A Closer Look at Michigan State’s Game Without Adreian Payne & Branden DawsonPosted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) on February 6th, 2014
According to the East Lansing Journal, Michigan State’s senior forward, Adreian Payne, will play against Penn State on Thursday night. After missing seven games with a foot injury, his return couldn’t come at a better time for the injury-riddled Spartans, who are also playing without their leading rebounder, Branden Dawson. Dawson will be out for at least more three weeks with a broken hand. Losing two out of three games without two of their best players isn’t completely surprising, but let’s take a closer look at why Tom Izzo needs at least one of them to be healthy by March to maintain any aspirations of contending for the national title. Specifically, let’s examine three statistics that generally show how Dawson and Payne’s absence has affected the Spartans on both ends of the floor.
Per possession, the points allowed and the points scored give us an indication of Michigan State’s efficiency over the last three games. So far this season, the Spartans have only allowed 0.96 points per possession (PPP), and without the forwards, they have allowed, on average, a whopping 1.1 PPP on defense. Getting out-rebounded in each game will do that to you because offensive rebounds will lead to significantly easier buckets than jumpers. Even Denzel Valentine, one of the better rebounding guards in the country, isn’t enough to fill Dawson’s shoes because he is too busy chasing guards around the screens to come back to the defensive glass on every possession. Losing the rebounding edge is an obvious reason for the drop-off in defensive performance, but the Spartans have also been weak on transition defense because they continue to attack the offensive glass, despite a shorter lineup. This metric is tough to measure with the data available, but generally speaking, sending your forwards to the offensive glass on every possession means that the guards will need to run back immediately to cover any transition plays. That’s one area where they specifically miss Dawson because he would often sneak into the paint off the baseline to grab offensive rebounds. And when he did, there was no reason for Valentine to attack the glass, allowing him to run back down the floor to prevent any transition opportunities. Without Dawson and Payne, the Spartans have to change their philosophy of consistently picking up offensive boards – a change that’s tougher to implement because such a move would reduce their overall energy on the court.
On the offensive side of the ball, losing a combined 27 points per game between the two forwards is not an easy gap to fill but Gary Harris and Keith Appling have done their best to keep up. Putting the obvious lack of scoring aside, let’s understand how the offensive style has been negative impacted during their absence. First off, Dawson’s ability to tip the ball in or keeping it alive in the paint is definitely baked into the lower PPP over the three games. But more importantly, Payne’s ability to hit the jumper consistently off the pick-and-rolls is hurting the Spartan guards. No offense to Matt Costello, who has a nice jumper, but he can’t consistently carry the burden for 30 minutes every game. Teams have figured out to step back and off the picks to defend Harris and Appling in the paint – forcing them to beat you with the three-pointer or the mid-range shot. Another key play that’s missing without Payne and Dawson is the alley-oop dunk from the baseline when Appling or Harris got into the paint. Picture an offensive set where Payne set the pick for Harris at the top of the key and the sophomore was able to make his way past the defender into the paint. That situation puts the opposing forward in a fix: he can choose to defend Harris’ floater or just step back and take his chances. If he did the former, you would usually see Dawson sneak behind him from the corner for a thunderous slam because Harris could lob the ball up for him. Not to mention, Harris also had an option to pass the ball back to Payne, who can shoot the mid-range jumper effectively. In other words, without two scoring options in the paint, the Spartan guards shoot more from beyond the arc, as indicated by the total three-point attempts over field goal attempts. Lately, they try to attempt way more shots from the perimeter compared to their season average of 35.1%, which is not a great sign over the long-run because it will make them too predictable and one-sided.
None of this should be shocking news because we know that Payne and Dawson are two of the best players in the Big Ten, but having Payne back, and hopefully healthy, should ease the pain a bit over the next month. When Dawson returns in March, his effectiveness may be uncertain because the competition will begin to step up a notch and coming back to “game shape” will be rather tough. First things first, the Spartans should benefit from Payne’s return on Thursday.