Tom Izzo said Adreian Payne is amazing, and it’s hard to argue.
After missing seven straight games in the thick of Big Ten play, the Michigan State senior big man has returned with a force, not just putting up terrific numbers but carrying the Spartans over the past three games.
Thursday was perhaps the most impressive performance yet, as Payne led the Spartans with 20 points and 14 rebounds in a 85-70 beatdown of Northwestern in East Lansing.
With Keith Appling and Branden Dawson now injured and relegated to the bench, Payne has been the main man since returning, and his dominance even has his head coach surprised.
“I would honestly have to say I am a little surprised,” Izzo said after Thursday’s win. “What I like is I think he learned something, too. When he was first injured, he didn't want to ride the bike, he didn't want to swim in the pool, he didn't want to do those things. Then when he had people talk to him, he really started working. I guess, even though it was very hard, I'll give myself some credit that I found a way to hold him out maybe a week longer than I could have. I think that helped, because he's not worried about his foot at all. It's amazing.”
What’s also been amazing is Payne’s production. Before Thursday’s double-double effort, Payne scored a game-high 24 points in a nail-biting loss at Wisconsin, including hitting a game-tying 3-pointer with less than a minute left in the game. In his first game back against Penn State, he scored 12 points in only 18 minutes as Izzo eased him back.
But more than just recent statistical achievements, what has Izzo the most impressed is the evolution of Payne, who’s in his fourth year in the Michigan State program.
“I'm amazed, though, at his conditioning,” Izzo said. “Here's a kid that two or three years ago couldn't get up and down the floor more than 15 or 18 minutes a game. Now he's carrying our team. I'm proud of him. I'm happy for him.
“He sure has been a monster. He's getting rebounds, I won't say like old times, better than old times. He's going up with two hands. That's one thing a coach will tell you — there’s a lot of guys that go up with one hand and are protecting their bodies. I talked to (former Michigan State big man Draymond Green) after and I said, ‘I told you man, he's gotten stronger. He posts stronger, he's just been better.’”
As Appling and Dawson continue their recoveries, Payne’s dominance has been welcome to say the least. But his strong play is just part of the building anticipation for when the Spartans do get healthy. If that happens, there might not be a team out there that can challenge Michigan State.