When Branden Dawson stepped onto the court for his first college game as a Michigan State Spartan, high expectations abounded. As a five star prospect out of high school, many believed Dawson was destined for a brief stint of greatness at the college level before quickly moving on to the NBA. Three years later, things haven’t quite worked out that way for the 21 year-old wing.
As a freshman, he tore his left ACL and missed the entire Big Ten Tournament as well as the NCAA Tournament. Last season, he suffered a broken hand, causing him to miss eight games. Injuries have hampered Dawson’s progress, and it’s tough to think he wouldn’t have attempted the leap to the NBA already had he not been banged up so much. But when he has been healthy, he has been an important piece for the Spartans.
The good news for Dawson is that his ACL injury has not hindered his leaping ability and explosiveness, which are the attributes that define his game. When next year’s NBA combine rolls around, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Branden Dawson, a physical specimen, fare better than most in the drills where athleticism is the primary skill measured.
Within games, hustle is Dawson’s calling card. While hustle alone won’t take Dawson to the NBA, it certainly helps him to succeed in areas that will take him to the NBA, like defense and rebounding. On the boards, Dawson demonstrates an incredible work rate, fighting his way to the front of the rim before his man can turn and seal him off. He has a knack for turning and getting to the rim as soon as the shot goes up, and his leaping ability coupled with his long arms allow him to pull down rebounds over much taller opponents. He averaged 11.8 rebounds per 40 minutes in his junior season, and he has improved in that category every season.
Where Dawson is most likely to add value to an NBA team is on the defensive end of the floor. He possesses great upper body strength, which allows him to hold his own in the post despite facing a height disadvantage against power forwards. His athleticism and length enable him to contest shots around the rim. In college, he’s able to get away with guarding power forwards, but that might not remain the case in the NBA. At 6’6″, 205 pounds, Dawson will struggle to handle length, particularly in the post. He will need to match up with perimeter players, but that won’t be a problem for him. His lateral quickness is excellent, and his length allows him to challenge shots with regularity. During his junior season, Dawson blocked 1.3 shots per 40 minutes, and that threat sticks in the back of shooters’ minds. He reads passing lanes well, and his instincts and explosive first step enabled him to garner 1.8 steals per forty minutes his junior season.
Dawson profiles as a potential lockdown perimeter defender in the NBA given his combined qualities of length, quickness, and strength. Not many perimeter defenders possess that trio, and those attributes will certainly help Dawson’s draft stock. However, his awareness could stand improvement. He often struggles to fight through screens because he recognizes them too late. Part of that might have to do with his teammates not calling out the screen early enough, but the onus ultimately falls on him to fight through and recover to his man. He can get caught ball-watching and lose his man on cuts, so positioning himself to better see the entire floor so as not to get burned would be a nice adjustment. Regardless, he will be able to guard both wing positions well in the NBA, and that versatility adds value.
Offensively, Dawson’s athleticism and physicality are mainly what allow him to be a contributor. He’s at his best in transition when he can get out and run, cutting to the basket, and finishing second-chance points that he created by grabbing an offensive board. He’s not a guy that’s going to create his own offense, particularly from the perimeter. Dawson averaged zero threes per game his junior season, and he doesn’t play venture out to the three-point line too often.
Partially why Dawson doesn’t play on the perimeter is because he struggles to put the ball on the floor. Even basic handles are a challenge for him at times, and he has a very loose, high handle. His decision-making with the ball is questionable, as he frequently ventures into crowded territory where multiple defenders are able to create an easy steal. His assist-to-turnover ratio improved from his sophomore season to his junior season, and NBA teams will want to see that trend continue in his final college season.
If Dawson can develop a mid-range jumper and refine his handles, he could fit in an NBA offense. He’s quick enough to blow by his man and get to the rim for a high-percentage look if he can learn how to be efficient with his dribble. If he can prove that he can penetrate and get to the rim with regularity, then his man will be forced to play off him and give him space. That’s where his jump shot factors in. If he can knock it down, that gives him more value than he currently has as a guy that’s just going to score easy buckets created mostly by his teammates. Of course, it’s unknown whether Dawson will ever be able to improve his jumper and handles, and it might be unlikely given that he has not demonstrated great improvement in either area over the course of three college seasons.
In Michigan State’s offense, Dawson lives in the post. He’s strong enough and quick enough to beat his man and finish at the rim, but the aforementioned dribbling issues hold him back. He lacks a refined post game, and his lack of touch around the rim is painfully evident. He often takes off-balance shots, contorting his body in odd ways. Polishing his mechanics and adding a little bit of arc on shots in the paint would go a long way towards making his shot more soft.
In the half court, Dawson adds very little. His lack of a jumper limits his opportunities, and it forces him to primarily serve as either a cutter or a screener. He does, however, add offensive value on the glass. His junior season, he averaged nearly three offensive rebounds per game. When opportunities do come Dawson’s way, he has shown that he can be a highly-efficient scorer (62.2 true shooting percentage his junior season), but that’s because most of his shots come via dunk or right around the rim because of his teammates ability to penetrate and break down a defense. It’s unlikely that he will be able to get those kind of looks in the NBA though, because he won’t be near the rim as much, and an NBA offense certainly won’t give a guy that offensively limited the touches he needs to provide much in terms of scoring.
Dawson’s physical tools will be enough to get him drafted, but the actual basketball part of his game is why he might ultimately be a second round pick. If Dawson doesn’t develop any further on offense, it will be tough for him to see court time in the NBA — although not impossible. If his staunch defense and his ability to rebound and do the dirty work converts to the next level, he could add enough value to carve out a role for himself with some team.