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Andy Wittry | | January 14, 2020

The 11 best Michigan State men's basketball players of the 2010s

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During the 2010s, Michigan State made the Final Four three times, the Elite Eight once and the Sweet 16 twice, meaning the Spartans made the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament more times than not during the decade.

I went through every Michigan State roster from last decade and picked out the 11 best Spartans players, starting with the beginning of the decade (conference play in the 2010 season) to the end (non-conference play this season). These are my picks only.

I strictly examined a player's college career — not his high school or NBA accomplishments — and only the games played between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2019, with a special emphasis on All-America and All-Big Ten honors, per-game and advanced statistics, and NCAA tournament success.

This is more than just raw talent; this is also about legacy, awards and season-long sustained excellence.

Essentially, I tried to ask the question: At each player's best, how good was he and how good was Michigan State?

Players who didn't play a full season in the decade were evaluated accordingly.

11. Keith Appling (2010-14)

Appling was twice voted to an All-Big Ten team — the Second Team in 2013 and the Third Team in 2012 — as the team's starting point guard. He was a full-time starter as a sophomore, junior and senior, when the Spartans went a combined 85-26 with a 7-3 record in three trips to the NCAA Tournament.

Appling averaged a career-best (and team-high) 13.4 points as a junior, then he posted a career-high 4.5 assists as a senior. At his best, he was a 41 percent 3-point shooter (on 95 attempts as a freshman) but he regressed as a sophomore and junior, before climbing back up to 36 percent as a senior.

Appling wasn't necessarily an efficient scorer, his turnover rate was probably too close to his assist rate and he had too many quiet NCAA Tournament performances, but he was a key piece of some successful Michigan State teams.

10. Travis Trice (2011-15)

After spending his first three seasons in East Lansing mostly coming off the bench and getting four or five shots per game, Trice had a breakout senior season, when he led the Spartans in scoring at 15.3 points per game, along with 5.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game.

He was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team.

While posting the highest usage rate on the team (26.2%), Trice remained efficient with an offensive rating of 112.9 that ranked in the top 300 nationally, he posted a top-70 assist rate of 31.2 percent while taking care of the ball (12.8% turnover rate) and he shot 37 percent from three on six attempts per game.

Other than a six-point outing against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, Trice had a strong postseason as a senior. He averaged 17.4 points in eight Big Ten Tournament/NCAA Tournament games to go along with 3.8 assists.

9. Jaren Jackson (2017-18)

Jackson only spent one season in a Spartans uniform but he was a crucial addition to a Michigan State team that went just 20-15 the previous season. The Spartans improved to 30-5 in 2018, including a 15-1 start, and they went 16-2 in Big Ten play to win the conference regular-season title.

Thanks to Jackson, the 2018 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Big Ten Third Team selection, Michigan State led the country in defensive effective field goal percentage (42.7%), defensive 2-point percentage (38.4%) and block percentage (18.5%).

While the 6-11 forward's per-game stats are limited by the 21.8 minutes per game he played as a freshman, his 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 1.1 assists per game are impressive with context. Those numbers come out to 20.0 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.5 blocks (!) and 2.0 steals per 40 minutes.

Jackson shot 39.6 percent on 96 3-point attempts, making him a versatile offensive player for his size. He made almost 60 percent of his shots inside the arc, he drew nearly six fouls per 40 minutes and his 14.3 percent block rate ranked third nationally.

8. Branden Dawson (2011-15)

In Dawson's four seasons with Michigan State, the Spartans advanced to the Sweet 16 twice, then the Elite Eight and finally, the Final Four in 2015. It was the most successful four-year stretch of last decade for Michigan State, based on NCAA tournament finishes.

He was a critical role player on those teams as he ranked between third and fifth in scoring average each year of his career, but he was always a strong rebounder, especially offensively, an active defender and someone who made a high-percentage of his field-goal attempts.

Dawson averaged 11.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.2 steals per game as a senior, when he earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors. His defensive rebounding rate, 23.5%, ranked 54th nationally, his offensive rebounding rate (11.9%) ranked in the top 130 nationally and he was the second-best shot-blocker on the team at just 6-6.

Dawson was named the 2014 Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player after he put up 16 points and nine rebounds, 14 points and seven rebounds, and 15 points and six rebounds en route to a conference tournament title.

In that season's NCAA tournament, he had a 26-point, nine-rebound effort against Harvard in the second round, followed by a 24-point, 10-rebound double-double in the Sweet 16 against Virginia.

7. Adreian Payne (2010-14)

Payne consistently improved during his four years in East Lansing, from averaging 2.5 points per game as a freshman to 7.0, 10.5, then 16.4 as a senior, when he was just 0.3 points per game behind Gary Harris for the team lead.

Like Harris, Payne received honorable mention All-America honors in 2014.

He was a strong rebounder (his 22.9 defensive rebound percentage as a senior ranked 78th nationally) and he developed from a player who attempted just three total 3-pointers as a freshman and sophomore to a player who shot 42 percent from three on almost five attempts per game as a senior.

He was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team as a junior and senior.

6. Kalin Lucas (2007-11)

Lucas' position on this list is limited by the decade parameters because he was the 2009 Big Ten Player of the Year but that season obviously doesn't count as part of the 2010s. But last decade, he was an honorable mention All-America selection and a First Team All-Big Ten in 2010, then a second-team honoree in 2011.

The 6-1 guard averaged a career-high 17.0 points, along with 3.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game, as a senior, while shooting 39 percent from three, 44 percent inside the arc and 82 percent from the line. As a junior, Lucas led the team with a 25.8 percent assist rate and his 110.1 offensive rating ranked second on the team, which made the Final Four.

However, Lucas only played in the first two rounds of the 2010 NCAA Tournament. He scored at least 25 points in eight games as a senior, including a 30-point outburst against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament.

5. Gary Harris (2012-14)

Harris arrived in East Lansing as a natural scorer who was ready to contribute from Day One. He started 33 of 34 games as a freshman, when he averaged 12.9 points on 41 percent 3-point shooting, 49 percent 2-point shooting and 75 percent free-throw shooting. He was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors in 2013.

His numbers got even better as a sophomore, when he was a First Team All-Big Ten selection and Big Ten All-Defensive Team pick, plus he received All-America honorable mention honors, after averaging 16.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game as Michigan State's leading scorer. He had the highest offensive rating on the team as a freshman and the second-highest among starters as a sophomore.

Despite having a shot rate that approached 30 percent (meaning he attempted almost three out of every 10 shots Michigan State took while he was on the floor), Harris remained efficient and rarely turned the ball over, as seen by his 12.7 percent turnover rate in 2014 (259th nationally).

Harris had a really strong run through Big Ten play as a sophomore, when he scored 50 points with 10 steals in two games against Indiana, 48 in two games against Michigan, 25 points, three rebounds, three assists and three steals at Purdue, and 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals at Illinois.

He scored 95 total points in seven career NCAA Tournament games.

4. Miles Bridges (2016-18)

If this list was judged on ridiculous displays of athleticism, Bridges would be the runaway No. 1. He was one of the most electrifying players in the sport in recent memory, but he was more than just an athlete while wearing the green and white.

He was named a consensus Second Team All-American and First Team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore after averaging a team-best 17.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists. As a freshman, he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a Second Team All-Big Ten honoree after averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.5 blocks per game.

Bridges led the Spartans in scoring in both of his seasons in East Lansing, he was one of the top 100 defensive rebounders and one of the best 200 shot-blockers nationally (based on percentage) as a freshman and he was the focal point of a 2017-18 Michigan State team that went 28-3 in the regular season.

3. Cassius Winston (2016-20)

Winston is still writing the conclusion to his Michigan State story but we can put a bow on his performance during the 2010s and even though the back half of his senior year won't count for the purposes of this list, he'll go down as one of the three best Spartans of the 2010s.

He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year, First/Seconds Team All-American, Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player and First Team All-Big Ten selection as a junior, when he averaged a team-high 18.8 points, 7.5 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game.

Only 14 players since the 1992-93 season have averaged 18/7/3 over an entire season in Division I men's basketball and Winston is one of them. So is Denzel Valentine (keep reading to see where he falls on this list), No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft (and 2019 First Team All-American) Ja Morant, and 2018 First Team All-American and No. 5 NBA Draft pick Trae Young.

Winston had the third-highest assist rate in the country (44.8%), shot almost 40 percent from three on 5.5 attempts per game, averaged five free-throw attempts per game and made 84 percent of his free throws, which is why he finished fourth in's national player-of-the-year standings.

He led Michigan State to the Final Four last season, when he and the Spartans upset No. 1 overall seed Duke in the Elite Eight.

The 6-1 point guard arrived on campus as the fourth banana in his own freshman class, behind Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Josh Langford, but he was the last one left in East Lansing and you can argue that his best was better than any 2010s-era Spartans not named Denzel Valentine or Draymond Green.

2. Draymond Green (2008-12)

Before Draymond Green was a three-time NBA champion, he was the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) National Player of the Year, Big Ten Player of the Year, Big Ten Tournament MVP, a consensus First Team All-American, First Team All-Big Ten honoree and Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection as a senior.

He also finished first in the national player-of-the-year standings in 2012.

The 6-7 forward with a versatile skill set averaged 16.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game, while shooting 38 percent from three. Green is one of 11 players who have averaged 16/10/3 in a season since 1993 and he's alongside some impressive company on that list — former NBA No. 1 picks Tim Duncan and Ben Simmons, 2003 AP National Player of the Year David West and 2017 consensus First Team All-American Caleb Swanigan.

As a sophomore, Green was named the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year on a Spartans team that lost to Butler by two points in the Final Four, and he was named a Third Team All-Big Ten selection in 2010 and 2011.

Since assists, blocks and steals became part of box scores in the 1980s, there have officially been nine triple-doubles in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Draymond Green has two of them, including a 23-point, 11-rebound and 10-assist game against UCLA. Prior to Ja Morant's triple-double in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, no one had recorded one since Green in 2011 and 2012.

1. Denzel Valentine (2012-16)

Depending on which organization you ask, Denzel Valentine was the 2016 National Player of the Year. He received the honor from the Associated Press and NABC after averaging 19.2 points, 7.8 assists and 7.5 rebounds per game for a Michigan State team that peaked at No. 1 in the AP poll, won 29 games and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

He's the only player in Sports Reference's database, which dates back to the 1992-93 season, to average at least 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game, so you could make the case that he wasn't just the best Spartan of last decade, but maybe a once-in-a-generation player for the sport.

Valentine blossomed from being the Spartans' sixth man as a freshman, when he averaged five points and four rebounds in 20 minutes per game, to one of the most decorated players in the conference last decade. In addition to being named National Player of the Year as a senior, Valentine won the Julius Erving Award for being the best small forward in the country, the Lute Olson Award for being the country's most outstanding non-freshman, he was named Big Ten Player of the Year and the Big Ten Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and a First Team All-Big Ten selection.

Valentine posted the second-highest assist rate in the country (45.8%), showing his positional versatility as he was often the primary initiator for the Spartans. That means he assisted one almost half of Michigan State's baskets when he was on the floor.

Valentine shot 44.4 percent from three on 7.5 attempts per game, his 21.1% defensive rebounding rate ranked 151st nationally (so while he essentially ran the point on offense, he was the team's second-best defensive rebounder), and his offensive rating of 125.7 ranked 33rd nationally, making him one of the country's most efficient players even though he was also one of the most unselfish.

The 6-5 guard had a breakout season as a junior, when he averaged 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, earning Third Team All-Big Ten honors, but almost no one outside of East Lansing could've predicted the senior campaign that Valentine compiled. Heading into the 2015-16 season, some prominent national outlets didn't have Valentine on any of their three preseason All-America teams, yet he became arguably the best player in the country.

Also considered: Raymar Morgan, Xavier Tillman, Bryn Forbes, Nick Ward, Durrell Summers, Matt Costello

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