New-look Adreian Payne can take Michigan State to Final Four

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Draymond Green was equal parts frustrated and jealous, watching his younger, physically gifted teammate go through the motions with a world of talent.

"I'd yell at him about going hard," Green said. "He was blessed with everything. You knew he had the ability, but he didn't bring it every night."

Adreian Payne was a verified enigma. Here was a 6-foot-10 athlete who was blessed with the ability to step out and make shots from beyond the arc, rebound high above the rim and also alter the game with his shot-blocking ability. There was honestly little he was unable to do on the court. 

But that Payne is gone, left behind at a hotel balcony in Happy Valley -- when he and teammate Branden Dawson got into a skirmish that left a hole in a wall.

"It's pretty coincidental," Payne said of his emergence since that game. "I knew I could be pretty good, but I didn't know I could go for 20 in a half."

Payne finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds in Michigan State's 70-48 victory over Memphis on Saturday to give the Spartans their fifth Sweet 16 appearance in the past six seasons.

Those don't sound like dominating numbers, but Payne was the difference-maker for Tom Izzo's squad in the second half. Midway though the half, Payne converted on an inside hoop that pushed the lead to 47-37, then swatted Memphis big man Tarik Black at the rim. Moments later, after a Denzel Valentine three-point play, Payne blocked another shot, this time on the ultra-athletic D.J. Stephens, and came down the other end and drilled a 19-footer to give Michigan State a 15-point advantage.

"If he plays like that, they can win the whole thing," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after watching Payne. "He's their X-factor."

Payne doesn't know what to say when people toss up compliments in that fashion about him. This is a kid who didn't pick up a ball until his freshman year of high school, and says he couldn't catch a ball his first season on the varsity squad.

"I was terrible," Payne admitted. "Really bad. It all changed so fast."

Now Payne is regarded as one of the most talented players to come through the program in the last decade or so. His potential is undeniable. However, that's been the word bandied about with Payne, and it had almost become a curse.

He's a quiet kid. The first time I met him years ago at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Ohio, he didn't say more than a couple of words. Now he's come out of his shell, but still seems uncomfortable talking about himself. Payne and frontcourt mate Derrick Nix combined for 27 points and 18 rebounds and dominated in the paint against a couple of big, strong Memphis big men.

Payne lost his mother when he was in the seventh grade. His grandmother, whom he was extremely close with, passed away last season.

"I changed a lot," Payne said. "I had to grow up and help my brothers."

Now Payne, who lived with Green a year ago, has become a religious film-watcher. In fact, while the rest of his teammates went upstairs to their hotel rooms following the victory over Valparaiso on Thursday, there was Payne -- in front of a laptop a couple of seats over from Izzo seeing how he could improve his play. He had just apologized to his teammates in the locker room an hour or so earlier for his lackluster play, a seven-point, four-rebound effort in a rout over the Crusaders.

Green, now a rookie with the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, is no longer frustrated watching his former roommie. Now he's proud of the energy that Payne brings to the court nearly each and every game.

"It takes some people more time to get it than others," Green said. "But he's gotten it. The biggest thing for him was all mental, because he's always had the talent." 

But now there's production to go along with that talent. 

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