Senior point guard Keith Appling is only 22 years old, but he has already accumulated quite the resume for the Michigan State Spartans. In addition to starting 91 games, he led Michigan State to back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances on his way to being named second-team All-Big Ten by the league's coaches as a junior. Yet, despite these accolades, Tom Izzo wants his now-senior point guard to play more like a point guard
The good news is that, according to Izzo, the former McDonald's American has made great strides during the summer and will be a key contributor for a Michigan State team that could contend for an NCAA Championship. On an individual level, then, scouts are left with the question of what this transformation may mean to his draft stock.
As we wrote last September, Appling's physical profile is above-average at best
, as he is stronger than he is athletic with just average size for the point guard position at 6'1 with a 190-pound frame.
On the offensive end of the floor, Appling seemingly took a step back in his development as a junior, averaging a paltry 15.9 points per 40 minutes pace adjusted despite seeing 22.2% of Michigan State's possessions and taking nearly 20% of its field goals.
It should be noted, though, that Appling's junior season was his first without either versatile forward Draymond Green, or veteran point guard Kalin Lucas before him, by his side. Without Green as his co-facilitator in the post, Appling struggled to adapt to his role on a more traditional roster. He saw over 5% more possessions and over 4% more field goal attempts, and led Michigan State in scoring and assists; yet, more possessions and shots resulted in a sharp decline in his shooting efficiency inside of the arc and in his point guard statistics.
While this doesn't look good, it's worth looking into just how much his role changed on the offensive end of the floor. For starters, he saw more of his possessions in the pick-and-roll and in spot-up situations, with significant dips in his scoring in transition and via isolation. Additionally, over 70% of his shot attempts were jump shots -- versus 59.1% as a junior -- and he took far more mid-range and short jumpers. He also found less of his offense around the rim, even though he was significantly more efficient than in the past.
On film, Appling's most significant flaw remains his jump shooting. Though according to Synergy, he was slightly more efficient in every situation as a jump shooter, a majority of his shots were from long range and he made just 31% of them. This is better than the 25% he shot as a sophomore, but his inconsistent shooting mechanics leave much to be desired. He is at his best unguarded, where he shoots a respectable 37.3%, and when he has the time to get his shot off, but even here, his motion remains a bit slow. Improving in this capacity is essential if he wants a shot at the next level, as is proving to scouts that he can make shots off of the dribble and while guarded, in addition to with his feet set in space.
His shooting woes are a shame given the fact that he actually has solid scoring instincts, showing the ability to knock down shots from a standstill and, occasionally, off of the dribble, score out of the pick-and-roll, and get into the lane. Though he scored around the basket less often as a junior and his average physical profile did him few favors finishing with contact, he made over 50% of his attempts. Likewise, he got to the line at a decent rate for a point guard
, to the tune of 5.6 attempts per 40 minutes pace adjusted, even if he will likely struggle at the next level due to his lack of bulk.
Though Coach Izzo's critiques of Appling's point guard play are well known and even though Appling played off of the ball at key junctures in games, he continued to play a steady, unselfish brand of basketball while doing a good job of setting the offense into motion. Rarely did he not set the tempo in the half court or handle the ball at the end of the shot clock. While he is not a particularly advanced passer (4.1 assists per 40 minutes pace adjusted) and turns it over quite a bit, especially when trying to feed the post (3.0 turnovers per 40 minutes pace adjusted), he did a solid job of finding open shooters off of the dribble, suggesting that reports from summer workouts are more than merely hype.
Once again, he did an admirable job on the defense despite seeing a much larger role on the offensive end of the floor. Though he lacks the size to guard multiple positions at the next level, his lateral quickness combined with quick hands and an aggressive attitude make him a very good man-defender, and his awareness on this end of the floor allowed him to anchor one of the NCAA's most impressive defensive teams.
Therefore, it would seem that Appling's stock is once again linked to his improvement as a shooter. He is a capable distributor and an asset on defense, but his prospects in the NBA depend on whether he can develop his game on the offensive end of the floor. The good news is, despite his struggles as a junior, he has both good scoring instincts while showing the potential to improve. This, combined with his summertime hype and matchups against Kentucky and North Carolina, not to mention a loaded Big Ten Conference slate, should allow him plenty of opportunities to prove himself to scouts before graduation.