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The NBA can wait as Adreian Payne chases a national title and a college degree

Michigan State's Adreian Payne averaged 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds a game last season. (Robin Alam/Icon SMI) Michigan State's Adreian Payne averaged 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds a game last season. (Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

On the eve of the 2013 NBA draft, Michigan State rising senior Adreian Payne, who many believe would have been a first-round selection, was instead in his first practice with the World University Games team after the initial roster cutdowns.

With the group culled to 16 players, the coaching staff was able to start giving specific instruction on how they wanted the team to play, and in this particular drill, U.S. head coach Bob McKillop told Payne he wanted him to post as deep in the lane as possible, directly under the basket.

“If you get called for a three-second violation, that’s on me,” McKillop barked.

When told of this story earlier this week as he was heading to a recruiting event, Spartans head coach Tom Izzo laughed and said, “It’s funny you say that, because in the last game he got two offensive fouls posting up. So at least that means he’s doing what they want.”

Consider this the latest instance of the teaching, patience and personal development that has pushed Payne to where he currently is, a considerable pro prospect and a crucial piece of a Michigan State team that should have very legitimate Final Four hopes this season. He has a long way to go to reach his full potential, but he’s come much further than that already.

Payne, who grew up in a rural area outside of Dayton, Ohio, lost his mother as a young child. With a father who was in and out of his life, he was then raised by his grandmother, Mary Lewis. Payne, struggled academically early in high school, impacted in part by a diagnosis of ADHD, and was helped significantly by both school principal Richard Gates and high school coaches Art Winston and Mark Parker as they pushed Payne onto a better academic path.

Payne also suffered a shoulder injury during his senior season in high school that required surgery and left him unable to lift weights or really work on his game over the summer heading into his freshman season. That left the very-skinny Payne ill-prepared for the rigors of a college season, especially one featuring 18 games in the rugged Big Ten. In just nine minutes a game, Payne averaged 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds a game, a season Izzo said was “almost wasted” because of Payne’s initial lack of preparation.

Then, during Payne’s sophomore year, his grandmother died. Combine all of the adversity with Payne’s established penchant to question pretty much any instruction or decision, and it created a challenging situation for Izzo and his staff.

“He’s a kid that at one time I would say was immature, but immature differently than other kids,” Izzo said. “He’s kind of a farm kid. Naive would be a good word.”

Izzo saw profound improvement in Payne’s maturity last year (a minor bust-up with teammate Branden Dawson that cost them both half a game, aside), both on the floor and off. Payne moved into the starting lineup midway through the season and ended the year averaging 10.5 points and 7.6 rebounds a game, balancing top-level board work with outstanding free throw shooting (84.8 percent for the season on 105 attempts). In the classroom, Payne continued to thrive, notching north-of-a-3.0 GPA and earning scholar-athlete awards. He would potentially be in position to graduate a semester early, but according to Izzo, will leave one class for his final semester so that he can play his full senior season. He also has befriended a young cancer patient.

Payne’s development and his comfort level at Michigan State made him feel confident enough to turn down potential NBA money to become the first in his family to earn a college degree. His continued progress will be key as he flips back and forth between the power forward and de facto center spots this year. Izzo emphasized that while he thinks Payne can be a weapon from the three-point line, he’s also been urging him to put himself in positions down low where he can get fouled more often.

That said, the Spartans’ legitimacy as a true contender likely rests in the improvement (and health) of backcourt components Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Travis Trice. Appling struggled at times last season while learning the point guard position, and his indoctrination was not helped by injuries that hampered both Harris and Trice. Now, with more experience across the board and assuming the trio can stay out of the training room, Izzo feels confident that his backcourt has the chance to be a significant strength this season. He’s been particularly impressed by Appling’s offseason improvement, especially as a passer.

“I think he is a much, much better point guard [after his work this spring and summer], Izzo said, “and even a prospect at the next level.”

Payne will almost certainly be at that next level at this time next year, but for now, he’s refocused on the immediate prizes. First the World University Games, then his final season in East Lansing, where he’s hoping for not one but two landmark accomplishments.

“I decided to come back because I want to graduate,” Payne said. “I promised my grandmother I would. And I want to win the national championship and we have a great team.”

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