I remember when Tom Izzo begged Adreian Payne, pleaded with him.
In those early years, Michigan State’s head coach would often pull the 6-foot-10 forward aside and berate him for something he’d done -- or hadn’t done -- with that trademark rasp. He’d throw his arms into the air, stare at Payne and say, “Why?!?”
Izzo was tough on the Dayton, Ohio, product as he stumbled through his freshman and sophomore seasons. But that process helped Payne grow, and now he’s an undeniable NBA prospect and Big Ten player-of-the-year candidate.
Izzo always knew the versatile big man had that potential, but it had to be nurtured and harvested.
We saw the fruits of that progress Saturday when Payne led his team to a 92-78 victory at Texas. Payne was a megastar, scoring a career-high 33 points (on 10-for-13 shooting), grabbing 9 rebounds and collecting 2 assists in a game Michigan State didn’t control until the final 10 minutes.
“I think it affected [the game] a lot,” Payne told ESPN.com after the matchup. “I think it means a lot because teams on the road, they need somebody to look up to and I was just trying to be that guy.”
Payne might be a lottery pick.
Payne might belong in the national player-of-the-year conversation.
Payne might be one of the toughest matchups in college basketball.
Payne might be the leader Michigan State needs.
Most of the assessments about Payne to date have centered on his athletic ability, his gifts and his ceiling. That last has been a persistent topic for Payne’s critics and promoters.
Will he ever reach it?
His 2013-14 numbers suggest that he is the player many assumed he’d be by his senior season.
His leadership ability? Rarely addressed.
Keith Appling has been the natural leader for the program in the post-Draymond Green years. He’s experienced and vocal and savvy and smart.
Payne doesn’t lead that way. And past moments of immaturity -- the scuffle with Branden Dawson at a hotel last season -- might have suggested that he couldn’t lead even if it became necessary.
On Saturday, however, the Spartans tipped off against a Longhorns squad that suddenly and unexpectedly caught the winning spirit a few weeks back. The Spartans were locked in the same kind of war with Texas that North Carolina lost in Chapel Hill on Wednesday.
“We watched that game versus North Carolina,” Payne said. “Both of them were good teams. We lost to North Carolina and they killed us on the boards. And Texas killed them on the boards. We knew if we didn’t show up, we’d be in for a rude awakening and have problems winning the game.”
Texas was picked to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 prior to the season, but the Longhorns have looked like an NCAA tournament team in recent weeks (days).
They certainly benefited from their newfound bravado and the youthful naiveté that tends to ignore stakes and pressure.
The Longhorns were loose in the first half, when they led 28-21. And Michigan State was tight.
The Spartans are not 100 percent. Likely lottery pick Gary Harris had missed action in recent weeks with an ankle injury. Travis Trice had missed previous games due to blisters. Matt Costello, the team’s starting center, didn’t even travel due to mononucleosis.
So Payne carried the Spartans. He had to.
He hit jump shots. He hit 3-pointers. He made his free throws (11-for-12).
He set an example.
I’m not sure how much he yelled or screamed or pumped his fist. That is not his style.
But Payne was the calming force the Spartans needed against Texas. They were on the road against a confident program with little to lose.
And Payne executed.
This Adreian Payne can lead the Spartans to a Big Ten title. He can guide them to Arlington, Texas, too.
But he might do it quietly.
As long as he makes noise with his game and maturity, however, his methods won’t matter.
“I think I’ve changed a lot,” Payne said. “Coach talks so much [about] sometimes, you don’t have to say nothing. So I just try to lead by example and try to talk to guys one on one and lead by example that way.”