Off-Season Series: Keith Appling

During the summer, Isportsweb writer Steven Miller will be doing an off-season series on MSU Basketball.  Every Tuesday he will post an article examining a returning player’s past history, what he needs to spend his off-season working on, and what his role and expectations will be for next season.

Now we will turn our attention to one of the young stars in Michigan State’s program, Keith Appling.  The former McDonald’s All-American had a fantastic high school career, capped off by a scintillating 49 performance in the Class A championship game at the Breslin Center.  During that game, he showed off his whole arsenal.  He was scoring off-the-dribble at will and his pull-up jumper was absolutely on point.  It was his first great performance on the Breslin Center floor.  Spartan fans hope there will be many more.

Appling had a solid first season donning a Spartan uniform; you could argue he was one of the bright spots in an otherwise gloomy season.  His overall numbers and impact were not overwhelming, but his role increased as the season went on, and his confidence grew significantly.  Korie Lucious’s departure was the obvious catalyst to his increased playing time, but Keith took advantage of it, delivering some very good performances down the stretch.  He had four straight double-digit games at a critical juncture of the season, and you could see his confidence growing as a scorer.  That is good, because he’s gonna need that confidence this year.  Some would argue that his progression is THE most important factor to next year’s team success. If he can become a dynamic scorer and play the point guard position well, this team can go infinitely further than if he is a nine or 10 points-per-game guy who isn’t getting his teammates involved.

What have we seen so far? He was a very efficient scorer; shooting over 43% from the field and 41% from three.   Those are both really solid numbers for a guard, especially a smaller guy who relies on his jump shot.  In high school he would get most of his baskets by going to the rack and scoring off the dribble.  Last year, he got most of his points from long range; well over half of his field goal attempts were from behind the arc.  This is not surprising; obviously it is harder to score at the basket in college, especially for a smaller guard.  It will be interesting to see how he adjusts his game this year, considering he will play point guard most of the time and will have increased attention on him.  I expect him to take more two-point field goals than last season, but how many more?  Whenever I watched him in high school, i was stunned by how fluent and quick his pull-up jumper was.  Appling would break his man down off-the-dribble, then stop on a dime and get in to his shooting motion.  I expect to see him work that in to his game quite a bit this year.

He had a few huge moments last year; he almost single-handedly won the Northwestern game at home.  MSU was struggling mightily and was down late in the game.  Appling displayed some “onions” (If you don’t know what that means, consult this article.) by hitting a few mammoth threes to bring the team back and making some crucial free throws down the stretch.  Last year he had Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers hogging the ball and a lot of the shots, and was not asked to contribute a ton on offense.  This year, things are much different.

Another great part of Appling’s game is his on-ball defense.  He moves well laterally, and is a strong guy for a player of his size.  He emerged as one of the team’s better perimeter defenders last year, and I’m expecting big things this year.

Keith made the US under-19 national team this off-season.  He played sparingly during the early part of the tournament, but was given big minutes in the 5th place game (it is pathetic that this crop of players only won 5th, but that is another topic for another time).  In the final game he was big, scoring six points in the fourth quarter, and directing the team’s offense as the point guard.

Even though he didn’t play much in the tournament, it was certainly a valuable experience for him.  He played PG the whole tournament, and took the floor against some great competition in practice. Hopefully he refined his point guard skills overseas, because I am (tentatively) expecting him to be the starting PG with Brandon Wood playing off-the-ball.  Luckily for Tom Izzo, Appling doesn’t seem to mind where he plays, he just wants to be on the floor and want the ball.  Good, because he will get the ball a lot this year.


A lot of this depends on what Tom Izzo is going to want from him going in to next year.  Will Izzo expect him to be the starting point guard? If so, obviously Appling will need to work on his ability to distribute and run the offense, as he has very little experience doing that at the college level.  He is definitely a combo guard who has played shooting guard a ton in his career.  I have confidence Appling can step in and play the point at a high level, but he needs to brush up on his ball-handling and distributing skills.

If he plays primarily off-the-ball? He needs to continue to improve his already excellent three-point shot and pull-up jumper.  Those are the two things that will be his bread-and-butter at the college level, trust me. He’s going to have to guard guys like Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin and Tim Hardaway Jr. of Michigan, and those guys are both physical guards who are bigger than him.  He’ll need to add a few pounds to become a stronger defender in the Big 10, the most physical major conference in college basketball.


Him and Brandon Wood will be leaned on for most of the scoring.  If they can’t get it going, it is going to be tough for this team to score enough to win.  Appling needs to hold up his end of the bargain and become a consistent source of offense.

As I mentioned previously, I think he will be the team’s primary ball handler.  He needs to be the ever cliche “floor general” and get his teammates involved at the right moments.  The Spartans will run a lot next year, and Keith will need to push the ball and find open teammates on the break.  Overall, he will need to be a steadying presence and a leader on the perimeter.

In addition to his offense, is expecting him to be a lock-down defender too much to ask for a sophomore who played a hair over 20 minutes-per-game last year?  Maybe, but that is the position he is in.  There are a lot of really good point guards in the Big 10.  Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin, Tim Hardaway Jr. of Michigan, and Aaron Craft of Ohio State are a few examples.  As the team’s best on-ball defender, Appling will be given the responsibility of slowing these guys down.


Are you starting to see why his development will be crucial to this team’s success?  He will have a massive amount of responsibility for a player of his age and experience level.  The saying “to whom much is given, much is expected” applies here.  He is a very gifted player, one who happens to play at one of the more prestigious basketball schools in America.  Given his talent level and the team’s lack of experience on the wing, much will be expected of him, and Spartan fans are hoping he delivers.  Time will tell, but I do not think you need to worry.  I like his skill-set and the way he carries himself.  I expect him to relish the moment and step up in a big way.

You can subscribe to the Michigan State Basketball feed and follow me on twitter @steve_miller04

Other Players:

Adreian Payne

Derrick Nix

Austin Thornton

Brandon Wood

Delvon Roe

Draymond Green

8/2- Alex Gauna

8/9- Branden Dawson

8/16-Dwaun Anderson

8/23- Brandan Kearney

8/30- Travis Trice

  • Thad Greiner

    solid article – I’m really looking forward to seeing how Appling and Brandon Wood work together.