After Tayshaun Prince barely played as a rookie for Rick Carlisle, Larry Brown inserted a largely untested Prince into the Detroit Pistons’ starting lineup. The small forward became a vital contributor to a championship team. He kept a death grip on that place in the lineup for the next eight seasons.
Most young players that show promise the first time they’re given an expanded role continue to improve in subsequent seasons. Prince didn’t really do that — he started off as a reliable, consistent, above-average starter and that’s just kind of what he was throughout his career.
The same can be said about Branden Dawson’s four years at Michigan State University. Dawson arrived in East Lansing as a highly touted recruit, an obvious athletic freak and someone who looked like a prototypical NBA wing straight out of high school.
He began his career as a starter alongside senior Draymond Green on a team with national-title aspirations (they made it to the Sweet Sixteen). That freshman season, Dawson emerged as a reliable complementary player, a very good defensive player, a great rebounder and a threat without the ball running the floor, making strong cuts to the basket, catching and finishing.
That same overview of Dawson’s capabilities could pretty much describe his contributions in any of his four seasons at MSU — the things he was very good at, he was very good at immediately. His game just didn’t evolve as much as many hoped based on his recruiting pedigree.
But don’t let that overshadow the skills he did show he has in abundance.
Dawson as NBA rotation player
After the NCAA season ended, Dawson as a NBA player seemed like a longshot. But he’s re-established himself as a prospect precisely because observes have stopped obsessing over what he didn’t add to his game and realized what he does have is extremely valuable.
His greatest contributions will be on defense. Dawson is long and quick enough to guard smaller perimeter players. He has the ability to bother the league’s brawnier small forwards. And he’ll occasionally be able to guard post players who are bigger than him. He’s an instinctive, smart, physical and versatile defender, and NBA teams always find space for players like that on their bench.
Offensively, the things that worked for him in college should translate to the NBA. He’ll still be able to run the floor effectively. He has elite athleticism and will be able to finish in traffic. And he’s a great offensive rebounder for his size, so he’ll find ways to get himself occasional baskets without ever having to have a play ran for him.
What he won’t do
Don’t ask him to shoot outside of the paint or dribble. His post moves were sometimes effective in the Big Ten, but are likely too basic to work against much better NBA defenses. He has never added a reliable jump shot and he’s a poor free throw shooter.
Take him in the second round. The Pistons could do a lot worse than taking a second round flyer on a guy who has matured during four years as a college player, who has played a ton of basketball for a successful program and who knows how to operate with a demanding coach.
Plus, even if he has played four years of college basketball and the new NBA logic advocated by every Tom, Dick and Hinkie is to avoid “older” players, Dawson is still young. He still possesses the physical gifts that made him an intriguing college prospect. So take him with the knowledge that he at least has the chance to be a competent role player, hire him a shooting coach and who knows … maybe in a couple of years he adds additional elements to his game that make him an even more valuable commodity.