(Written By Tom Shanahan)
Ah, now we know what Duke freshman Jabari Parker meant when he said Branden Dawson’s presence on Michigan State’s roster was one reason he chose the Blue Devils over the Spartans.
Parker, whose freshman averages of 19.2 points and 8.8 rebounds a game have enhanced already overwhelming projections of him as the first pick of the 2014 NBA draft, made the statement a little over a year ago during the recruiting process as a Chicago Simeon senior.
“Branden Dawson, me and him play the same position, and it’d kind of be a controversy if me and him were on the same floor running into each other,” Parker said. “So I just wanted to go to a school that was fitting. I don’t want to mess up his thing. Me coming in there would be kind of disrespectful. I just want him to do well.”
Parker, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound swingman, was a Chicago kid plenty familiar with Dawson, a 6-6, 225-pounder capable of playing multiple positions, as kid from nearby Gary, Ind., despite the two-year age difference.
We can leave aside for the moment that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, with a resume of six Final Fours and now a 17th straight NCAA tournament appearance, likely would have found a combination to make the mix work. The way Parker has produced for the Blue Devils, Michigan State (26-8) might have joined Wichita State as an unbeaten 34-0 team entering the NCAA tournament if Parker played similarly for the Spartans.
But the Dawson that Parker envisioned had been missing in action for most of the 2013-14 season. He had been yanked off the court by Izzo and forced to sit for his uninspired play. He seemingly had turned enigmatic. He was making Michigan State fans feel they were missing two players rather than one — Dawson and Parker.
There were heart-to-hearts talks with Dawson, Izzo and Izzo’s assistant coaches. They dug into his soul to re-capture the magic Dawson played with as a true freshman in 2011-12. He had helped the Spartans to a share of the regular-season Big Ten title before he suffered a knee injury in the regular-season finale that forced him to miss the 2012 Big Ten tournament victory over Ohio State.
Dawson returned from the knee injury with a strong sophomore season — Michigan State was 13-3 when he scored in double figures — but something was wrong with his game his junior year.
He was missing his mojo so much at mid-season he broke his hand while he watched film of Michigan State’s win over Indiana the night before. The Spartans had improved to 18-1, but it was a game they could have lost. Dan Dakich, the keen-eyed ESPN analyst, said Dawson was the player who had to be more consistent if Michigan State was to win the Big Ten and NCAA titles.
Bam! Dawson slammed his hand on a table and broke it watching the film in frustration. With Dawson the latest injured player sidelined that would eventally see Izzo juggle 15 starting lineups, the Spartans finished the regular season 5-7. Dawson sat the first nine of those games.
“I prayed on it every night,” said Dawson after the Spartans won the Big Ten championship game. “When I was out those nine games, I prayed every night. It feels great to have our rhythm and our chemistry back and just to see us playing good as a team.”
The old Branden Dawson returned last week when he led Michigan State to the Big Ten tournament and was named the Most Outstanding Player. He was the difference in three wins over Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan with these numbers: Northwestern, 16 points, 9 rebounds; Wisconsin, 14 points, 7 rebounds; and Michigan, 15 points, 6 rebounds — and one windmill dunk.
That dunk was worth more than 2-points; it was one of those crowd-pleasing slams that rattled the roof of Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and swung the game’s momentum.
It was reminiscent to me of Magic Johnson setting up dunker-extraordinaire Greg Kelser in their two Michigan State seasons together in 1977-78 and 1978-79. In my days as the sports editor of the State News, the student newspaper, I described Kelser’s ability to seemingly hover above the rim before putting down the dunk as “suspended animation.”
Dawson’s dunk was a demonstration that when he’s healthy — physically and emotionally — he can change a game’s momentum with one play.
Michigan nearly dodged facing Dawson this year. He missed both the Michigan-Michigan State regular season showdowns that the Wolverines won en route to the Big Ten regular-season title. Michigan’s Glenn Robinson, who also is familiar with Dawson as a fellow Indiana product, knew how fortunate were the Wolverines. He was asked about Dawson’s play after the Big Ten tournament title game.
“I’ve played against Branden many times,” Robinson said. “He’s a great player, especially for them to have him back; he did a lot for their team. We knew his big thing was offensive rebounding, and we had to keep him off the glass. We needed to do a better job at that. But he really gave them a spark on offense and defense, I thought.”
With Dawson starting, Michigan State is 17-2. With Dawson playing, the Spartans are 21-3. Without Dawson, they were 4-5.
As Robinson said, it’s not just Dawson’s offense. With Dawson in the lineup, Michigan State’s game notes statistics reveal the defense allowed 64.4 points and a .394 field goal percentage. In the nine games Dawson missed, opponents scored 69.8 with .433 shooting.
His defensive presence may be more irreplaceable to Michigan State than Jabari Parker’s offense would have been as a Michigan State player. When the Spartans open the NCAA tournament against Delaware Thursday in Spokane, they’ll face the only team in the nation with three players averaging 18 or more points a game (all five are in double figures). Dawson has the ability to defend Delaware’s big men and swingmen.
Dawson will never replace Parker as the projected top pick of the NBA draft, but he’s the type of talent Bruce Bowen was with the San Antonio Spurs. Bowen was a three-time NBA champion and five-time member of the NBA All-Defensive team. That’s three more NBA titles than a lot of great NBA players ever won.
The NCAA title that is up for grabs remains to be played out, but so far Dawson has one Big Ten tournament title this season to no titles for Parker at Duke.
We can only imagine what they might have accomplished together with Izzo mixing the potion.