Michigan State Spartans forward Adreian Payne has been a key fixture for coach Tom Izzo's prolific program in recent years, and has made his presence felt both on and off the court.
Payne is a senior in a golden age of one-and-done phenoms. His development as a person and a player have justified his decision to not only finish out his education but also to blossom on the hardwood in East Lansing.
Adversity has tested the 23-year-old big man in his final collegiate season and throughout his life, but he has emerged as one of the most polished forwards in the country—likely as a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft, too. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated likes what he's seen from Payne this year:
The 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game Payne has averaged in 2013-14 isn't what defines him, nor is it what's best about him.
Even when he was dealing with plantar fasciitis and missed a critical stretch of his senior year, the 6'10", 245-pound star was convinced it would be good for him in the long run:
Some people are as absorbent as a sponge when it comes to learning, and Payne brings the same intensity, focus and determination to the classroom as he does to basketball. That doesn't mean it's come easy for him, though.
How's this for a fun fact: Payne was diagnosed with a learning disability when he was in kindergarten that saw him enrolled in special education courses as a freshman at Jefferson High School in Dayton, Ohio.
Now for the fun part: As a sophomore at Michigan State, Payne was a Academic All-Big Ten selection. Although he averaged just 7.2 points and 4.3 rebounds that year after being a highly touted 5-star recruit, his best was yet to come under Izzo's watch.
Payne plays the game with ultimate class, evident in the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award he received in his junior campaign. That was when he began to turn a corner and push toward his excellent potential, becoming an expected defensive dynamo in the paint and displaying polish as a post player in averaging 10.6 points.
Athleticism got him by for much of his career on offense, but Payne made the effort to develop his jump shot, sharpen his defense and keep pushing the envelope on how good he could be. Like a sponge, he soaked in all the knowledge imparted to him by Izzo and the Spartans staff.
But once again, Payne was dealt a difficult blow. The foot injury caused immense pain, holding him out for seven games, including six Big Ten contests as Michigan State began the conference schedule.
As Adam Ruff of SpartansSportsNetwork.com highlighted, Payne brought the pain so to speak in dominating in his first two games back:
ESPN's Jeff Goodman suggested that Payne's absence actually helped the development of Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello, and he had a decent point—the Spartans went a respectable 5-2 without him:
One unique source of inspiration that had to have helped Payne push through amid his trying circumstances is eight-year-old Lacey Holdsworth.
Bleacher Report's Jason King did a phenomenal feature outlining Payne's story from high school to East Lansing, along with his relationship with Holdsworth, who refers to Payne as "Superman" and has been battling cancer.
Payne was understandably emotional on Senior Day when Holdsworth served as his escort, and Princess Lacey called him her brother:
So it's clear that Payne is a standup person and a role model away from the court, along with being an exemplary player on it. Izzo has said that Payne has really come into his own in his senior season, per King:
Socially, I didn’t know if he was ready for it a year ago, but I think he is now. On the court, it’s all falling in place for him. He’s a better player, a more cerebral player. He’s picking up scouting reports better. I’m not sure I’ve ever had someone grow as much over the course of their career than A.P. He’s the life of the team.
The Spartans are gearing up for the NCAA tournament, they have an experienced nucleus in place to make a strong run in March Madness despite losing four of their last six regular-season games. Guards Gary Harris and Keith Appling form a solid backcourt, while Payne, Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine can all crash the boards with effectiveness.
Guard play is often the most important element in determining if a squad can go deep in March, but for Michigan State, Payne has to be on top of his game throughout for it to have a chance at Big Dance glory. He is the emotional leader and glue that holds the team together—the frontcourt fixture with infectious enthusiasm and passion perfectly suited for this win-or-go-home scenario.
All of the obstacles Payne has overcome have prepared him for this stage, and it's impossible not to root for him. With every game in the NCAA tournament possibly being Payne's last, he should put up monster numbers across the board. Even if the Spartans don't piece it together and if Izzo can't pull off a trademark brilliant coaching job down the stretch, don't expect Payne to end his career quietly.
That isn't his style, and Payne's well-rounded college education as a student and athlete will translate to a terrific performance, putting a bow on a gaudy legacy and wonderful career.
Projected NCAA tournament numbers: 18.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks per game.