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Character one of Payne's biggest strengths
By Adam Fluck | 06.10.2014
Since stepping on the campus of Michigan State as a freshman in 2010, Adreian Payne has shown he knows a thing or two about character.
Whether it was overcoming a slow start to his collegiate career, battling mononucleosis for the majority of his senior season or being there for a young cancer patient he befriended, Payne demonstrated he is the kind of person you want to have on your team.
“Character carries you a long way,” Payne said at last month’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “It’s who you are. People want to be around great people and good guys. So I always try to be a good guy and be humble.”
Payne, a 6-10, 239-pound forward, averaged 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds as a senior at Michigan State, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors and helping the Spartans to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.
A long, athletic player, he shot 50.3 percent from the field and 42.3 percent from behind the arc as a senior. It is that kind of inside-out game, coupled with his personal makeup, which will be appealing to NBA teams as he awaits the June 26 draft.
Projected to be a mid to late first round selection, Payne knows his versatility is what could set him apart as he transitions to the next level.
“I defend, and I can defend multiple positions,” said Payne, 23. “I’m a great teammate, a great guy to be around on and off the court. I’m just trying to expand my game and work on other things like my ball handling, post moves, and getting stronger.”
Though he was ranked among the top 26 high school seniors by three publications (Scout.com—17th, Rivals.com—20th, ESPNU Top 100—26th) and led Jefferson High School in Dayton, Ohio to a Division IV state championship, Payne played sparingly his freshman year in East Lansing. He averaged only 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 9.0 minutes per game.
But Payne, who didn’t start playing organized basketball until the eighth grade, stuck with it and showed steady improvement from each season to the next.
“It’s incredible,” noted Payne. “I don’t know how high it can get, but I haven’t scratched the surface, I know that. I started playing basketball at a late age. So I’ve just been trying to learn as much as I can in a short amount of time. I’ve grown a lot and I’m trying to continue getting better and keeping my eyes open.”
By the time Payne’s senior season at Michigan State arrived, the Spartans were among the nation’s best, ranked 2nd in the preseason and quickly moving to the top spot after a win over then No. 1 Kentucky. But injuries took a toll during the season. For Payne, that included a sprained foot and a bout with mono.
Still, he rallied and so did his team. Payne scored a career-high 41 points against Delaware in the second round of the tournament, a school record for the NCAA Tournament and the most points ever scored by a Spartan during the Tom Izzo era.
Though Michigan State fell to eventual national champion Connecticut in the Elite Eight, it was a remarkable run for a team that went 5-7 from January 25 to March 9.
Equally impressive is that while Payne and his teammates battled adversity on the court, they also confronted it away from the game. The Spartans on a team visit to a local hospital met Lacey Holsworth, among others. “Princess Lacey,” as she was called, was a huge Michigan State fan who would eventually become close with Payne.
As Payne joined his teammates in cutting down the nets following the Spartans’ victory over Michigan for the Big Ten conference championship on March 16, it was Lacey who was on top of the ladder with him to celebrate. But less than a month later, on April 9, Lacey at the age of eight lost her battle with cancer.
It was an experience that affected Payne deeply and changed his life forever.
“It made me realize that a lot of people look up to me and a lot of people’s eyes are on me,” said Payne. “For me to be able to touch somebody and share part of my life with them and give them something to look forward to and keep their spirits up was great. It helped me become more humble and made me want to reach out more to people in need.”
Spartans teammate and fellow draft prospect Gary Harris couldn’t say enough about Payne, what he endured, and the type of person and player the team that drafts him will get.
“AP has a helluva story,” said Harris. “The stuff he’s been through, I don’t think anybody in this draft has been though growing up and getting to this point he’s at now. I just have that much more respect for him for what he does on the court, and the way he acts and treats people. He’s a great player, but I feel like he’s an even better person.
“It was tough for him, but he didn’t let it affect what he had to do,” Harris said of losing Lacey. “He still had to go on with life. Life wasn’t going to stop. It was sad for all of us, but he always had a smile on his face and to see that reassured everybody that he’s a strong person.
“He’s an outstanding player,” added Harris. “He can do it from everywhere—outside, inside, mid-range. He’s definitely a talented player.”
Bulls.com was in attendance at the NBA Draft Combine May 15-16 in Chicago and this is the fifth in a series of looks at some of the projected first round picks. The Bulls currently own three selections in this summer’s June 26 draft—16th, 19th and 49th.