Adreian Payne has lived life in the shadows the past three seasons at Michigan State.
Spartans guards Keith Appling and Gary Harris were McDonald’s All-Americans, and center Derrick Nix was Mr. Basketball at Detroit Pershing. Before this season, there was 2012 All-American Draymond Green.
Payne, a 6-foot-10 junior forward/center, was a contributor, but not a star.
However, as MSU readies for its Friday night Sweet 16 showdown with Duke in Indianapolis, Payne has clearly worked his way out of the shadows. And if he can team with Nix to put the clamps on the Blue Devils’ two quality big men, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, and lead the Spartans to victory, Payne could find the spotlight. Losing and failing to make an impact could have the reverse effect, and leave fans and pundits wondering if he’s up to the challenge of handling the game’s elite big men.
Payne was dominant Saturday at The Palace of Auburn Hills in leading MSU to a convincing win over Memphis. He had 14 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and five blocked shots — including a highlight-reel rejection of high-flying D.J. Stephens.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner said of Payne: “If he plays like that every night, they’re going to be hard to…they’re going to the Final Four if he plays like that. I think he’s their whole key for them to get to the Final Four. If he plays like that, they’re hard to beat — very, very hard to beat.”
Spartans coach Tom Izzo tried to tone down Pastner’s praise by noting that “it wasn’t like he had 30 points” and adding, “I’m not sure I’d throw all that on his back.” But Izzo said he believed Payne was capable of that kind of performance on a regular basis.
Payne averaged 10.4 points and finished third in the Big Ten with 7.5 rebounds. He also improved into a 74-percent free-throw shooter and became a three-point threat, making 15 of 34 from beyond the arc. Payne also surpassed Branden Dawson as the team’s top shot-blocker with 1.2 per game.
Izzo said Payne’s grown more than any player he’s had since Morris Peterson, who led MSU with 20.5 points per game in 2000 Final Four wins over Wisconsin and Florida.
“It’s the maturity of understanding different things that you have to do to be successful at that level,” Izzo said, “and so it’s not like he’s some immature baby. It’s that he was immature to understand what you have to do and how hard that you have to work, and that things don’t just come easy.
“That’s a process for some kids, especially kids that have had it the other way. I think Adreian has grown as much as any player I’ve had since Peterson. I always use him because I thought he grew athletically, academically and socially. Socially, (Payne’s) just an incredible kid and accountability and all that, he’s been great.”
Payne has befriended Lacey Holsworth, 7, of St. Johns, just north of East Lansing, as she battles cancer in a touching story featured on the Big Ten Network. Just over 19 months ago, he overcame losing Mary Lewis, the grandmother who raised him in Dayton, Ohio, after his own mother, Gloria Lewis, died when he was 13. Payne is also on pace to graduate ahead of time.
Off the court, Payne has been admirable and was named MSU’s top basketball scholar-athlete as well as its most-improved player. He also was voted second-team All-Big Ten by the coaches and media.
Payne’s progress shows he has worked hard to become an all-around player. He has a 7-foot-4 wingspan and his 38-inch, no-step vertical jump is the best of any player Izzo has coached. But he hasn’t rested on talent alone to carry him.
“He’s in there watching more film than anybody,” Izzo said. “He just does things that most big guys don’t do. Not many I’ve had have done that, anyway. So, I think he’s grown in all areas and I’m really proud of him, really pleased, really happy for him. Yeah, he’s got a heck of a chore ahead of him, because the Kelly kid is a very, very good player.”
Kelly (6-foot-11, 230 pounds) has made Duke a force since returning from an injury. The Blue Devils are 20-1 with him in the starting lineup, and he averages 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds. Kelly also has made 46 percent of his treys, hitting 34 of 74.
Payne, meanwhile, has made MSU tough down the stretch. He’s also become a leader. After coming out of the Memphis game, Payne stood on the sideline with one arm around Harris and the other around Appling.
“They are like my brothers,” Payne said. “It’s like a brotherhood.”
And big brother has definitely come out of the shadows.