If you just look at which games Branden Dawson played in last season and which games he missed, you'd figure him to be a pretty important player for the Michigan State Spartans. The junior forward played in all but one game during the team's 18-1 start. After Dawson bizarrely broke his hand while watching film, Michigan State fell into a 4-5 rut that saw the Spartans lose to rival Michigan twice and lose control of the Big Ten title race.
When Dawson returned to the lineup at the beginning of March, Michigan State rallied to win the Big Ten Tournament and reach the East Region Final of the NCAA Tournament.
The ups and downs of the 2014 Spartans weren't completely reliant on Dawson. Seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling also struggled through injuries, which led to the team relying too heavily on star guard Gary Harris at times. However, for the upcoming 2014-15 season, Dawson will be a big factor in Michigan State's success or failure. With Appling and Payne graduating while Harris prepares to enter the NBA, it will be up to Dawson -- as well as fellow key contributors Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice -- to lead the Spartans into the future.
You could certainly find a worse player to build a team around. Even though he's only listed at 6'6" and 225 pounds, Dawson plays a lot bigger. Last season he averaged 8.3 rebounds per game in just 28.3 minutes, which was good for 68th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and 121st in defensive rebounding percentage. He's efficient around the basket (61.3 percent on field goals) and good at avoiding personal fouls (just 2.1 committed per 40 minutes), but Dawson must improve his offensive range if he is to become the program leader that Tom Izzo needs him to be.
In 2014, Dawson only attempted 64 free throws in 28 games along with just a single three-pointer. With Valentine and Trice both adept at shooting from long range, Dawson doesn't need to stretch his game out beyond the arc like Payne learned to do (although that would certainly be appreciated by the Spartan faithful). On the other hand, he will have to be more aggressive in creating his own shot and getting to the free throw line.
Dawson disappeared from the Michigan State offense for stretches during 2014, but that won't be an option next season. With so much firepower leaving the lineup, Izzo will need his rising senior to be heavily involved at both ends of the floor. The good news is that towards the end of 2014, Dawson showed flashes of the player he has the potential to be in 2015. In six of his last seven games, he scored in double figures with at least six rebounds. In two games against Harvard and Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, Dawson combined for 50 points, 19 rebounds, and 10 free throw attempts.
With no Appling or Harris to set him up this season, Dawson will likely see his field goal percentage go down, but he should in turn see more opportunities to do his own thing while posting up guards or facing up centers. With players like Gavin Schilling, Matt Costello, and Kenny Kaminski providing depth at the forward position, Dawson has the opportunity to be a big problem for opponents. If his size is ever an issue, Izzo has the option of playing more big men and letting Dawson go to work on a smaller opponent.
There's going to be a lot of questions surrounding the Michigan State basketball team as we get closer to next season. There always are for a program losing as much star power as the Spartans are. Not all of those questions, have to be pessimistic, though. At least one should center around Dawson and just how good of a player he can be for the Spartans in 2015. With a few improvements to his offensive game, he can be one of the Big Ten's top players.