBA small forward.
He’ll have to follow a similar path as Green is he hopes to make it at the next level.
But for now, Dawson doesn’t give much thought to his NBA prospects. He’s focused on trying to win a Big Ten championship, then a national championship, and he’ll let someone else worry about figuring out what position he plays.
Dawson says he’s a small forward type, but he doesn’t necessarily like to define himself as a player who only plays one position.
“I feel like I kind of play multiple positions, that’s what Coach Izzo — we’ve been talking about that a lot,” he said. “So I really don’t have a position on this team.”
For Michigan State to reach its 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament and continue its trend of deep runs in March, the Spartans will need Dawson to play one all-econmpassing role — leader.
They will go as far as Dawson, senior Travis Trice and junior Denzel Valentine take them.
“With Gary being out and Keith and Adreian, those really were our top scorers,” Dawson said of Michigan State’s roster turnover. “We’re gonna have to do a lot more.”
At the Big Ten Media Day, he said repeatedly that the trio of upperclassmen are on the same page and that if the team stays healthy and focused, everything will fall into place.
The Spartans only have one Big Ten game under their belt, but they have some work to do between now and Selection Sunday to solidify themselves as an NCAA Tournament team. Michigan State is 9-5, with four of its losses coming against teams currently ranked in the top 15 and three of them coming on the road or at neutral sites. The only bad loss on the team’s resume is a home loss to Texas Southern (3-10), a game in which Dawson was sidelined due to a fractured wrist, but its only win of note was against a mediocre Marquette team in late November.
Like most of the teams in the Big Ten, Michigan State will likely be in the thick of things — somewhere behind Wisconsin and ahead of Northwestern and Rutgers.
Dawson said he tries not to focus on the polls or accolades that surround Michigan State and the conference as a whole. There’s too much at stake to get caught up in the outside noise.
“If we were picked eighth or 10th, I’d say that every team comes out and they play their best against Michigan State,” he said. “Each team is going to still come out and want to just rip our heads off and play their best so we just can’t focus on that.”
Dawson doesn’t mind the spotlight being on Madison, Wisc. and the Badgers, while Michigan State, which was picked everywhere from second to eighth by conference media members who voted in an unofficial preseason poll, remains more in the shadows.
“Wisconsin, they can have all the pressure,” he said. “We’re fine with that because we know they’re a great team but we’re gonna be right there. We’re not gonna fade away, we’re not gonna back down.”
“I think it’ll turn out good for us.”