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Monday, January 6, 2014
Updated: January 7, 9:30 PM ET
Keith Appling grows into leader

By Chantel Jennings
ESPN.com

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has an interesting method for judging the character of his players -- not just by how they handle the wins and losses or how they interact with their families and the fans.

He judges them by how they treat the team managers.

And for the first two years that Keith Appling was at Michigan State, Izzo wasn't sure what to think.

"Keith never treated them bad," Izzo said. "But he never treated them good."

It was the way Appling had always gone on with his life. He was the kind of person who -- once he got to know you -- could be himself with ease. But the problem for Appling, and those around him, came in how long it took him to feel comfortable around new people.

Tom Izzo, Keith Appling
Tom Izzo wanted more from Keith Appling. The process took a while, but it's finally happening.

For the few he had known his whole life, they saw him as a motormouth. Everyone else? Lips zipped.

So the general consensus was that he just didn't talk much and wouldn't ever, because in the time it took for Appling to get to a point where he was comfortable, many people had long given up on getting to know him.

He had always been that way. Appling grew up the middle child in a family of three. So he, the middle kid, was never the leader (that was his older sister) or the cute one (that was his younger brother). He was just Keith.

"I got away with not needing to say much," said Appling, whose No. 5 Spartans host No. 3 Ohio State in a Big Ten showdown Tuesday night (9 p.m. ET, ESPN). "I stayed to myself, off to the side."

It's not exactly the recipe for an elite point guard, at least not the type Izzo wanted in his offense. During Appling's recruitment, because he was so quiet, Izzo wasn't sure if Appling's silence signified trouble. He found himself calling Appling's high school coach to clarify that Appling did still in fact want to come to MSU.

"Yes," Pershing (Detroit) High School coach A.W. Canada would reassure Izzo. "Just give him time."

Because as a player, Appling was exactly what Izzo wanted at Michigan State.

Izzo had seen him take over games and beat double- and triple-teams. There was nothing forced about the way Appling played. Everything simply came to him, and he made it look easy. He walked the line of being confident and hyper-competitive but never selfish or arrogant.

After he scored a Michigan state-record 49 points in the state championship game as a junior, the most emotional quote the local newspaper could get from him was, "I just wanted to win."

After he hit a 50-footer to win the Detroit city championship he told his mom, "It's what the team needed."

Those were the kind of factors that convinced Izzo he could make Appling a point guard. Appling was a true, competitive playmaker, and if Canada was right about Appling, then everything else would come in time.

When Appling enrolled in East Lansing, he was in the shadows of senior point guard Kalin Lucas -- a seasoned veteran who had started 85 games for Izzo coming into his final year.

Lucas' leadership allowed Appling to stay quiet. In that situation, his temperament was just a perceived respect for his elders, not as slow but steady process of finding comfort in an uncomfortable situation. He still started 16 Big Ten games for the Spartans and averaged six points on the year, but he did it with his mouth closed.

Then, as a sophomore, he stepped in as the go-to point guard. He struggled to lead vocally, but luckily for him, Draymond Green was still there, and his presence allowed the leadership expectation for Appling to still be lower than in most situations.

Finally, as a junior, there was no one Appling could hide behind, no one the leadership could fall to other than himself.

So, he tried. It was rough going at times but improved as the season went on. The conversations between himself and Izzo, himself and his mother, himself and coach Canada rang through his head.

"You need to be more vocal. You need to if you want your team to win."

When the offseason came around, he committed himself to doing just that. But to be vocal, he needed to know exactly what he was talking about. He'd open his mouth, but only when he knew what he was saying was 100 percent true.

Appling got in the film room and watched not only tape on college point guards, but NBA point guards, too. And when that was done, he watched film on the other positions on his team. Then film on future opponents. Then back to the point guard film.

Keith Appling
Keith Appling is now in charge of leading Michigan State, a role with which he has become more comfortable.

He got to the gym. He got others in the gym. He put up shots and spent more time with the managers than he ever had before.

"It's like when you're in high school or junior high school and the teacher asks if anyone has the answer, raise your hand. If you didn't have the answer, you didn't raise your hand," Izzo said. "I'm not saying he didn't understand the game, but he wasn't at the forefront. But now, I can ask questions that aren't even about his position and he has good answers. Or I can ask questions about an opponent. Keith sees it differently."

This season, Appling has led the Spartans to a 13-1 start. He leads the conference in 3-point field goal percentage (.472), is third in assist/turnover ratio (2.7) and is fourth in assists per game (4.6).

But he has gotten better as the season has gone on. In the first nine games for the Spartans his assist/turnover ratio was 2.4. In the last five games that number jumped to 3.6 In the last three games it nearly doubled to 6 as Appling recorded 12 assists and just two turnovers in 87 minutes of play against New Orleans, at Penn State and at Indiana.

And though those numbers are impressive, for those who know him best what jumps out more is how he has led -- both vocally and by example -- a talented group that has faced major scrutiny this season.

"It's very important to be vocal and lead," Appling said. "The season is long and things aren't always going to go the way you want them to, so it's very important that the team has that one player who holds everyone together."

So that's you?

"Yes."

Enough said.