Adreian Payne was a late bloomer at Michigan State, emerging into a consistent scorer during his junior season and then establishing himself as one of the best inside-outside threats in the nation as a senior last season, averaging 16.4 points per game and shooting 42 percent from three-point range. The 6-foot-10 forward also endured his share of emotional ups-and-downs, including building a relationship with a cancer-stricken girl named Lacey Holsworth that received national attention through her death in April.
Payne, who is expected to be a lottery pick in this year's NBA draft, spoke with SI.com about how Michigan State coach Tom Izzo shaped his game, the breakthroughs that turned him into a first-round prospect and those personal trials that shaped him as well.
SI: What, if any, were the transformative moments for you at Michigan State?
AP: I would say the end of my junior year, near the middle of my junior year, when I started playing better – everything started clicking. And watching film with coach (Tom) Izzo really helped. That's the main thing I can take out of it. What I did from watching film and sitting and talking to coach Izzo a lot. My relationship with coach Izzo, how it grew the four years I was there, that made me a better player.
SI: When you're watching film with him, what do you remember being the biggest lessons learned?
AP: Him telling me when to shoot the ball. That was the main thing, because I wouldn't shoot the ball sometimes, and I didn't know the system well enough to know where to get my shots at. He would show me the options of where to shoot the ball, when I should have shot, when I shouldn't have shot.
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SI: Is that the sort of thing where you walk out kicking yourself, like "I should have known that all along"?
AP: Yeah, he'd tell me to shoot it, and I'd be thinking maybe it's a better shot if I passed it. Or sometimes I wouldn't be thinking shot, I'd be thinking pass first, and he'd say, "Shoot it." I'm like, OK, next time I'm in that position I know to shoot the ball. It's just really getting me more aware.
SI: Did watching film with him make you a better film-watcher?
AP: Yeah, because at first, I didn't know what to look for. He pointed out keys and stuff, so especially when we watched film as a team, I could see how he broke other people's game down, and I was able to put it to my own use, whenever I'm watching film myself.
SI: You sit down, you look at your own film, you're trying to evaluate yourself – how has that changed? When you watch film of yourself, how differently do you look at it now?
AP: He'd tell me to watch the film like three times. When you first watch the film, you watch it as a fan. Just as a normal person would be watching the game. Then you watch it again, you break it down and you see what you should have done. Then you won't see everything as you watch the film. So you watch it a third time, and you'll be able to see what you didn't see. Every time you watch the film again, you always see something you didn't see before.
What I do, it takes me a while to watch. If I played a lot of minutes, 30 minutes, it would take me an hour to watch the film, because I'd really break it down. I would go in slow motion, rewind it, fast forward it, rewind it, try to really see everything. When I watch it myself, I watch it the same way he watched it, but then I see what move I should have done, or how the ball was maybe too high and I should have been lower on the dribble, or I should have taken my time with the shot. Just trying to see how a defense plays me, what moves I should have done.
SI: You talked about things clicking at the end of your junior season. What was it like with the light going on?
AP: I was playing in the post a lot, and I would score in the post, but then I was able to knock down the three-point shot. That's when my game started really taking off. That was really a turning point when I started making the three, making jumpers. It just added another aspect to my game which made it harder for teams to defend and make it easier for me to score.
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SI: Did it ever dawn on you at that time that you were turning into the so-called “stretch four” that everyone seems to covet now?
AP: I knew that I was going to be a shooter – I just didn't know when it was going to come. I always could shoot the ball, but I just had to wait for when it was time.
Coach, he doesn't let you shoot them unless you can make them consistently. So I had to keep making them, keep working on my game, keep working on my shot, and it came to a point in a game where I went like 3-for-5 or something. [Editor's note: Against Indiana on Jan. 27, 2013, Payne made 3-of-4 from beyond the arc, after having only made four in his career to that point. Three weeks later he made all three of his long-distance attempts against those same Hoosiers.] After that, he really didn't say too much about it. He knew I was going to take them, he just wanted to make sure that I was taking good shots now.
SI: Obviously you would have preferred the breakthrough to come earlier. But having it come later, what does that perseverance give you now?
AP: It's [about] not giving up and always trying to find a way to get better. It gave me something to aim for. I knew I could do it, so it was just a matter of me trying to accomplish it and focus in every day and work on my game.
SI: When you get to an NBA camp, how does that mentality help you?
AP: Just knowing there's nothing [that's] going to come easy. It's kind of starting over again from the beginning, because college was college. You have to prove yourself again that you can knock down that three consistently. Once I'm able to show that, it'll come easier.
SI: This emotional ride this past year with Lacey Holsworth's illness and death, and the undiagnosed mononucleosis you had in spring, how much did that change you or make you different going into this next stage of your basketball life?
AP: I have lost a lot of people close to me, so I really learned how to deal with it and try to use it to inspire other people and be strong. It's definitely hard at times, just thinking about it. My grandma, my mom and then Lacey – it's hard being young and not having them around. [Ed. Note: Payne's mother died when he was 13 and his grandmother passed away two years later.] Especially around this time, when this is what you dream of. It became a part of them. And then you lose them, and you don't get to share the moment with them anymore, it's kind of hard. But I'm just trying to use it for motivation and know this is what my grandma, my mom, this is what they really enjoyed watching me do. Even though they're not here, they're still watching me and I'm making them proud.