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.
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“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.
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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.
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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.