MSU Basketball: Keith Appling’s improvement personifies the beauty of college hoops

EAST LANSING — College basketball has gradually started to become more about glamour and glitz than toughness and grit.

Well, let’s be honest, it’s been like that for quite some time now.

Since 2006 — the year the NBA made the rule that a player must be at least 19 years old and a year removed from their high school class graduation to enter the NBA Draft – the one-and-done epidemic has worked in favor of the NCAA in terms of entertainment — it definitely provides more talent which makes it more appealing — however, it  has placed the players that aren’t necessarily ready for the immediate jump to the league after their freshman year — the guys who need more development — in the back seat. At the same time, taking away from what I believe is the essence of collegiate sports: growth.

It’s largely the media’s fault for placing these teenagers with an abundance of talent on a pedestal and not focusing on the present, but the future instead. Also, it doesn’t help that teenage prodigies such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett quickly became NBA greats without even stepping foot on a college campus, or guys like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, who were one-and-done players themselves, becoming NBA superstars almost immediately upon shaking hands with David Stern.

While these type of guys are rare talents, and make the college game better, appreciation is lost for those guys who worked their tail off for four years to become professional basketball players. And while ultimately these two breeds of players end up at the same destination, it’s clear which group is more revered.

MSU senior Keith Appling has developed into one of the nation's best point guards.

MSU senior Keith Appling has developed into one of the nation’s best point guards.

“I had NBA people in this week, with the two games, I met with a lot of people,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said during Monday’s press conference. “On Saturday night, I spent some time with some of my friends that are high up in that thing, and as we were sitting around in my house and talking, I told them what I didn’t like about their stuff. Why they make kids feel like that, and what’s wrong with developing a little later? What’s wrong with understanding or being more ready? It was really an interesting couple of hours.”

Whether he accepts it or not, Izzo has sort of — in a way — held the torch for the traditional, yet almost forgotten, method of building a program around four-year players. And while I’m sure he wouldn’t mind a few one-and-done players of his own, he’s had success over his career with guys that have been around the block a few times.

Now, in the midst of the freshman craze, Izzo’s latest seasoned senior point guard Keith Appling is blossoming and quickly becoming one of the more dangerous forces in all of college basketball.

Appling may never have the athletic ability of Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins or the silky-smooth game of Duke freshman Jabari Parker, but his time at MSU has allowed him to not only develop his game to a point where an NBA team might seriously take a chance in the upcoming draft, but according to Izzo, improve his game mentally — something that is often taken for granted when we compare one-and-done players to four-year players. And while Appling always had trust in himself, it was the trust of others that really has impressed Izzo over the years.

“I think, number one, was trust in people that cared about him,” Izzo said in regards to where his point guard has made the biggest leap. “I think Keith came out thinking he’s going to play this one way. He has dreams of where he wants to get, and to do that, there’s a certain road you got to go down, and it’s understanding the game better. Last year was a small piece of it, but at the end of the year and the summer I think he really looked at it as saying ‘I got to improve my mental stage of the game. Physically I’m tough, I’m athletic.’

“He didn’t shoot it that well, but he knew he was a good shooter. He had  to work on his arch, and he did all those things. But I think he improved by watching film, by trusting us, listening to what we say, and he’s just way more at peace with himself.  He’s trying to do the things you need to do to be successfully instead of just playing and not really studying the game.”

Currently, Appling is having a career season and has been the heart and soul of the fourth-ranked Michigan State Spartans all year. 16 games into the season, Appling is averaging career highs in points (16.4 ppg), assists (4.6 apg) and rebounds (3.5 rpg). Also, he’s shooting a career-high 50 percent from the field and a career-high 48 percent from the 3-point line.

Izzo has credited Appling’s improvement to “more dedication to things that weren’t high priority to him.” A statement like that is the epitome of what can make college basketball such a beautiful game. Kids — yes, remember they are kids — are able to grow and develop without the pressure that would be placed on them if they were in the NBA, and not just grow in terms of one’s skill set, but as a teammate and person.

If you’ve followed the team closely over the past four seasons, one of Izzo’s gripes about Appling’s game is his lack of leadership on the court. He often pointed out how soft-spoken Appling was at times and wished that he would take more initiative. While it may have taken a couple of years to see the growth in that area, that time has come just in time for the Spartans to make a serious national championship run, and it’s clear now more than ever that Appling is starting to understand what his coach wants from him.

“I got a rule,” Izzo said. “My point guards got to talk on the baseline-out-of-bounds plays and on free throws for the other team.

“Ohio State game, we got the bounce off the butt (of the rim), we got the miss cut out, and they get a rebound and score. Those things win games for you. I jumped one guy for that, Appling… This last game (against Minnesota), I watched him walk into the line on the free throws, and he’s pointing at every guy, I watched him yelling at guys on the out-of-bounds plays. I think he trusts. I feel my relationship with him has grown immensely. I think the coaches would all say that.”

Why are these not the stories that get the national headlines? Why aren’t we nationally recognizing the growth and development of one young man who wasn’t an NBA prospect just seven months ago and is quickly moving his way on to draft boards?

Appling embodies toughness and grit, and despite those two characteristics quickly vanishing from college basketball’s vocabulary — and with the direction college basketball and society have been going — it only makes sense that a senior like Appling doesn’t get the love and admiration that he deserves.

“We put undue pressure on kids that they don’t feel good about themselves after they’re still in school,” Izzo said. “Because society has said, ‘Oh, the kid must not be any good. He’s a sophomore, junior, senior, and he’s still here.’ I think Keith Appling… He deserved to be down a little bit. He didn’t do the things he needed to do early on.

“Good people, good players and good citizens are people who learn from what they didn’t do, and upgrade. That kid has really, really, really upgraded.”

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