April 29, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The last time a Michigan State basketball player called a press conference to announce he was passing on the NBA draft and returning to school, the Spartans went on to win the national championship.
Fourteen years later, in the very same meeting room on the mezzanine level of the Breslin Center where Mateen Cleaves revealed his refreshing perspective on the value of staying vs. leaving early, Adreian Payne, the introspective 6-foot-10 power forward with the 7-4 wingspan, provided much of the same rationale for why he'll be back for his senior season.
"At the end of the day, it was my decision to make," Payne said Sunday night, just hours before the midnight deadline for declaring for the draft would come and go.
"And, I made it."
Payne was quick to point out, however, that the arduous process that brought him to this point included: Exhaustive research provided by MSU coach Tom Izzo and his staff, input from various NBA general managers and five player agents, conversations with former Spartans who play or played in the league and finally the advice of his Dayton (Ohio) Jefferson Township High School coaches Art Winston and Mark Parker.
By Friday, Payne's mind was all but made up to put his name in the draft, in which he was solidly projected to be a late-first-round pick. When Izzo left that afternoon for a recruiting trip to Virginia, the paperwork was all filled out and ready to be faxed to NBA headquarters in New York.
But everything was put on hold when Winston and Parker, who have doubled as Payne's surrogate parents, counseled him one last time on what he would be leaving behind at MSU if he went through with filing the paperwork.
Payne was incommunicado all of Saturday until he informed Izzo of his change.
Had Payne's beloved grandmother, Mary Lewis, who raised him since his mother, Gloria Lewis, died when he was 13, his intention to remain a Spartan - no ifs, ands or buts about it - would have been announced weeks ago, Izzo said. But, Mary Lewis passed away on Aug. 22, 2011, and the choice was Payne's alone to make.
"I want to apologize for the wait, because it was a hard decision," Payne said. "It was my first time having to make a big decision like this in my life without my grandmother, and it was hard. It was like those swings you go back and forth on when you're a little kid.
"I was just going back and forth. I was never 100 percent on what I should do."
It was Draymond Green, the senior star of MSU's 2012 Big Ten championship team, who reminded Izzo that both he and Cleaves had strong mothers who greatly influenced their decisions at Payne's age.
While no one told Payne what he should or shouldn't do, his circle of advisors "were able to bring things to my attention that I wasn't able to see, and that's what you have parents for," he said. "There was information I was going to be a first-round pick, and then I just used that to weigh things that with me coming back I was going to be able to accomplish here with the team coming back. We have a great team, and with everybody coming back, we've got a chance to get to a Final Four and win a national championship."
Thanks in large part to Payne's dramatic emergence as a formidable offensive and defensive force midway through the season, the Spartans overcame an inordinate number of injury-related personnel fluctuations to compete for the Big Ten championship until the final day of the regular season and earn a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Payne's return instantly makes Michigan State shoe-in for the preseason Top Five, the favorite to win the Big Ten and a prime contender to reach Izzo's seventh Final Four in 15 years because of the picture he completes with senior-to-be point guard Keith Appling, sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris and junior wing Branden Dawson.
It's likely all four will be showing up prominently on the NBA's radar next year at this time, and their supporting cast, with the likes of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello, is battle-tested and experienced.
There's a very good chance MSU's second game of the season, against Kentucky in Chicago, will be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 or No. 3 showdown.
Payne has already received notices as a preseason All-American, and he'll be on watch lists for other national honors. Other goals that factored into his decision center around team, such as the fact that Payne and Appling will be the first four-year players not to play in a Final Four under Izzo if they don't do it in 2014.
And, first and foremost, Payne is closing in on his degree in interdisciplinary studies. Graduation is something few foresaw for him when he enrolled with a learning disability.
"The main factor is, I want to graduate," Payne said. "I promised that to my grandmother, and that's something I want to do."
Payne, who was the recipient of the team's scholar-athlete award, said he wouldn't be where he is as a student without the help of Gretchen Paige, a learning specialist and liaison to MSU's Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, and Jim Pignataro, an associate athletic director in charge of the Student-Athlete Support Services.
"This guy's going to all but graduate at (the end of fall) semester," Izzo said. "What he's done is remarkable. Adreian lost both (his mother and grandmother), and so I can't appreciate, and can only acknowledge what it's like to have to make a life-changing decision (under such circumstances). In my mind, on Friday, he was going (to the NBA).
"I was pleasantly surprised, if you want the truth. Every single player wants to go pro. If they didn't, I wouldn't recruit them. And, they want to go as fast as they can go. That is normal. Thank God, he looked at some other factors, and other dreams and goals he has, and kind of put them all together..., with people in his ear both ways, too - some telling him to go, some telling him to stay."
Izzo compared Payne's ordeal to the way he struggled with a lucrative offer to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers three years ago, and the support he received from athletic director Mark Hollis.
Izzo expects Payne to add 10-15 pounds of muscle to his 240-pound frame while continuing to develop the deft shooting touch that made him a scoring threat outside as well as inside. While his versatility should make him a matchup problem for opposing teams in much the way Green did, Izzo also anticipates featuring him in the post where he can take advantage of his Big Ten-best free-throw percentage by drawing more fouls.
If Payne continues to build on his junior season at the same rate, he should be better prepared to endure the rigors of the NBA and the dog-eat-dog world of professional sports, where players are expected to keep up and be ready to play immediately, or risk being left behind. Izzo is convinced that by staying another year, Payne will not only greatly enhance his chances of moving up in the draft and dramatically improving his contract potential, but set himself up for a long pro career.
In the short term, Payne is already focused on next season.
"Me coming back is going to make us tighter, and we'll have even better chemistry," Payne said. "The main thing I would like to work on is my post game, putting the ball on the floor and shooting off the dribble, my legs, and conditioning and being a leader.
"I like doing things the right way and with me graduating, I'm able to set a standard and be a role model for the kids who look up to me, and athletes in general, so that I can give hope to a child who may be in the same situation as me, and let them know it's possible."
Expectations for Michigan State basketball in 2013-14 may have just shot up to the ionosphere, but Izzo doesn't feel any extra anxiety to produce the school's third national championship.
"That's not pressure," he said. "Pressure isn't having players. Pressure is not having players. I like this kind of pressure."