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Spartans' Branden Dawson switching positions in quest for NBA future

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Spartans' Branden Dawson switching positions in quest for NBA future

The Big Ten’s leading rebounder is trying to create an NBA future as a small forward.

Michigan State’s Branden Dawson is fresh off a season that saw him, a 6-foot-7 power forward, beat out multiple seven-footers for the conference’s rebounding title. But that not-so-big size means he won’t be able to make it as an NBA big man. The big men in the NBA are just too big.

So he’s changing his position. And the question becomes, “Can he even play small forward?”

It’s a question Dawson said he’s been asked plenty of times.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: NBA Draft Profile: Michigan State F Branden Dawson]

“A lot of coaches and GMs are concerned about my position, me going from the 4 to the 3,” Dawson said at last month’s NBA Draft Combine. “But I played the 3 my freshman and sophomore season, and we had to make that adjustment of me going to the 4 because of the team. I’ve been working on things as far as my weaknesses, my ball handling, decision making, shooting. I just want to show people that I’m comfortable playing the 3. The 3, for me, is not something that I never did or played.”

The reason so many are questioning Dawson’s ability to switch to a different position is because he flourished as a power forward at the collegiate level.

Last season, Dawson averaged 9.1 rebounds per game, as well as 11.9 points per game, earning All-Big Ten Second Team honors. He came up big as the Spartans barnstormed to the Big Ten Tournament title game (a loss to eventual national runner up Wisconsin) and the Final Four (a loss to eventual national champion Duke). In addition to a ferocious rebounding ability, he displayed other terrific defensive skills, be it stripping the ball in the post or blocking shots on the perimeter. He scored big points inside on the receiving end of alley oops and on putbacks.

But as good as Dawson was, it’s pretty evident that a 6-foot-7, 230-pound guy isn’t going to be able to do that with as much success in a league of giants.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Excitement builds over Sam Dekker's NBA potential]

So Dawson is going back to his roots as a small forward. He thinks being able to do all that stuff in a small forward’s body makes him an attractive candidate for a job in the NBA.

“I can use that to my advantage playing the 3,” he said, “I can guard similar guys, rebound it, get out running the floor and just doing things I can do.”

While everyone looks at the physical attributes, though, one thing that can’t be found on a stat sheet or a list of measurements is a history of winning. Dawson is the latest Spartan to try to make the jump from Tom Izzo’s program to the NBA. And though each player is different, Draymond Green’s week-old NBA title ought to make Izzo products even more attractive.

Dawson, along with a pair of last year’s first-round picks in Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, was a huge factor in a 2014 Big Ten Tournament championship. He won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. This past season, he helped lead Michigan State to its sixth Final Four of the Izzo Era.

[MORE NBA DRAFT: Will Frank Kaminsky turn college success into NBA greatness?]

If an NBA team wants a player who’s used to the bright lights, Dawson fits that bill.

“It helped me a lot, being on a big stage like that will carry over into playing huge, huge games,” Dawson said. “Atmospheres like (the Combine) with people all over watching you play. Some people, they’ve never really been in this position before, never been to a Final Four. So I think the atmosphere is definitely going to help me out a lot.”

And then there’s the toughness. You don’t establish a resume like Dawson’s easily in the Big Ten. Known as a rough-and-tumble league, guys who can crash the boards and have success on the defensive end in that conference earn their reputations.

“It prepares us a lot. Our league is competitive, it’s tough,” he said. “You have to be ready to play every night. It definitely gets me ready for the next level because of how physical our league is and just knowing how tough it is. If you’re not ready to play in our league, it’s definitely going to be a shocker.”

So it might be possible that Dawson isn’t offensively skilled enough to make it as an NBA small forward. It might be possible that his body just won’t allow him to play the position he’s best at. But you don’t win a Big Ten title and reach a Final Four for lack of trying. And trying is exactly what Dawson will do very well on his quest to become a pro in the NBA.

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

Jimmy Butler's injury produced memories for Zach LaVine, Fred Hoiberg

MINNEAPOLIS — That feeling of having your knee buckle out of nowhere, Zach LaVine is all-too familiar with it.

That feeling of being on the sidelines and watching Jimmy Butler’s knee give out, Fred Hoiberg has been there, too.

Different perspectives, and different reactions but Butler’s knee injury produced a sick feeling to many who watched it Friday night. Butler turned to pivot in the Timberwolves’ game against the Houston Rockets and immediately collapsed on the floor, having to be carried off.

LaVine tore his ACL in Detroit over a year ago, while it was revealed Butler suffered a right meniscus injury. But it looked all the same and LaVine understood the uncertainty Butler must’ve been feeling before the MRI revealed it wasn’t an ACL injury.

“It’s scary,” LaVine said following morning shootaround at the Target Center Saturday afternoon. “I wish him the best. You don’t want to see that happen to anybody. Especially a player of his caliber and what he’s done for the team.”

When LaVine injured his ACL, he actually played a few more minutes before being removed and going to the locker room. The time between being evaluated by doctors and them coming back feels like a lifetime.

“It’s scary. You know you hurt yourself, you don’t know how bad,” LaVine said. “You think you’re good, you’re a tough minded person trying to get through it.”

“I saw him on the ground trying to get up, (Rockets guard) Chris Paul made him sit down. Jimmy’s a tough dude. Thoughts and prayers going out to him.”

Butler and LaVine were the centerpieces of the draft day trade involving the Bulls and Timberwolves. With Butler suffering the injury the night before playing his former team a second time, the timing produced a bunch of memories.

In Hoiberg’s first year with the Bulls, Butler went down in a somewhat similar manner in Denver, a non-contact injury. It looked just as bad, and Butler was taken off the floor in a wheelchair.

Thankfully it was a right knee strain that cost him several weeks but it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Considering the minutes he’s played over the last few years, Hoiberg was asked if Butler pushes himself too hard to be on the floor.

“Jimmy he wants to be out there,” Hoiberg said. “I remember the first year in Denver, he went down with what looked to be a serious injury. Thankfully he was back on the floor after 15-16 games.”

Actually, Butler missed 11 consecutive games before coming back for a nationally-televised game against the Rockets, playing 34 minutes in a Bulls win and missing the next three games for recovery.

“We really worried when he went down but it wasn’t something that ended his season,” Hoiberg said. “Jimmy’s a worker. He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve seen. It’s a huge reason for the type of player he is, that work ethic to make him one of the elite players in the league.”

With Bulls-Timberwolves looming, Jimmy Butler is diagnosed with meniscus injury

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USA TODAY

With Bulls-Timberwolves looming, Jimmy Butler is diagnosed with meniscus injury

Jimmy Butler won't be facing the Bulls a second time this season.

Butler suffered a non-contact knee injury on Friday night in Houston. The initial X-ray only revealed he didn't have any broken bones, but the MRI had to wait until Saturday.

The Timberwolves announced that the MRI revealed a meniscus injury in Butler's right knee. There is not yet word on how long the All-Star guard will be out of action, but if it wasn't already assumed that he wouldn't play against the Bulls, it's now certain.

Avoiding the ACL tear means avoiding the worse case scenario, but this is likely still going to cause Butler to miss a significant amount of time with about a quarter of the regular season remaining. An update from Shams Charania of The Vertical said Butler could return for the postseason.

The Bulls take on the Timberwolves on Saturday night. Butler dropped 38 points at the United Center in his return to Chicago exactly two weeks ago, but the Bulls won 114-113.

Butler posted on Instagram a reaction to the injury.

Saturday's game will be the returns of Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to Minnesota after they went the other direction in the Butler trade on draft night last June.