When Adreian Payne was recruited as a 5-star prospect (class of 2010), Michigan State Spartans followers were under the impression that Payne would immediately become a force in the Big Ten.
After all, at 6'10" and 215 pounds (at the time of his recruitment), Payne possessed the size that typically translates well to college basketball.
However, Spartans fans didn't get what they had hoped for, not from the start.
Payne struggled to establish physical dominance during his first two years under coach Tom Izzo. He wasn't assertive, oftentimes taking the backseat while others did the dirty work in the trenches.
Now a junior, Payne is turning heads.
The addition of approximately 30 pounds certainly helps Payne compete at the level most expected. He's tougher, both mentally and physically, and the Spartans will surely rely on him come March.
Having a dominant big man bodes well for any team looking to go deep into March Madness. His skill set is exceptional—and it's seemingly getting better on a game-by-game basis.
Payne's mentality seems different; he's now willing to take charge, and he's not opposed to contact, evident by his knack for drawing fouls while bumping and grinding with rough-and-tumble fives in the Big Ten.
Simply put, Payne is a much different, much more dynamic, player than he was three years ago. No longer like a deer caught in the headlights—frozen with fear and afraid to step forward— Payne has become a rabid dog, jumping at the chance to prove himself against anyone who accepts the challenge.
What can Payne offer to an NBA team? He could make the leap to the Association after this year, but one more year—his senior year—would do wonders for his NBA draft stock.
NBA Draft Express projects Payne as a second-round pick in the 2014 draft.
Judging by the way he's played lately, Payne could be a legitimate second-rounder in the 2013 draft should he choose to skip his last season with the Spartans.
Payne's athleticism is rare for a man his size. He's developed a decent 3-point shot (6-for-8 this year)—although he probably wouldn't be called upon to knock them down—and he's become more reliable in terms of productive minutes.
The junior out of Dayton, Ohio has steadily increased his point totals, going from just over two per game as a frosh to about seven as a sophomore, finally landing near 10 points per night as a junior.
Breaking down Payne's game is necessary in order to fully assess his potential, his true worth when it comes to playing pro ball.
What Payne Does Well, Has Going for Him
One word: Wingspan.
Payne's length is probably his best asset. According to NBA Draft Express, Payne's finger tip-to-finger tip measurement is 7'0". Considering that he's listed in the range of 6'9" to 6'10", a seven-foot span is on par, or slightly better, with others his size.
Why does that matter?
Rebounding. Blocking. Disrupting shots.
Payne does it all.
In 2011-12, Payne turned in about four boards per night in 17 minutes. Today, he averages about seven rebounds in 22 minutes.
While numbers are certainly worthy references, those numbers aren't necessarily reflective of Payne's talent in the paint.
Scrambling for loose balls is a task, even for the primetime centers. Due to his narrow length, Payne can weave his way through bulky crowds and simply reach above his head. In the past, that's how he attained rebounds.
These days, he's fighting for them.
The following is an excerpt from NBA Draft Express' assessment of Payne:
Looking at Payne's sophomore showing, the first thing that stands out is his improved physique, as he's gone from a 215-lb high school senior to a solidly filled out 242 pounds as of this summer. Coach Tom Izzo reportedly wants to eventually see him in the 245-250 range, and Payne certainly appears to have the frame to handle the extra weight.
On the court, Payne saw a strong increase in minutes, production and efficiency, making good use of his improved frame and showing much more confidence in finding ways to consistently impact the game.
Payne's offensive contributions come predominantly within five feet of the basket, where he's developed a penchant for throwing down some ferocious highlight reel dunks. In addition to his excellent size, length, and athleticism, Payne has developed some nice hands and coordination that make him a very dangerous threat on pick-and-rolls, especially in combination with his confidence finishing with power at the rim.
Payne, as the report states, has improved his skill on the pick-and-roll. Once a decoy that wasn't such a decoy—everyone knew he wasn't going to shoot—Payne is now a threat off the screen. If the blocking fails to work for the guard, Payne has the range to knock down a 17-footer on-the-fly.
He's setting his feet much better than he did during his first two years in East Lansing. He's taking more time to get quality shots instead of forcing prayers.
What Payne Needs to Improve Upon Before Heading to the NBA
Payne needs more pounds to cushion his long, lanky and bony frame. He won't succeed in the league as a walking sliver.
Defensively, Payne leaves something to be desired, despite his 1.1 block per-game average. He's capable of much more. If Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel can block 12 in one game, Payne can certainly do the same.
But again, that stems back to having an aggressive nature. Payne is developing that instinct, and with a few extra pounds—OK, maybe more like 10 or 15—he'll harness the ability to mix things up with other bigs on a regular basis.
He can handle the average college center, but that's a far cry from going head-to-head with guys like Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard, who is a great combination of size, strength and athleticism (when he wants to give a full effort, that is).
NBA Draft Express feels the same way, to an extent. The mock draft and player analysis site questions some of the points that were mentioned above:
Payne's skill level in general is still below average for a junior big man with NBA potential, but he showed a considerable learning curve over the past two years, most notably with his much improved shooting. His FT% went from a dismal 48.6% on one attempt per game to a respectable 69.7% on 2.4 attempts per game, and he also showed flashes of turnaround jumpers in the post and even some 10-15 footers later in the season. While his in-game shot isn't NBA-ready by a long shot, he shows solid mechanics and appears to be putting in the work, making it something to watch out for this season.
Defensively, Payne has also taken some strong steps forward, developing into a pretty effective post defender who does a good job taking advantage of his physical tools. While his fundamentals are still a little rough around the edges and he's prone to being overpowered against players who are in his league physically, he does a good job moving his feet and using his length to contest shots, being tough to score on for most opponents. He focused less on blocking shots this season, but still is a worthy threat there with his length and mobility. Things are less encouraging for Payne at this stage on the perimeter, where he looks mostly lost in pick-and-roll defense despite having considerable potential down the road with his elite physical tools.
In all likelihood, Payne will stick around for his senior campaign at Michigan State. Leaving after this year would be a mistake. However, there could be a team that's willing to look beyond what Payne lacks and focus on what he has: a strong desire to improve and insane mobility for an almost seven-footer.
At his peak—which will be next year—Payne could be projected as a mid- to late-first-rounder. Depending on the needs of the team and interest from ownership and management, Payne could be a surprise selection and go a few picks sooner than expected.
The NBA potential is there. That's not up for debate. However, it's up to Payne to continue making strides if he wants to play against the world's best and collect a gaudy paycheck as a member of the Association.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81