COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Keith Appling is going to be "a hell of a player."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said that very thing in December and emphasized it last month as well to Andy Katz, propping up the freshman as the next star in the making in the Spartans' backcourt.
Told of Izzo’s latest comment, Appling beamed following a recent workout session with the USA Basketball Under-19 team that just got done competing at the World Championships in Latvia.
“It helps me out a lot,” Appling said. “Coach Izzo’s a tough guy. For him to say something nice about anybody overwhelms me.”
The Detroit native smiled: “I don’t ever hear it.”
Appling’s time in Latvia at the FIBA World Championships only buttressed the notion that he’s ready to have a breakout season as a sophomore. On Sunday, he helped Team USA defeat Australia 78-77 in the fifth-place game by scoring six crucial points in the closing minutes. On an international stage on another side of the world, he played point guard in some critical junctures and appears to be growing more comfortable at the position.
“When I went out there I was going out there trying to pass first, but I saw the defense was kind of laying off me so I was aggressive and tried to score and it worked out well,” Appling told reporters after the game.
The latest performance reveals the kind of versatile player Izzo hopes Appling can become in time. For the 6-foot-1 former Mr. Basketball in Michigan and McDonald’s All-American, expectations aren’t new. After all, Appling set a record by scoring 49 points for Pershing High in the 2009 state championship game that took place at the Breslin Center.
Appling was a scorer in high school and is adjusting nicely to the college game. He emerged as a major contributor on last season’s veteran team, starting 16 games in Big Ten play, averaging 6.4 points and 2.8 rebounds and becoming the Spartans' top on-ball defender. As a sophomore, he expects to play more point guard and off the ball as well. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I just like the ball in my hands.”
Last season, Izzo questioned the leadership of a Michigan State team that was expected to be a serious national championship contender but ultimately disappointed with a 19-15 record. Appling hopes to become one of the more vocal leaders in the near future.
“Coach Izzo didn’t think the leadership was there, so this year we’re taking it upon ourselves -- everyone on this team.,“ Appling said. “We don’t want just one leader in particular. Everybody’s leading in their own way. That’s the kind of mindset we got this year. We’re trying to become more of a family and make our team more of a brotherhood more so than a team.
“I got to. If I don’t, Coach Izzo’s going to be on me and every other coach on the staff.”
This offseason, Appling has been getting up 500 shots a day while working on coming off screens, his midrange game and his 3-point shot -- doing the work it takes to become a hell of a player in the future.
“I look back at [last season] and try not to ever let it happen again,” Appling said. “Signing with Michigan State especially after they’re coming off two back-to-back Final Fours, I thought it was just going to be a given, but it wasn’t. Unfortunately, we took a couple of bad losses and weren’t able to get back there.
“We definitely had a lot of ups and downs, especially coming in the preseason ranked No. 2. We had a lot of expectations, but things happen. We have to put it in the past and bounce back next year.”