Experience—not to mention another year past an ACL injury—probably plays a part, but there's more to Branden Dawson's imminent emergence.
Confidence, perhaps at a career-high, has been his most visible attribute.
His heroics during late stages against then-No. 1 Kentucky and Columbia helped Michigan State reach No. 1 for the first time since 2001.
With an eight-point, 10-rebound effort Monday during the Spartans' 82-67 late dismissal of Portland, Dawson continued demonstrating advanced ability in several facets of the game.
His rebounding, for one, appears stronger.
As a sophomore, he averaged nearly six boards per game. This season, he's averaging nine per outing. Considering the competition, that stat's not all that impressive, but he grabbed nine rebounds against the Wildcats in Chicago, a game in which the Spartans won 78-74, thanks in part to a late tip from the 6'6", 220-pound junior.
Overlooked due to his athleticism, Dawson's touch on the pass has experienced an upgrade, too.
Averaging 3.3 assists per game, he's tripled his career average of about one per game. Again, it's early in the year, so it's important to note the level of opposition.
So far, though, his top game of the season has been against the best competition. Not only did he score eight points and grab nine boards vs. the Wildcats, but he also had four steals, two assists and just one turnover—not bad for his second go of the year, right?
The Spartans (4-0) will certainly get much more from Dawson. And it's only November.
|Dawson's (young) season by the numbers|
|Dawson's ESPN profile|
The Time is Now
Upon arrival, Dawson was given, at most, three years by most Spartans fans. The former 5-star recruit, per Rivals, was viewed as a player who could easily jump to the Association after two winters in East Lansing.
Suffering an ACL injury late in his freshman year derailed that plan, and as a sophomore, Dawson was forced to play catch-up instead of advancing his game to the professional level, which will likely happen after this year.
So yeah, this is it for Dawson. If not now, it'll be never. The chances of him staying for his senior year are based on his performance—and if he plays up to the level that most expect him to, well, it's good-bye Mr. Dawson.
Playing up to par means also means satisfying Tom Izzo, who chose to "shake it up" by removing Dawson from the starting lineup prior to meeting Portland, per Diamond Leung of MLive.com.
Izzo's move was a way to motivate Dawson, who needs to be nudged every now and then. Izzo knows what this season has in store, and it's more than a future professional contract for an underclassman—it's a second national championship.
As one of the most athletic in the Big Ten, Dawson is absolutely the X-factor. He's been that and will continue to be for as long as he's at Michigan State. Shades of a stardom have been revealed by Dawson, who is a few breakout games away from becoming more than a hidden gem in the Big Ten.
Too Much Talent to Fail
There are teams that could only dream of having a contributor such as Dawson, let alone the amount of power that surrounds him.
He has an All-American power forward in Adreian Payne, an all-conference point guard in Keith Appling and a lottery pick flanking the wing in Gary Harris.
In reality, someone with much less skill and raw ability than Dawson could survive. No excuses. With a cast like that, there is no reason why Dawson shouldn't develop into one of the best juniors in college ball.
NBA Draft Express ranks Dawson as the No. 7 junior (No. 37 overall). He could finish as a top-three junior by simply going with the flow. He could be No. 1 in his class if he completes his apparent transformation from a decent piece of Izzo's roster to a cornerstone.
Michigan State's media guide contains the following Izzo-on-Dawson line, per Leung:
When I watched him this summer, he was finishing so much better. I think we will see a lot different kid this year. He's also worked on his shot a lot. He's still got work to go, but he's making strides.
With skill abundant, Izzo's team shouldn't have an issue earning a No. 1 to No. 3 seed in March. Already tops in the nation, the Spartans could be the undisputed No. 1 entering The Big Dance. Should that happen, it'd be safe to assume that Dawson had more than a little to do with it.
Sure, he has good teammates, but Dawson is the guy who'll push Michigan State over the edge.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81