Dawson promises he'll follow Izzo's direction to become Spartans' leader

If you want to know what part of the game of basketball Michigan State star Branden Dawson struggles to master, you are searching in the wrong place if you begin by examining his jumpshot or his ballhandling or even his obviously-deficient free throw shooting.

“None of us are very good self-evaluators. That’s a hard thing to do,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s hard to look in the mirror and say what you suck at. He really struggles with that.”

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If you have watched college basketball over the previous three seasons, if you’ve watched Michigan State at any point during that time, you surely saw moments of greatness from Dawson that made you wonder how a player with his physical gifts – his uncommon strength, his capacity for ferocious energy – happened not to be a significant star.

Dawson is 6-6, 225 pounds.

He has never shot less than 50 percent from the field or averaged fewer than 4.5 rebounds. He has been as accurate as 61.3 percent from the field and averaged as many as 8.3 rebounds, and that was as recently as last season. He so dominated for three days at the 2014 Big Ten Tournament he was named the event’s MVP. Sporting News saw all that and included him as a preseason first-team All-American.

He also played so listlessly in last year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against North Carolina that Izzo pulled him after just 17 minutes and a single basket.

Dawson was so frustrated as his play was criticized in a late-January film session that he slammed his hand against a desk. The broken hand that resulted cost him nine games. Reporters who cover the Big Ten saw all that and left him off their all-conference first team for 2015.

“It’s all down to the motor,” Izzo told Sporting News. When Dawson’s effort level is extreme, so are the results.

“When the light went on in the last six to eight games, he didn’t do anything different. He just played harder. He dominated at times. He was as good a player as there was.”

Dawson does not bother much with why things changed for him at the end of last year, but he can explain when and how. The injury was all the evidence he could need that the damage to his potential was self-inflicted. It helped him to realize he was not accepting coaching from a gentleman whose induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is merely a matter of time.

“Every time Coach told me I did something wrong freshman or sophomore year, I would never believe him. I didn’t understand,” Dawson said. “He would come back and say, ‘Hey, I’ve watched more film than you ever have.’

“I kind of sat down and told myself – you know we have iPads – I said, ‘What if I sit down and watch? What can I get better at? Where can I score the ball at?’ And that’s what I did. The nine games I was out, when I had free time I’d watch to see: Where can I score the ball?”

He even watched the North Carolina game again. He confirmed: “That was my worst game ever.” He saw what a difference simply trying meant to his production.

“After I got hurt, I was so eager to be back on the floor with my teammates. I was just so excited to be back,” Dawson said. “It changed my whole mindset. Once you come in and work on your game, do the little things to take care of everything – everything else will fall into place. That’s what happened with being the tournament MVP and everything.”

Dawson averaged 15 points and shot 75 percent from the floor in Big Ten Tournament victories over Northwestern, Wisconsin and Michigan. In the NCAAs, he had games of 26 points against Harvard and 24 against Virginia’s stout defense, but UConn kept him blanketed during the Elite Eight game the Huskies won by six.

That defeat was a game in which the Spartans were desperate for some leadership as they blew a nine-point second-half lead. But that team’s seniors, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, were naturally quiet types who were not comfortable with taking command of the team.

“Even though we did listen to those guys and respect those guys, they were so quiet,” Dawson said.

Dawson has all the ingredients necessary to play that role properly as a senior: experience, verbosity and the physical menace that makes the message a little more convincing.

He has to set the right example, though, if he’s going to lead. He can yell all he wants at teammates, but if he’s meandering through a game like he did against Carolina last December, no one among them will buy his message.

There was a moment during the summer when Izzo told Dawson to be sure to get adequate rest. Dawson’s response: That was the old me.

“Just remember this,” Izzo said. “The old you, when I was telling you something was wrong, you weren’t believing me. Is the new you going to believe me? Because I’m going to hold you accountable every day.”