Michigan State coach Tom Izzo hasn’t been quite sure how to approach small forward Branden Dawson this season.
How far do you push an athlete coming back from serious (anterior cruciate ligament) knee surgery? That’s a slippery slope for a coach to navigate, but Izzo decided to prod Dawson after a lackluster first half against Purdue on Saturday.
Dawson responded in a big way to lead the Spartans to victory. He had four points and three rebounds in the first half, then came back to finish with 14 points and 11 rebounds for his first double-double since the season opener vs. Connecticut.
He followed that effort up with a career-high 17 points in Thursday night’s 62-59 win at Iowa.
“The injury has bothered the kid,” Izzo said. “He just hasn’t come back … The second half (against Purdue), I think he just decided to let it go.
“I don’t think it’s physically hindering him, but people tell me, there’s a mental hindrance to serious injuries like that. I think BJ played at a different energy level in the second half (Saturday).
Izzo cried with Dawson, nicknamed BJ, in the Breslin Center trainer’s room after their regular-season finale last March, when they learned of the severity of the ligament tear caused in a knee-to-knee collision. Dawson feared his career might be over or wouldn’t live up to expectations.
The tears streaming down his coach’s face left an impression on Dawson. It was an emotional time the two of them continue coping with.
Freshman Gary Harris saw the need to say something during the Purdue game and ignited Dawson.
“Gary said, ‘We need you to play hard,’” Dawson recalled. “I have to stop thinking so much and just play the game.
“We’re capable of doing great things on this team. We have great players … and our chemistry has come along.”
The No. 22 Spartans (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten) received more than scoring from Dawson on Thursday. He added four rebounds, three steals, three assists and one block. He also made the play of the game down the stretch.
Dawson stole the ball on the perimeter, dribbled the length of the court and then rifled down a one-handed jam to give the Spartans a 58-56 lead they never relinquished.
“He was too much for Iowa to handle,” former MSU coach Gus Ganakas said on the WJR-AM postgame show.
Dawson is averaging 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds for slight increases over his 8.4 points and 4.5 rebounds as a freshman.
The Spartans haven’t been quite sure how to react to what Izzo termed a “freakish comeback” that put Dawson ahead of schedule.
“The cast came off and the leg did not atrophy,” MSU assistant coach Mike Garland said. “It was amazing.”
The coaching staff wanted to push Dawson but were concerned. What if his hesitance wasn’t just a mental thing? What if he reinjured the knee?
So Izzo and his staff initially walked on eggshells with him. Now those days of easing off on Dawson could be over.
“I was fatigued earlier,” Dawson said. “Now I’m getting my wind up. I’m feeling great.”
Dawson, a McDonald’s All-America from Gary (Ind.) Lew Wallace High, averaged 28.7 points, 18.6 rebounds and 5.6 points as a senior. Izzo expects greatness from his 6-foot-6 swingman.
“I came out with a lot of intensity in the second half,” Dawson said of the Purdue game. “Now I have to keep up that intensity.”
Dawson is averaging 26.9 minutes per game, trailing only starting guards Keith Appling (33.3) and Harris (27.3) in playing time. Aside from being winded earlier, Dawson said nothing about the knee bothering him.
It seems like the time has come to let it all hang out. The second half against the Boilermakers was a good start.
Harris, who prompted Dawson to push himself, said: “He played with tremendous energy, and we all followed him.”