It’s no stretch to project Payne in Suns’ offense

Michigan State's Adreian Payne hit 42 percent of his 3-point shots last season but also has the size and wing span to play inside.

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PHOENIX — NBA Draft scholars typically spend an impressive level of energy identifying possible comps between current prospects and existing professionals.

And if you follow the talent-selection process of the Suns, it’s easy to understand why anyone wearing the "stretch four" label is unofficially connected to Channing Frye.

So even though every player invited to the team’s pre-draft workouts claims to be a swell fit for the fast/spaced Phoenix system, Michigan State power forward Adreian Payne truly seems like a franchise natural.

This transition is considered seamless enough for the Suns, who hold the 14th, 18th and 27th picks in the first round of this year’s draft, to have been associated with Payne through several well-intentioned mock-draft recommendations.

Some soothsayers project him as a possible target at 18, while others see Payne going a bit earlier.

But such long-range forecasting didn’t exactly increase the importance of his latest audition.

"No, I don’t pay much attention," Payne said when asked about mock-draft considerations after Friday’s six-player workout at the Suns’ practice gym inside U.S. Airways Center. "I think I fit a bunch of styles in the NBA. I’m versatile and can play inside and out."

Based on evidence the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Payne presented during his four years as a Spartan, that’s true. But it’s also true that, like Frye, he’s the type of high-character athlete the Suns (and most of the wiser NBA teams) are seeking.

Mock draft

During a season in which Frye was nominated for the NBA Sportsmanship Award, Payne became nationally embraced by those following the emotional story of his friendship with 8-year-old cancer patient Lacey Holsworth.

And, like Frye, he worked hard on moving his offensive game to the perimeter. Payne just did it a few years earlier in his development.

Anyway, with Frye’s future in Phoenix considered a bit fluid, the notion of Payne sliding into a similar role isn’t much of a, well, stretch.

To Suns general manager Ryan McDonough, the 23-year-old Spartan would give Phoenix more of the same … and that’s fine.

With Frye and Markieff Morris able to sink perimeter shots and open driving lanes, Payne isn’t exactly seen as unwelcomed duplication.

"It’s a strength of ours," McDonough said of the stretch-four component. "It’s important. And the more guys you can pencil into that role, the better."

OK, so how good is Payne from beyond the almighty, analytics-pleasing arc? Well, as a collegiate marksman, he knocked in a salty 42 percent of his attempts.

After hitting East Lansing as more of a run-and-jump prospect, Payne — who made 1 of 3 3-point attempts over his first two seasons as a Spartan — began moving back as a junior. He made 16 of 42 attempts that season and improved to 44 of 104 as a senior.

For the record, hometown-guy Frye had a similar distance revelation during his first professional season in Phoenix. During his first four NBA campaigns, the former St. Mary’s High and University of Arizona star didn’t wander very far from the rim, making just 11 of 33 from 3.

But in his inaugural Suns run, Channing shot 44 percent on 392 tries. By the way, while playing his senior season for Arizona, Frye was 3 of 17 from deep.

More Suns

Yeah, getting better at making long shots happens. All Payne has to do now is get a little cozy moving back a bit.

"I feel comfortable," Payne said of life behind the NBA 3-point distance. "I’m just trying to be able to hit it consistently."

If the shot-making progression continues, Payne already has a couple of marketable attributes … depending on circumstances and how they’re approached.

The first attribute is his perceived ready-to-contribute potential from having played under Coach Tom Izzo for four seasons. In his last season at Michigan State, Payne averaged 16 points, a tick under 8 rebounds and bagged more than 50 percent of his shots overall. 

But entering the draft at age 23 also invites concerns regarding the presumptively low level of his development ceiling.

With that in mind, we sought assurance from McDonough that player development doesn’t end at 23.

"I don’t think so," McDonough said. "I hope not or else our team’s in trouble.

"Projecting, obviously, there’s more room for improvement between (age) 19 and 23, but a lot of guys are pretty good players at 23 already, and Adreian’s one of ’em. In some ways, your can draft a 19-year-old guy who has the potential to be as good as him in four years but might never get there."

So even though the Suns went young in last year’s draft, the tricky variable of circumstances can alter the process.

"We certainly don’t eliminate because of that," McDonough said when judging immediate returns vs. long-range potential.

That’s especially true when your team was so close to reaching the postseason.

Beyond making 3s and having four years of college experience, Payne has value as a player capable of still doing work close to the rim.

Measuring 6-foot-9 3/4 while wearing basketball-specific shoes and blessed with a wingspan of 7-4, he’s no slouch at his original close-to-the-basket role.

Suns coach Jeff Hornacek has an important opinion and thinks Payne doesn’t qualify as a one-trick Spartan.

"I think Adreian can do both of those," Hornacek said of playing outside and in. "He can make 3s and he can go into the post and get buckets."

As a player who feels ready to contribute to any system he’s drafted into, Payne is promoting his versatility.

"I’m going to be able to bring a lot of things," he said. "I can guard different positions, block shots …"

McDonough, who spends an impressive level of energy attempting to nail these issues, agrees.

"He moves his feet pretty well defensively for a guy that size," he said. "He’s pretty long as well and wiry strong.

"I think he’s better facing the basket now, but he’s a guy you can see developing a back-to-the-basket game."

And if you’re someone prepared to spend the next three weeks mulling the possibilities, Adreian Payne is a guy you can see fitting in Phoenix. 

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