There are times when Branden Dawson looks like a player coming off a major injury.
Since tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in March 2012, Dawson was kept away from the game and has struggled regaining many of the physical intangibles that made him so dominant in his freshman season. At times, it shows up in his conditioning, defensive effectiveness and even in his signature work in the paint at both ends of the floor.
But most times, the sophomore guard only needs a small adjustment to display some of the same flashes from a season ago.
After a sluggish first half was pointed out to him on film during halftime of Saturday’s game against Purdue, Dawson became a catalyst in a sizable second half run to lead the No. 18 Spartans (12-3 overall, 1-1 Big Ten) over Purdue (7-7, 1-1), 84-61.
“You know, me and coach, we watched the games from last year and he just told me – he just wanted me to go out there and play hard and that’s what I did in the second half,” Dawson said. “I told myself in my mind that I needed to pick it up and it was time to play.”
Freshman guard Gary Harris was the Spartans’ leading scorer with 22 points, largely a product of his six 3-pointers on the afternoon. However, Dawson was equally impressive on the floor and in the stat column, picking up his fifth career double-double by way of 14 points and 11 rebounds.
In his postgame press conference, head coach Tom Izzo singled out Dawson, along with senior center Derrick Nix and freshman guard Denzel Valentine, as players he needs to put together more consistent showings if the Spartans hope to compete in a competitive Big Ten conference.
“(Dawson) has to play with more energy,” Izzo said. “I thought the first half he didn’t and I thought the second half, he played with as much as I’ve seen him play with in over a year, and it was a big difference in the game.”
Green eggs and Hammons
After the game, Dawson heaped praise on Purdue’s freshman center A.J. Hammons.
Hammons finished the game as the Boilermakers’ leading scorer with 20 points on 8-of-12 (66.6 percent) shooting from the field while controlling the paint for much the game. The 7-foot, 280-pound native of Gary, Ind., Hammons has been an early contributor for Purdue this season, averaging 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
Yet more than the individual performance, Dawson was fascinated with the improvement in the game of a player he’s been watching since his youth, when both players were coming up in Indiana.
“When me and (sophomore guard) Travis (Trice) were back in the seventh grade, (Hammons) was still coming up; he was big – I think he weighed more than Nix,” Dawson said. “I saw him last year when me and (former Spartan) Brandon Wood went to a program game in Indianapolis and I saw him. He played and I was just surprised because he slimmed down and I was surprised because he slimmed down even more.”
“To see him score 18-20 points, I thought ‘Wow, he’s been working hard.’ I was very impressed.”
The play of Hammons was no surprise to Purdue head coach Matt Painter.
When Hammons picked up his fourth foul of the game nearing the midway point of the second half and was subbed out, Dawson and Nix used the advantage to get points in the paint as part of a 28-7 run in the half and seal the game for the Spartans.
“It hurt us when we had the call go against us, and then A.J. Hammons had to go out,” Painter said. “We felt like we had to get the ball inside and try to steal some points, and with him out of the game, we just don’t have the same presence; that really hurt us.”