LOS ANGELES – The pen Branden Dawson used to put ink to paper at a hotel in Las Vegas early this week, making his contract official with the Clippers, is still in his possession.
He wanted a keepsake to remember what he described as an “unbelievable” moment for him, so he held onto the memento to keep that memory close.
Consider it a souvenir from one of the most significant days of his life.
“It’s just the little things that matter,” Dawson said. “I’m never going to forget about this day. I’m definitely going to mark it down in my calendar – July 14, 2015. This is just the beginning.”
That first comment would make sense coming from Dawson, who prides himself on “the little things” when he’s on the court.
Regardless of how many touches he’s getting or what the score may be, he said he’ll always compete at both ends. It’s that tenacity, willingness on defense and ability to focus and thrive doing “the little things” that made the Clippers move into the second round of the draft and select the former Michigan State star.
As a Spartan and former McDonald’s All-American, Dawson finished his four-year college career as Michigan State’s all-time leader in blocks, while finishing in the top 10 in steals and rebounds. He averaged 11.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game his senior year.
Yet there he was, available at pick No. 56 for the Clippers to sneak in and take him.
He hasn’t forgotten 55 players went before him in the 2015 NBA Draft. That included 26 small forwards, power forwards and combo forwards. He took that out on his competitors at Summer League, where he averaged 12.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 1.3 blocks and an assist per game.
“I just came in playing with a chip on my shoulder,” Dawson said. “That was the main thing. I watched several players that went before me at my position that I played against, and I kind of took that to heart.”
Dawson constantly references the chip on his shoulder. It’s part of what fuels him, although he’s always played with an edge. The 6-6 physical bruiser said he wanted to play hard while having a good time at Summer League.
“Everything else was going to take care of itself,” Dawson said.
And it did.
Dawson, whose stellar Summer League would propel him to a deal with the Clippers, had 14 points and 14 rebounds while coming off the bench in his first game in Orlando. The versatile forward said he didn’t have any expectations when he went to Orlando, but as he continued to play stout defense, throw down highlight-reel dunks, swat future NBA players and fill the stat sheet, he knew he turned some heads.
“Like I said, playing with a chip on my shoulder, just showing guys I can definitely play in this league,” Dawson said. “It really doesn’t matter where or what number you’re drafted…you still have to perform, at the end of the day. That’s really the main thing.
“I definitely came in with a chip on my shoulder and wanted to just show guys I’m a competitor. I come from Michigan State, played for one of the greatest coaches and one of the best coaching staffs I’ve ever been a part of. It’s just in me. I’ve always been a competitor.”
Dawson called Summer League “a humbling experience.” It was strange for him to see former Michigan State teammates Keith Appling, who played for one of the Magic’s two Summer League teams, and Travis Trice, who played for the Heat’s Summer League team, on the opposite side of him.
But it didn’t take long for Dawson to adjust to his new teammates and style of play. After his 14-and-14 game, Dawson only played 16 minutes the next game, but he still managed to score eight points with five rebounds.
Then he was inserted into the starting lineup and took off, propelling the Clippers to their first Summer League win with 14 points, 11 rebounds and four steals.
Brendan O’Connor, who served as the Clippers’ head coach during Summer League play, said he initially wanted to take Dawson along slower. But the rookie deserved the time he was getting.
“It was time, and he proved us right,” O’Connor said.
In case he hadn’t made his presence felt enough, Dawson posted 15 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks, three steals and two assists in his Orlando finale.
“On this level, it’s dog eat dog,” Dawson said. “I’m only 22 years old and I’m competing against guys who are late 20s, 30s. It’s just a huge grind. Guys who are not fortunate to be in my position, signing the contract, guys are out to get your job. It’s a lot different from college. The game is a lot different and just the level of competition is different.”
That didn’t seem to matter for Dawson, who said his coaches liked his style of play, toughness and energy.
“Just going out there and making the little plays, I think that’s what they needed,” Dawson said. “They needed that guy willing to do whatever it takes to be on the floor and make our team excel.”
They needed it enough they decided to sign him immediately after Summer League ended. Dawson doesn’t know many of his Clippers teammates particularly well, but he did get to know the players who participated in Summer League, and he met Blake Griffin during one of his workouts and played against Austin Rivers in college.
Plus, the Michigan State star will have plenty of time to build his relationships once he finishes his training in his native Indiana and heads to his new gig in Los Angeles.
“Leading up to signing, it was just an amazing feeling,” Dawson said. “It was a feeling I’m never going to forget about. It’s great for myself and my family…Right now, I’m just excited.”