Michigan State Basketball: The 5 Most Impressive Spartans in 2013-14

Brad Almquist@bquist13Featured ColumnistMarch 7, 2014

Michigan State Basketball: The 5 Most Impressive Spartans in 2013-14

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    As Michigan State’s 2013-14 regular season winds down, it’s time to reflect on who the most impressive Spartans have been.

    At 23-7, the team has overcome season-long injuries and orchestrated a fantastic season. Now with a full, unscathed lineup, Sparty may be destined for a deep run in the Big Dance.

    But for now, let’s reflect on the players who were largely responsible for the impressive record. Keep in mind that this list doesn’t involve the “best” players but rather the most “impressive,” given their initial expectations.

Gary Harris

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Harris’ preseason expectations were as lofty as anyone’s. The sharpshooting sophomore was dubbed as the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, per CBS Sports, and was expected to fuel the Spartans to a Big Ten title.

    In the latter regard, that didn’t happen. But he still has an outside chance to be crowned as the best player in the conference, although the likelihood is slim.

    His second campaign in the green and white has been up-and-down but overall productive.

    The former Mr. Indiana Basketball winner is only .1 of a point from being the conference’s leading scorer and is fourth in the Big Ten in three-pointers made. At times, he was relied on perhaps unfairly because of the constant injuries to teammates.

    Not only was he asked to the shoulder the offensive load but also to make plays defensively. He certainly did.

    Harris has exceptionally quick feet, hands and instincts on the defensive end, which is why he is third in the Big Ten at 1.96 steals per game.

    A tremendous two-way player who doesn’t possess a glaring flaw in his skill set sums up Harris.

    His sophomore season has validated the lofty expectations that others had placed on him before this season.

Adreian Payne

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Payne’s senior season is a product of the nonstop work he has sacrificed since he entered the Spartan program as a raw, athletic product four years ago.

    Now, he hits perimeter shots. He is shooting a gaudy 41.5 percent from behind the three-point line.

    Now, he picks his spots and refuses to force anything. And most importantly, he has emerged as one of the standout leaders on the squad.

    If there is anything he can’t do on a basketball court, it hasn’t been proved. This season, he has also shot over 51 percent from the field and 74 percent from the charity stripe.

    On the other end of the floor, Payne utilizes his length and athleticism to protect the paint and alter shots. He also runs the floor with pace and purpose.

    If it weren’t for his nagging foot injuries, his 2013-14 season was shaping up to be an unblemished one. Now returned and fully healthy, the senior big man will look to continue his electric play into the postseason.

    Payne has capped his solid four-year career with an outstanding senior season.

Keith Appling

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    Prior to his injury, Appling was a front-runner for the Big Ten Player of the Year Award and in the discussion for the Wooden Award.

    The three-year growing pains have finally worn off, as he has finally evolved into the well-groomed point guard that Tom Izzo desired. Just look at the stats: He has improved in many categories, and if it weren’t for his injury, this would have been his year in every category.

    But his impact goes far beyond the raw numbers.

    The indubitable floor general for the Spartans sets the pace with defensive intensity. He has done a fantastic job of disrupting opposing point guards this season.

    That was his strength all along. What he has added to his skill set, however, is a consistent perimeter jump shot, and he is learning to involve his teammates more often. He is second in the Big Ten with 4.7 assists per game and has a 2.24-1 ratio of assists to turnovers.

    That’s paramount point guard play. Even despite his injury, which momentarily seemed to sink his confidence and put a dent into his impressive stat line, Appling has been tremendous this season.

    He has blossomed into a complete point guard in his final collegiate season.

Denzel Valentine

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Valentine may be the most versatile player in the Big Ten. While he isn’t discussed as being in the upper echelon of elite players, he is the only player who places in the top 10 for rebounds and assists per game.

    That’s rare.

    Regarded as one of the best passers in the conference, he awes with deceptive passing. In addition, he has added a solid three-point jumper to his arsenal, which he shoots at 34.5 percent (6.4 percent greater than last season).

    On the rebounding front, he places at second on the team with 6.2 per game, which is also second for guards in the conference. He has recorded eight games of eight rebounds or more.

    Defensively, Valentine is adept as well. He uses his large frame and surprising quickness to shut down opponents. He is 14th in the Big Ten with 1.1 steals per contest.

    Valentine’s 2013-14 season may be the most impressive—not only for his production, but because he has played multiple roles for the team when every other major player was injured at some point.

    Next season will be his breakout campaign. But if the Spartans’ 2013-14 season has featured one constant, it's Valentine’s presence.

Kenny Kaminski

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    Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

    Nobody expected Kaminski to have the impact that he has had on Michigan State this early in his career. It’s remarkable for an obscure, freshman role player to lead the Big Ten in a major category.

    He is tops in the Big Ten for three-point percentage at 47.1. While his role is confined to knocking down perimeter shots and playing solid defense, he has performed it with excellence.

    He initially broke out in early January, when his eight three-pointers through two games helped the Spartans win important contests against Ohio State and Minnesota. Since that point, he has been an imperative member of the rotation.

    He didn’t flinch when his name was called early in the season to contribute sparingly, nor did he when he was asked to start. The freshman has played with confidence all season long.

    He has the shooting ability to single-handedly take over a game. He displayed that in a 19-point, 5-of-6 from three-point range game against Penn State earlier this year.

    Kaminski has progressed from an afterthought in the preseason to an integral part of the Spartans’ success.