In the NBA draft world, a college senior is yesterday's news. That goes double in a year like 2014, which features one of the most hyped freshman classes in recent memory. A 22-year old who competes against 18-year olds is playing down because, for the most part, the best players his age are in the NBA. Come draft night, even the most productive seniors can get dinged for a low ceiling.
That is, unless they have a very particular set of skills.
When Adreian Payne enrolled at Michigan State, he fit the profile of a hyper-athletic, but unskilled big man perfectly. While he was a consensus Top 25 recruit, he could barely find playing time as a freshman. In nine minutes a game, he averaged 0.6 turnovers and 1.2 fouls and shot 49 percent from the free-throw line. Over the next three years, he has steadily expanded his game. As his playing time has increased, Payne has gone from role player to starter to star.
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Through the first two months, he has been one of the best players in the country. With Gary Harris in and out of the lineup and Keith Appling inconsistent, Payne has been the rock for the No. 5 team in the country. He is averaging 18 points, eight rebounds, 1.5 assists and one block a game on 53 percent shooting. Last week, in a tough road game at Texas, he had maybe the best game of his career: 33 points and nine rebounds on 10-13 shooting.
At 6'10 and 245 pounds with a 7'0 wingspan, Payne has the size to swing between both interior positions at the next level. Just as important, he has the speed and quickness of a much smaller player. He is a gazelle that can get down in a stance and slide his feet, beat his man down the floor in transition and play way above the rim. There's a role on an NBA roster for a guy like that, even if it's just giving six hard fouls and catching lobs at the rim.
What makes Payne special is his skill and feel for the game. When evaluating him statistically, the number that stands out is his three-point shooting: 46 percent from beyond the arc on 3.2 attempts a game. Payne is a legitimate stretch 4/5, and his outside shooting presents matchup problems for every team Michigan State plays. It won't be any different at the next level.
If Payne can get a clean look at the basket, he's probably going to make it. He shoots 56 percent from two-point range and 83 percent from the free-throw line. He's developed a turnaround jumper that he can use against smaller opponents, making him a legitimate post-up threat. Against Texas, he displayed the ability to score over both shoulders and pass out of double teams. There was nothing the Longhorns could do.
The only thing holding him back is his 7'0 wingspan. Despite his size and athleticism, Payne doesn't have the length to be an elite rim protector, and he's never averaged more than 1.3 blocks a game in a season. At the next level, the length of Payne's arms means he won't be able to bother the shots of the best big men or shoot over the top of high-level defenders. He will be more role player than star, albeit an incredibly valuable one.
A smart NBA coach will be able to do a lot with Payne. He can be a small-ball 5 in the right lineup, one that blitzes pick-and-rolls with the goal of forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. He also has the versatility to play next to a center in a more traditional lineup, as his speed and shooting ability from the power forward position would make his team a nightmare in the half-court.
Over the last generation, the NBA has become more perimeter-oriented, with the pick-and-roll replacing the post-up as the preferred method for initiating offense. There's a chicken-and-egg thing going on. On one hand, the changes in the illegal defense rule, as well as the rise of the analytics movement have made outside shooting more important. On the other, the way the game is played on the AAU level has made more big men embrace the three-point shot.
Payne represents the new synthesis, the first of many to follow in the footsteps of a defensive-minded big that can shoot like Serge Ibaka. At the highest levels of the game, there's no point in forcing guys with 7'0 wingspans to play five feet from the basket. Against smaller defenders, Payne helps his team by drawing doubles on the block. Against bigger NBA defenders, he helps his team by opening up driving lanes to the rim.
A player with Payne's skill set makes the game easier for everyone else. Next season, playing with a legitimate NBA point guard, he is going to be a pick-and-roll and a pick-and-pop threat. Defensively, he is the physical prototype for how you want to defend the two-man game.
The NBA game is all about speed and spacing. The best teams spread the floor, shoot the ball and play defense. Payne will help whoever drafts him in all three categories.