Michigan State Basketball: Grading Each Player at the Midseason Point

Brad Almquist@bquist13Featured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2014

Michigan State Basketball: Grading Each Player at the Midseason Point

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    After an impressive 16-1 start to the 2013-14 season, the Michigan State Spartans find themselves sitting atop the Big Ten conference and ranked amidst the Top 5 nationally.

    But it hasn't come without its share of frustrations and road blocks.

    On the positive end of the spectrum, the trio of touted Spartans, Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, has produced the way Tom Izzo had hoped. All three players are averaging more than 16 points per game, but most importantly, have performed on the biggest stages.

    More of a surprise, however, has been the emergence of sharpshooter Kenny Kaminski. Kaminski is shooting a whopping 13 of 19 from three in the last six games.

    Collectively, the Spartans have displayed their ability to win different types of games, something indicative of a championship team. When it is clicking, Michigan State is tough to stop. Its assortment of scoring, rebounding, ability to share the ball and defensive intensity will make it a tough out in March.

    However, it hasn't all been smooth sailing for the veteran Spartans. The team has been decimated by nagging injuries, including an ongoing foot problem for the All-Big Ten forward Payne, which has forced the team to win grind-it-out games in the absence of its versatile senior.

    Compounding the injury issues, high-flying junior forward Branden Dawson has looked incredibly inconsistent and disconnected from the game. His sporadic play is a source of concern for Izzo and the Spartans.

    Yet through the roller coaster of injuries, uncertainties, pleasant surprises and nail-biting games, Michigan State couldn't be happier with its current standing.

    Let's reflect on each significant player's cumulative performance through the season's first 17 games.

Keith Appling

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    For senior point guard Keith Appling, the three-year growing pains have certainly paid off.

    Appling has put it all together in his senior campaign, averaging 16.4 points on 50 percent shooting from the floor to go with a team-leading 4.6 assists per game. But looking past the stats, one can see a completely different player.

    The Detroit native has morphed into the undeniable leader and signal-caller for the veteran-laden Spartans. He has played with indubitable confidence, evidenced by his willingness to take the final shots in the waning moments of games, most notably the Ohio State showdown.

    The most obvious improvement to Appling's game is his ability to knock down perimeter shots. He is shooting an astounding 48.3 percent from behind the arc so far, compared to the lowly 32 percent he shot last season.

    Through Big Ten play, Appling has played lights out, scoring 14 points or more in all but one contest. His 20-point, seven-assist outburst in the recent showdown against Ohio State proved to be the difference in an early tilt between two of the conference's perennial powers. As the Spartans continued reeling, Appling was there to make one game-saving play after the other.

    And that's exactly what Tom Izzo needs from him.

    Appling's multifaceted skill set will continue to help charge one of the nation's most potent attacks this season. Not only can he score and set up teammates in a variety of ways, but he plays defense with great intensity as well.

    This season, Michigan State is second in the country with just over 18 assists per game. The majority of that success falls on Appling's tremendous decision making and ability to spread the wealth.

    Quite simply, Appling is having a career year, which has catapulted him into the National Player of the Year discussion.

    While the Spartans are immensely talented and experienced, they will only be as good as Appling wants them to be. So far, he has made them one of the clear favorites to cut down the nets in early April.

    Grade: A+

Gary Harris

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    Being dubbed as the Preseason Player of the Year for the Big Ten carries some major expectations. For the second year shooting guard from Indiana, that label hasn't fazed him.

    Gary Harris, numbers-wise, is having a good, not great year. He is leading the Spartans with 17 points per game, which is only .3 points off of the Big Ten lead, but is doing so on 40 percent shooting.

    As a scorer, Harris' skill set is extremely well rounded. He can pull up from three, attack the rim off the dribble and get to the free-throw line with ease. His complete offensive repertoire is much of the reason why he was expected to be the most outstanding player in the conference.

    When gauging his performance up to this point in the season in relation to that preseason honor, Harris probably hasn't lived up to the billing. Most would agree that his backcourt counterpart, Keith Appling, is more of a forerunner in the Player of Year race.

    But Harris has been impressive. While he continues to search for that consistent outside shot he is so capable of showcasing, he has still scored at a high rate, which speaks to his versatility.

    Harris is also much more than just a volume scorer. An underrated defender, Harris has lateral quickness, overall athleticism and quick hands to frustrate opponents, which is why he leads the team in steals.

    Through the near midpoint of the season, Harris has played well. He is the team's primary scorer, provides a defensive presence on the perimeter and continues to lead by example. The sophomore sensation's performance is one of the key factors to Michigan State's ongoing success.

    Given the Spartans' constant barrage of injuries, Harris will be heavily relied on to produce on both ends. Expect the second-year shooting guard to step up.

    Grade: B

Adreian Payne

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    Riddled by a nagging foot injury, Adreian Payne's boundless ability may have to wait. Tom Izzo has made it clear that he has no intention of rushing back the versatile power forward any time soon.

    But when he's played, Payne has certainly impressed.

    A raw, athletic product coming out of high school, Payne possessed all of the athletic ability required to be a force in the Big Ten. Now, four years later, he is a polished byproduct of Izzo's system.

    This season, Payne is averaging 16.2 points per game, good for 10th in the Big Ten, on 52.4 percent from the field. He is also draining nearly 44 percent of the three pointers he takes, and he knocks down free throws at an 80 percent clip.

    You just don't see 6'10", 245-pound loads in the paint shooting with that kind of accuracy very often.

    The game that embodied Payne's mix of skill, determination and willingness to play through pain was the Ohio State showdown. Originally expected to sit due to a foot injury, Payne entered the game and struggled early on. However, as the game progressed, Payne got going offensively, throwing down put-back dunks and hitting open threes.

    The stoic Payne helped the Spartans earn that crucial win. Since that performance, however, he has yet to appear in a game, which is certainly a cause for concern.

    Payne is set to undergo an MRI on his right foot later this week. The Spartans can't afford to lose their All-Big Ten forward, especially given the way he has played up to this point.

    Grade: A-

Branden Dawson

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    You never really know what Branden Dawson will give you on a particular night. So far this season, Dawson's sporadic play is one of the biggest concerns for Tom Izzo, who admitted he doesn't know what has been wrong with the junior forward.

    One night, Dawson is a force in the paint, finishing everything around the rim and being that momentum-changing athlete that he is supposed to be. In the Indiana game, he was just that. In the Penn State game, Dawson was tuned in and determined, as he finished with a thunderous 20-point, nine-rebound performance.

    But only if it were always that easy.

    Other games, and more recently, Dawson appears to be disinterested and uninspired. Whether it is a mental hurdle he has been unable to get over, or just being passive, Dawson clearly hasn't been right. He has registered eight or fewer points in eight of the 17 contests this season, which is simply inexcusable.

    More alarmingly, Dawson hasn't shown up in prime-time games. As the Spartans near a difficult stretch, with games that feature Michigan, Iowa and Georgetown, Dawson has to perform if they want to emerge as victorious. Additionally, given the bleakness of standout forward Adreian Payne's foot injury, Dawson will have to help carry the load and assert himself as an offensive presence.

    But it's all up to Dawson. If the mental side matches the physical capabilities, then the Spartans will have a locked-in specimen at their disposal.

    That remains to be seen.

    Grade: C-

Denzel Valentine

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    As the primary sixth man for the Spartans, Denzel Valentine has struggled with his stroke. He is shooting just 36.8 percent from the field, barely under 30 percent from three and 68.4 percent from the charity stripe.

    However, his value goes far beyond his ability to score. Valentine has had a solid season if you look past his shooting woes.

    The do-it-all sophomore is a tremendous rebounder for a guard, averaging 5.6 rebounds per contest. He also passes very well and is second on the team with just under four assists per game.

    The multidimensional Valentine allows Tom Izzo to tinker with the lineup due to his large frame.

    While Valentine certainly is capable of doing a variety of things on the offensive end, he has quickly asserted himself as an outstanding defender. In Michigan State's most recent contest against Northwestern, Valentine disrupted Northwestern star Drew Crawford, who is one of the premier scorers in the Big Ten. Valentine held Crawford to a dismal 1-8 shooting from the field, as he finished with only six points.

    Valentine is an important luxury for Izzo to have at his disposal because of the well-roundedness to his game. Once his shooting stroke comes to fruition, the Lansing, Mich., native will pose another legitimate scoring threat for the loaded Spartans.

    Grade: B-

Matt Costello

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    Costello has had to battle his way back after being diagnosed with mononucleosis, so it has taken the sophomore some time to return to normal activity.

    In the recent contest against Minnesota, Costello played a solid seven-point, eight-rebound and three-block game in 26 minutes. That performance is a microcosm of Costello's overall game.

    He won't awe opponents with incredible athleticism, or amaze with limitless range from the three-point arc. Costello is a consummate blue-collared, hard working 4-man who makes his living off scrappiness.

    Thus far, Costello has exhibited those qualities. He is shooting 57.1 percent from the field, mainly because most of the shots he ever takes are within the painted area. But he is still accurate when he does so.

    However, Costello isn't particularly pinpoint from the free-throw line, shooting 57.1 percent from the stripe.

    But Tom Izzo needs only one thing from Costello: constant effort. Costello plays with heart and is a solid rim protector on the defensive end.

    He doesn't have the most potential and certainly isn't the flashiest, but Costello's worth to the team shouldn't be undervalued. The Spartans will need his grit moving forward.

    Grade: B

Travis Trice

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    A quick, smooth-shooting backup to Keith Appling, Travis Trice offers an important piece to the Spartan offense.

    Trice is shooting nearly 43 percent from behind the arc this season. He has the ability to enter the game and provide an instant boost from the perimeter, as we have seen in the Texas and Penn State games, where he poured in 13 and 12 points.

    While he is occasionally omitted from the rotation against bulkier teams, Trice is certainly a worthy point guard who can run the offense. On the opposite end of the floor, Trice is a pesky defender with quick hands. He is averaging 1.2 steals in only 21 minutes.

    Thus far, despite a week-long illness, Trice's junior campaign has been a steady, unscathed one. Expect the six-foot junior to continue to provide the three-point shooting dynamic that he has already offered.

    Grade: B

Kenny Kaminski

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    Kenny Kaminski's recent shooting spree is downright ridiculous, as the 6'8" freshman is 13 of 19 from three-point range in the last six games.

    He is scorching hot and has provided immediate offense off the bench. Last Saturday, in the overtime thriller against Minnesota, Kaminski erupted for 15 points on five of seven shooting from three. The freshman marksman is adding an element to the Spartans that makes them even more dangerous offensively.

    While Kaminski is only averaging 5.6 points per game, he is shooting a worldly 61.5 percent from three. He is currently in the midst of an incredible span, although that percentage is probably unattainable.

    However, Kaminski doesn't particularly add anything in any other phase of the game. He is a big body at 225 pounds and isn't a liability on defense, but he isn't a standout either.

    But still, for a relatively obscure role player to enter big-time games and produce in that fashion is extremely impressive.

    Don't expect Kaminski to continue draining threes at this torrid pace, but his success certainly doesn't appear to be a fluke, considering the high praise he has received from Tom Izzo.

    His shooting stroke just equips Michigan State with another lethal weapon to its arsenal.

    Grade: A