Travis Trice has gotten the most attention during Michigan State’s run to the Final 4 — and for good reason — but if the Spartans are to advance, the man leading the way could easily be Branden Dawson. Often the most athletic player on the court, Dawson has fought injuries through his career, possibly limiting his development as a player. But when he’s on his game, Dawson is one of the funner players on the court, easily rising above anyone in his path. Michigan State is an underdog in this year’s Final 4, but the senior Dawson, a former McDonald’s All-American, can turn the tide at any moment.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Dawson averaged 9.1 rebounds per game, leading the Big Ten in his senior season
Dawson, listed at only 6-foot-6, is known for his athleticism (watch the video above), and is the main reason he led the Big Ten with 9.1 rebounds per game. He was also second in the conference with nine double-doubles on the season, only behind Frank Kaminsky. Dawson opened the Big Ten season with eight double-doubles in the first 13 games.
In his senior season, Dawson is recording career highs in points (11.9), rebounds (9.1), assists (1.7) and blocks (1.6). Along with that, this is the first time that he has surpassed 1,000 minutes played despite missing multiple games to injury. Dawson also became a more complete defensive player in his senior season, being named to the Big Ten’s all-defensive team in addition to second-team all-conference. Throughout the season he has guarded players ranging from big men Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin) and TaShawn Thomas (Oklahoma) to wing players Justin Anderson (Virginia) and Pat Connaughton (Notre Dame).
2. He played in the 2011 McDonald’s All-American game
Branden Dawson was highly recruited out of Gary, Indiana, playing for Lew Wallace High School. He was ranked as a Top 25 player by Scout, Rivals, and ESPNU. He led his high school to the state championship as a junior (averaging 23.1 points, 14.7 rebounds, 4.8 steals and 3.1 blocks) and the regional semifinals as a senior.
Dawson played alongside Anthony Davis, Cody Zeller and Austin Rivers in the All-American game, bringing down a game-high six offensive boards. He finished with nine points and eight total rebounds in 14 minutes of action. Also in that game, Dawson played against Quinn Cook and Marshall Plumlee, two players he’ll see in Michigan State’s Final 4 matchup.
If you doubted his athleticism, he was also in the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest.
3. He was a top-20 recruit, but injuries derailed his NBA future
Once a possible first-round NBA draft prospect, Dawson picked up an injury in all but one year of his collegiate career, most notably a torn ACL at the end of his freshman year. Early in his collegiate career, he was projected as a second-round prospect for the NBA, but that has fallen off and DraftExpress now rates him just inside the Top 100. There was always speculation that Dawson would leave, but injuries and the desire to improve were always reasons for returning.
Dawson tore his ACL at the end of his freshman season, missing the final six games of the season, which included a Sweet 16 loss to Louisville. He broke a bone in his hand his junior year, forcing him to miss nine games in January and February. In his senior season, Dawson missed two games in December due to a fractured wrist, and another game in March after sustaining a concussion against Purdue on March 4.
4. He and MSU teammate Travis Trice have been friends since seventh grade
Dawson and Trice met each other back when the two played AAU basketball together in seventh grade. They quickly became friends and have played on the same team every year since then. They played with AAU team SYF and eventually signed to Michigan State on the same day. While Dawson was a five-star recruit, Trice was more under-the-radar and not heavily recruited as a three-star player. That friendship was one of the reasons Trice decided to sign on with Michigan State and Tom Izzo. And now, the two friends have taken the Spartans to the Final 4 in their final year.
5. He has a 4-year-old son that lives with him in East Lansing
Dawson’s son, My’Shawn James Dawson, only started living with him at the beginning of his senior year in September 2014.
“This has made him grow up real quick,” said Cassandra Dawson, Branden’s mother, who has watched her son develop from a self-admitted troublemaker in his teen years to “a positive influence for a lot of people – a lot more than he realizes. Branden missed out on having a father in his life, because his father let the streets control him. Drugs, jail, the streets got him.”
“It’s helped me mature a lot, but it’s more about him,” the 22-year-old Dawson said. “My dad, I don’t have a problem with him, I don’t hate him or anything. I still love him. But as far as with my son, I just want to be there for him, man. Do the things with him that my dad didn’t do with me.”
My’Shawn was getting into trouble in preschool back in Gary and was bouncing around a number of places and his mother, Dawson’s ex-girlfriend, got a night job and needed help. Before his senior year, Dawson convinced his ex-girlfriend that he would be better off with him in Michigan, and he’s made it work with help from friends and a family in East Lansing that helps watch My’Shawn.
“Branden’s come leaps and bounds this year,” Renaldo Thomas, Dawson’s high school coach, said, “and you can see the difference it has made, having his son with him all the time.”