Power Ranking Branden Dawson and the Big Ten's Small Forwards

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistJuly 5, 2012

Power Ranking Branden Dawson and the Big Ten's Small Forwards

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    The Big Ten's crew of small forwards may not have the nationwide star power of the other four court positions, but there are players lining up at the 3 who will play major roles in the success of their teams this season.

    Athletic players with great size don't often grow on trees, so there may be a few players who are essentially the third man in a three-guard lineup.

    While some of these 12 guys may lack size, nearly all of them have athleticism to spare. Read on and see where Michigan State's Branden Dawson ranks in the wake of his ACL injury, as well as other prospects new and old.

12. Shavon Shields, Nebraska

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    If you've got a more compelling candidate to start at the 3 for Tim Miles' first Nebraska team, we'd all love to hear it. Shavon Shields is more known to Husker fans for his last name, being the son of gridiron legend Will Shields, than for his game.

    According to ESPN, Shields is a 2-star recruit out of Olathe, Kansas. He averaged 21 points per game and was a finalist for the DiRenna Award, presented to the top player in the Kansas City area. Shields lost out on that award to future Husker teammate Benny Parker.

    The fact that Shields was the primary focus of a team that included touted Kentucky recruit Willie Cauley-Stein says that he does have some talent. Still, there's a difference between getting to the basket against fellow Kansas City preps and making the same plays against Michigan State and Purdue.

11. Reggie Hearn, Northwestern

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    In Reggie Hearn and Drew Crawford, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody has two players who can rotate between the backcourt and the wing. A former walk-on, Hearn worked his way into starting all 33 games last season for the Wildcats.

    While Crawford will command a large share of the defensive attention, Hearn has scoring potential that should rear its head more often next season. In a one-week span, Hearn lit up Illinois, Iowa and Purdue for a combined 52 points on 18-of-28 shooting. He was 10-for-17 from three-point range in those games, as well.

    Hearn managed a double-double against Minnesota and dished five assists to only one turnover against Ohio State. Still, Hearn's negative assist-to-turnover figures and his reliance on the three make him the less preferable ball-handling option in comparison to Crawford.

    It seems odd to say that a player who took a total of 17 shots in his first two seasons is a prominent figure in his team's success going forward. In a post-John Shurna world, however, Reggie Hearn will have to shoulder a load for Northwestern to keep teasing fans awaiting that first NCAA tournament trip.

10. D.J. Richardson, Illinois

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    D.J. Richardson is 6'3" and 195 pounds. He's as much a small forward as I am a nose tackle. Let's just get that out of the way right now.

    Still, he's going to start for Illinois, unless new coach John Groce decides that one scattergun shooter is quite enough for one lineup.

    Richardson's 2011-12 season was a bit of a disappointment, as nearly all of his shooting percentages were career lows. While leading the Illini in minutes, Richardson trailed Brandon Paul in nearly every other category.

    Almost two-thirds of Richardson's shots came from outside the arc last season. A career 37-percent shooter from deep, he's a player who needs to be accounted for, but he's not a versatile enough player to be accounted for at another position like point guard.

    Richardson should be able to give the Illini that shooting and an occasional strong defensive night, but with a selection of unproven bigs on the roster, Richardson and Paul will face a lot of stiff defensive attention. How well their shooting strokes recover from last year's difficulties will determine whether Groce can get back to the NCAA tournament in his new job.

9. D.J. Newbill, Penn State

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    D.J. Newbill only stands 6'4", but that didn't stop him from averaging 6.2 rebounds per game in 2010-11, second on his Southern Miss team.

    Newbill can legitimately play three positions, so look for him to be coach Pat Chambers' resident Swiss Army knife. His point-guard skills can even give star floor general Tim Frazier a few minutes of rest.

    In his freshman season, Newbill was a model of offensive efficiency, ranking sixth in Conference USA in both effective FG percentage and true shooting percentage. Those figures were helped by judicious shot selection, as Newbill attempted only 14 three-pointers.

    Improving that three-point shot and continuing to get rebounds against Big Ten competition could make him a tremendous weapon for the Lions.

8. D.J. Byrd, Purdue

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    Yet another in the string of guys named D.J., Purdue's Byrd was a touted shooter coming out of North Montgomery High School in Crawfordsville, just 22 miles south of West Lafayette.

    In his junior season, Byrd began delivering on some of that promise, knocking down 43 percent of his three-point attempts en route to the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year award.

    Still, Purdue's 2012-13 season begins the post-Robbie Hummel era, meaning that Byrd and Terone Johnson will need to be offensive leaders rather than supporting figures.

    Byrd's 6'5", 234-pound frame is well-suited for fights for long rebounds, but he'll need to improve on his paltry 4.7 boards per 40 minutes from last season.

    Two-thirds of Byrd's shots were three-pointers, and he averaged nine field goal attempts for every two free throws. His shooting stroke was sweet enough for him to average nine points per game in 19.5 minutes, a better pace per 40 minutes than any Boiler not named Hummel.

    Every Boilermaker, not just Byrd, will need to diversify his game with no Hummel or Lewis Jackson to rely on for kickouts. If Byrd can vary his shot selection, it could put him in better rebounding positions and make him the most likely Boiler to match Hummel's 16 points and seven boards per game.

7. LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State

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    It's hard to find pictures of LaQuinton Ross getting game action in an Ohio State jersey. That situation was one that left Ross venting his frustration via social media last season. After a total of 35 minutes last season, look for Ross to be a bit more pleased with his workload this year.

    Academic issues derailed the start of Ross's season, leaving him hopelessly behind in his studies of Thad Matta's system. With a coach who shortens the bench as tightly as Matta, Ross may well have been the only one surprised at his lack of minutes.

    Ross can be a dangerous offensive player, capable of scoring from anywhere on the court. He can also be a passive observer. He has the length to defend nearly any position but may be a half-step slow on the perimeter.

    CBS Sports insider Jeff Goodman is a Ross fan, ranking him among the top 25 prospects for the 2013 NBA draft. If Goodman's assessment is accurate, that would certainly peg Ross as an All-Big Ten performer this season.

6. Melsahn Basabe, Iowa

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    Melsahn Basabe was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection as a freshman in 2010-11. His 11 points and 6.8 rebounds per game were tremendous figures for a player who saw 24 minutes per game.

    As a sophomore, his minutes and other figures dipped markedly. If not for the emergence of Aaron White, the Iowa frontcourt would have been completely barren.

    Basabe bulked up for those rebounding battles, but the extra weight hindered his explosiveness. The 6'7", 225-pound rising junior hopes that he has found a happy medium so he can return to the starting spot that he lost midway through last season.

    Basabe had a solid month of December last season, averaging 13.3 points and 8.4 rebounds during those eight games. From New Year's Day through the end of the regular season, he only cracked double figures three times.

    The Hawkeyes' NIT trip served as a reminder that Basabe was still a force, as he recorded 32 points and 13 boards in the two games. If he recaptures the potential that caused coach Fran McCaffery to tout him as a double-double threat, Iowa is a very real threat to return to the NCAA tournament after a six-year absence.

5. Branden Dawson, Michigan State

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    Branden Dawson's freshman year started with a strong effort on an aircraft carrier against a loaded North Carolina team. He scored 10 points and ripped seven boards against a frontcourt consisting of three NBA first-round picks.

    The season ended with Dawson tearing his ACL against Ohio State, a game in which Dawson was already frustrating Buckeye gunner William Buford. After Dawson's injury, Buford dropped in 21 of his 25 points and led OSU to victory.

    The uncertainty about Dawson's recovery is the primary reason that he ranks this low. When he's healthy, he's a strong defensive presence and a serious threat on the boards, especially on the offensive end.

    Dawson led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding percentage and ripped almost exactly half of his total rebounds on that end. At the time of the injury, Dawson had as many offensive caroms as Draymond Green, but in 400 fewer minutes.

    Without a full offseason, Dawson won't get the chance to work on his jumpshot, which is a minor weakness. Still, even if he can't make substantial improvements, the Spartans will be happy just to have him back on the court.

4. Glenn Robinson III, Michigan

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    Glenn Robinson III often goes by the nickname Tre. Considering he's suiting up for Michigan next season, a team already led by a Trey, it's going to be time to find a new handle.

    Whatever Wolverine fans call him, Robinson is likely to be a crowd favorite for his all-around offensive game. His 16 points earned him player of the game honors at the All-American Championship showcase during Final Four weekend.

    Much like his father, Purdue All-American and longtime pro Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, GRIII can score from anywhere on the court. Unlike his dad, the younger Glenn has difficulty doing the game's grunt work, particularly on the glass.

    GRIII told ESPN's Wolverine Nation (Insider piece) that he hopes to add 20 pounds to his 6'6", 215-pound frame by the time he leaves Ann Arbor. Such a change would make his body well-suited to more scrapping with the Big Ten's bruisers.

    Robinson's current body should be capable of producing some points if he gets shots behind veteran guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway. An All-Freshman team performance is highly possible.

3. Victor Oladipo, Indiana

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    Victor Oladipo may possess the greatest upside of any player on the Indiana roster. That's a large statement considering the insane depth on the Hoosiers' 2012-13 roster, and even bigger considering that the top center in the country mans the paint at Assembly Hall.

    A freakish athlete and All-Big Ten defensive team member, Oladipo has underrated offensive skills. Early in Indiana's Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky, Oladipo was getting to the rim with ease against a highly respected defensive crew. He finished that game with 15 points but fouled out in only 20 minutes.

    Oladipo's field-goal shooting percentages dropped from his freshman year, but his free-throw shooting improved to 75 percent. For a player who can get to the basket as effectively as Oladipo, strong free-throw shooting equates to a lot of easy points.

    Jump shooting is an issue, as Oladipo is a sub-25 percent three-point shooter for his career, albeit in only 74 attempts. Improving that facet of his offense will force defenders to respect the perimeter shot, instead of sagging off and playing him for the drive.

    At 6'5" and 215 pounds, Oladipo has a tremendous frame, suited for defending nearly every non-center in the Big Ten. If he can prove capable of scoring outside of the paint, he can play himself into All-Big Ten consideration as well as placing himself on NBA radar screens.

2. Ryan Evans, Wisconsin

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    Heading into his senior season, Ryan Evans has a leadership role staring him in the face. For a player who was cut from his high school team as a sophomore, that's a long trip.

    Evans averaged 11 points per game as a junior and ranked fifth in the Big Ten with 6.8 rebounds per game. Over a 14-game span heading into the Badgers' NCAA tournament loss to Syracuse, Evans upped those averages to 13.4 and 7.1, scoring in double figures every night.

    In his first two seasons, Evans' limited playing time was earned through sturdy defensive work, a facet of his game which has remained constant.

    Offensively, he's still working to improve his shooting. He made a career-high 44 percent of his shots overall but only 10 of 38 three-pointers. Adding a reliable outside shot to his arsenal could make him a 15-ppg scorer.

    Evans' sheer drive to improve and succeed may be his primary strength. Players nationwide produce less with more talent than Evans possesses, because Evans is a player who "[doesn't] like to be scored on." Few players in the Big Ten will outwork Evans, which means that he should be able to justify this ranking at season's end.

1. Rodney Williams, Minnesota

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    It sounds odd to say that anyone affiliated with the Minnesota basketball program benefited from Trevor Mbakwe's season-ending injury last December. That's exactly what happened, though, in the case of fellow forward Rodney Williams.

    Before Mbakwe went down against Dayton, Williams was averaging 7.7 points and 2.7 rebounds. After the injury, Williams moved to power forward himself and upped his averages to 13.3 points and 6.2 boards.

    Those numbers weren't quite equivalent to Mbakwe's lost production, but they were vastly superior to anything Williams had recorded before.

    Williams saved the best for last, averaging 19.3 points on 62 percent shooting over the Gophers' final six games, including their run to the NIT final. He still needs to add a jumpshot, and even his set shooting needs a lot of work. Williams shot only 59 percent from the line last season, and that's a career high.

    Defensively, Williams established himself as a playmaker, joining Indiana's Cody Zeller as the only players to finish in the Big Ten's top 10 in both steals and blocks.

    With Mbakwe back, defenses have to respect him in the post, leaving them less able to focus on Williams. Moving back to his natural small forward position, Williams will need that shooting improvement to justify this ranking, but if he gets it, look for Minnesota to force themselves into NCAA tournament talk.