Keith Appling's fourth season in East Lansing has been his best. The senior guard from Pershing is averaging 15.6 points and 4.6 assists. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
East Lansing — In today’s college basketball, everyone is in such a hurry.
Usually, that means jumping to the NBA. Still in college as a junior or a senior? That means a player isn’t good enough to make it at the next level.
Michigan State guard Keith Appling is doing his best to smash that theory.
In the era of one-and-done, Appling is an exception — a player who has improved every year, to the point where the former Detroit Pershing High standout looks like a near-certain NBA pick.
“I think right now, he sees the results,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said of Appling’s four-year climb. “He is enjoying the moment and not worrying about where he wasn’t last year or the year before and what people were saying about him. It’s been fun for me to watch Keith.”
Appling’s position in the draft likely will be the second round, but a few weeks into his final Big Ten season, he has his Michigan State team ranked No. 3, sitting atop the conference heading into Saturday’s home showdown against No. 21 Michigan.
Still, there have been plenty of growing pains.
Appling arrived at Michigan State as a scorer, but after his freshman season, it was clear his future with the Spartans — and in the NBA — would be as a point guard. It wasn’t his natural position, and as a sophomore, he struggled at times.
But, Izzo wasn’t about to give up on Appling. By his junior season, Appling had become a clutch performer who was efficient at running the break.
There was, however, more progress to be made. Appling needed to take that final step to truly becoming a solid player.
Quite frankly, a player who used to smirk at the idea a seven-turnover game wasn’t an indication of him playing poorly, needed to grow up.
“Honestly, I think No. 1 was trusting people that cared about him,” Izzo said. “I think Keith came out thinking he was gonna play this one way. He has dreams of where he wants to get, and to do that, there’s a certain road you’ve got to go down, and it’s understanding the game better.
“I think 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 saying, ‘I’ve got to improve my mental stage of the game.’ ”
That meant more time in the film room, and as much as it is uncomfortable for him, becoming a better leader.
The result has been a team with some of the best chemistry Izzo has seen, and a player on the verge of putting his name among the great point guards in school history.
Mateen Cleaves, a captain on Michigan State’s last national championship team in 2000, talks regularly with Appling. And he has seen dramatic improvement.
“It’s like night and day with Keith,” Cleaves said. “It’s a testament to his work and preparation. He’s been spending a lot of time in the film room, and I think what he’s doing now is he’s able to make adjustments on the fly as opposed to a few years ago when he would have a bad game and go in the film room and see, ‘I should have done this, I should have done that.’ ”
Cleaves was a four-year player when the one-and-done player didn’t really exist.
And though he isn’t knocking players who do it now, he doesn’t think those who take time to mature should be judged negatively.
“Keith is a testament to a guy that stays and works and shows how good he can be,” Cleaves said.
That work has made Appling into the complete player he wasn’t when he first arrived in East Lansing. He’s averaging 15.6 points and 4.6 assists, career highs, and this week was named as a finalist for the Wooden Award.
“Like I’ve always said, with time comes growth,” Appling said.
Whether that growth leads Michigan State to a championship remains to be seen. No four-year player under Izzo has failed to reach a Final Four, and the clock is ticking on Appling and fellow senior Adreian Payne.
Getting it done
His game has improved, but Izzo believes it’s because Appling has matured off the court. That has only been possible because Appling has been given time.
“He has grown as a human being,” Izzo said. “I just hope that in the next two months he continues to do so because he will be one of those great success stories if he does. And if it all works out, then maybe we weren’t apologizing for him developing a little later.
“At the end of the day, it’s do you get the job done within the time frame that you have? In college we have four years to get it done.”