Michigan State hasn’t had a pair of first-rounders since 2006. However, that’ll probably change Thursday during the 2014 NBA draft in New York, as Adreian Payne and Gary Harris are expected to be taken sooner rather than later.
As versatile as he is tall, Payne promises to bring an exemplary skill set to any roster—there aren’t many 6’10”, 250-pound guys who can shoot, run, pass and defend. Despite missing seven games due to a sprained right foot, he blossomed into a senior superstar, averaging a career-high 16.4 points to go with 7.3 boards and nearly a block per game.
According to most mocks, he’s viewed as a mid-to-late first-rounder.
At 6’4” and 210 pounds, Harris doesn’t exactly embody a typical NBA 2-guard. However, during his two-year stay in East Lansing, he earned a reputation as a dangerously unpredictable scorer, evidenced by his 22- and 18-point outbursts during March Madness. Also worth noting, he followed his conference freshman of the year efforts by boosting his average from 12.9 to 16.7 points per game.
According to most mocks, he’s viewed as a potential lottery pick.
Needless to say, Harris and Payne have plenty of upside.
“Gary is a worker—he works hard,” said Maurice (Moe) Ager, one of Michigan State’s greatest shooting guards (2002-2006). “I can tell that he’s a guy who spends extra time in the gym. He has a good attitude, he’s athletic and has nice size—taller than I thought he was. He has a nice mid-range game. I feel like he could be a better Danny Green [of the San Antonio Spurs] for a team.”
Not only does Ager feel that Harris could be a better version of Green, he says that playing for the Spurs would be a perfect fit for Harris due to Gregg Popovich’s coaching style, not to mention the fact that he wouldn’t have to jump in right away and carry the load.
Fresh off their fifth NBA title since 1997, the Spurs are always deep. Playing under those conditions would be an immense benefit for Harris, who turns the ripe, old age of 20 in September. He’ll get the chance to learn from an iconic coach and an ensemble of true teamsters, not glitzy divas.
As for Payne, adjusting to a league of men shouldn’t be so difficult. At 23, he’s had more time to mature than most draft-eligible candidates. That could be both a blessing and a curse, says Ager, who feels that upperclassmen don’t get enough respect come draft day.
But that’s neither here nor there, he says, because if teams can’t see Payne for who he really is, well, that’s their fault—they could miss out on a guy who could be a valuable leader on and off the court.
“First off, he has a big heart—that goes without saying,” Ager stressed. “We could talk about Lacey all day. I think overall he’s a sound player. We’ve yet to see a big man do as much as he can and be super athletic. He’s an amazing player. He has a left hand, right hand, turn-around, dunk, rebound, block, he runs the floor—what more could you ask for?! He had a really good junior year—he should have left his junior year, but he had a better overall senior year.”
If not for nagging knee injuries, Delvon Roe (2008-11) would have been an all-time great with the Spartans. But instead, due to his work ethic and dedication, he ended up as legend in the eyes of fans, which isn’t all that bad either.
With that being said, the former 5-star recruit-turned-actor has a deep appreciation for those who conquer personal obstacles. Payne entered Michigan State as an “immature kid” who struggled academically, but he leaves as a well-rounded young man with a degree from a major university.
“Payne’s personal development…it was awesome…it was awesome,” Roe said proudly. “I know how far he’s come and how hard it was for him. I’m confident [about his future] because he has exceptional skills. The sky’s the limit for him. I think he’s worthy of a lottery pick.”
Possessing the ability to score in multiple ways is one of Harris’ strengths. His jumper, when consistent, is lethal and overwhelms the opposition. For that reason—and with further development—Roe sees a relatively painless transition for the former Indiana Mr. Basketball.
“He’s extremely difficult to guard,” Roe said. “He’s athletic enough to put the ball on the floor. He’s so tall and so long, when he takes his jump shot, you’re not going to be able to challenge it because of that...The game’s going to keep slowing down for him as he gets older. No question in my mind that he’s going to be a pretty good NBA player.”
Ager’s Draft Story
Due to a string of positive workouts with Philadelphia and Utah, among others, and a career-high average of 19.3 points as a senior, Ager felt comfortable forecasting a mid-first-round selection for himself in 2006.
While mingling with friends and family during the night prior to draft day, Ager was caught by surprise when his high school coach pulled up a mock draft. As we all know, they're not always entirely correct.
“It had me going No. 28 to Dallas,” Ager said, laughing. Shannon Brown, his former teammate, was drafted No. 25 overall by Cleveland. “I thought that I’d go No. 13 to 15—but that thing turned out to be pretty accurate. It was crazy.”
At the time, he didn't know the mock would be spot-on. So on draft day, Ager eagerly anticipated his name to be called.
And then he waited. And then waited a little longer...
“I was told that I wouldn’t go past 21,” he said. “Once I went past 20, I was like ‘Oh man, it’s a little scary.’ I’m not going to front. It was definitely scary.”
Scary? Sure. Not what he wanted to hear? You bet. But at least someone tried to calm the situation.
“Izzo called me on draft day, but I didn’t pick it up—[my phone] must have been on silent,” Ager said. “But he leaves me a voicemail saying: ‘[Sigh] I talked to the Mavericks, and they’re taking you at No. 28.’”
Draft day didn’t play out as planned, but Ager said that he was beyond grateful to Mark Cuban, the Mavs’ owner, for giving him a chance to play in the NBA.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to shake [former NBA commissioner] David Stern’s hand, walk across that stage and look at the camera and say ‘I did it,’” he said. “I was blessed to be able to do that. I’m very happy for Gary and Adreian—and I’m pulling for Keith [Appling].”
Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81
Quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.