Ramstein Air Base, Germany — Branden Dawson was supposed to take it easy Friday night.
Michigan State was playing Connecticut in the Armed Forces Classic, but it wasn't just any season opener for the sophomore guard. It was his first regular-season game in almost eight months after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee in the season finale against Ohio State last year.
But when Dawson soared through the air for a one-handed jam in the first half, then saluted to the 3,086 military in attendance, it was obvious he was doing anything but taking it easy.
"Coach (Tom) Izzo had been telling me that I'm not running hard and that I need to pick it up," Dawson said after Michigan State fell, 66-62. "Coming off (eight) months of an ACL injury is not easy, so in the first half I just came out with a lot of energy and enthusiasm."
He also came out with no brace on his left knee.
It was his choice, and that's when trainer Quinton Sawyer told him to be careful. There was no point taking any risks, and Sawyer was simply looking out for Dawson's best interest.
But it was a silly request.
Making things happen
In a first half plagued by turnovers and mistakes, Dawson was the one Spartan making things happen. He had shed the brace and he was running free.
"Without the brace I feel faster, quicker and feel like I can play better without it," he said.
Dawson finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, but early in the game he was hitting the glass, running the floor and talking plenty of trash.
At one point, as he yelled in the face of Connecticut's DeAndre Daniels, the crowd laughed and Dawson let out a smile. He was back in his element, mixing it up, playing with energy and not worried about having a contraption strapped around his left leg.
He was confident, and it was exactly what Michigan State fans saw at times last year. It's what they hoped would reappear this season after the injury.
Any worry should be sufficiently eliminated now.
There will still be times early in the season that Dawson will struggle and the recovery from the injury will take more of a toll. He simply won't be great every night, and fatigue showed a bit against Connecticut.
"Dawson played really well early, but I thought in the second half thought it showed his months off because he just didn't have enough left in him," Izzo said. "He wasn't bad but wasn't nearly as good and probably had to play him too many minutes."
Dawson played 34 minutes, the most since his first game as a Spartan — last year's opener against North Carolina, when he played 35 minutes.
It was in that game Michigan State fans got their first glimpse at what type of a player Dawson could be. It came and went as he made his way through his freshman season, but Friday night was a reminder of the talent the 6-foot-6 guard possesses.
Fears laid to rest
He will never be a great shooter but is a monster on the glass, attacks the basket on offense and has quickly become one of the team's most tenacious defenders.
Dawson kept Michigan State in the game early against Connecticut and he will likely be needed again Tuesday against Kansas.
But the fact Dawson is even in this position has to be a comforting thought to all Spartans fans.
In the season opener, Dawson threw away the knee brace.
In the process, he threw away any doubt that he would turn his injury into a distant memory.