Why I’m Cheering for Adreian Payne And You Should Be Too

Adreian Payne for k1x.com

I’m cheering for Adreian Payne.

I’m not alone either.

Somewhere, Payne’s mother, Gloria, is cheering for him too.

Lacey Holdsworth - a little girl who inspired so many with her remarkable fighting spirit – is also cheering.  She’s wearing Payne’s number on her chest and has it painted on her cheeks.

They’re cheering with me; they’re just harder to hear.


*        *

For those who haven’t watched much of the 16-59 Minnesota Timberwolves this season (and honestly, who could blame you?), Adreian Payne is a 6’9” rookie acquired via a trade with Atlanta struck just before the trade deadline back in February.

It was a move criticized by many, with Grantland’s Bill Simmons perhaps voicing the loudest critique.  ‘Why give up a future first round pick for a 24 year-old rook?’ they asked. ‘A rook who hasn’t even shown anything in the D-League!’

The T-Wolves felt differently.  In fact, Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders was wrapped to get his hands on a guy he nearly selected over Zach La Vine at pick 13 in last year’s Draft.

“We looked at our evaluation of where we had him,” Saunders said after the trade.  “We had him rated extremely high as a power forward, and if you look at us, we like our forwards.”

With the season almost in the books and with numerous veterans spending time on the sidelines, the Timberwolves are now having a good long look at what they have in the big man out of Michigan State.

Payne, who was unable to crack the rotation in Atlanta, has started 15 games for the Timberwolves, including the past 10.  He’s averaging 25 mins a game since arriving in the Twin Cities, producing a mixture of mind-blowing athleticism, elite potential and Andray Blatche-like coach-killing tendencies.

In his second game for the T-Wolves – his first career start – Payne doubled-doubled in a loss to Houston.  Two weeks later he became the first rookie this season to post a 15-point, 15-rebound night as he went right at (and over) DeAndre Jordan.

It was an emphatic performance, described by the Clippers’ broadcasters as a ‘coming out party’. Do yourself a favour and press play…

As you can see, Payne’s skill-set is diverse for a power forward.  He has excellent range on his jump shot – enabling him to pick-and-pop and stretch the defense – and displays flashes of athletic brilliance at both ends of the floor.

Despite being quiet and humble off the floor, Payne is a competitive dude between the lines.  He’s an energetic rebounder and ferocious finisher around the rim.

On the flip side, Payne is still very raw despite his advanced age for a rookie. 

His awareness on the defensive end is poor and his lack of communication and inability to make defensive rotations often result in easy baskets for opposing bigs.

“He’s been pretty active,” Saunders said recently. “The problem is that we’re asking him to do a lot. He’s playing with good energy. He’s made mistakes, but they’ve been more mistakes of aggression. You can’t fault that.”

Hmmm, not always… sometimes Payne just gets completely ‘Enes Kanter’ about the whole idea of playing defense.

One thing’s for sure, with Kevin Garnett – one of the greatest power forwards of all-time – now on the roster, Payne is hearing all the right things between efforts on the floor.  In fact, watch Minnesota’s bench closely and you’ll see KG constantly in Payne’s ear, instructing the young prospect on the finer points of the game.

“KG’s played the same position as I play, done the things I’m trying to do, so he can relate to things that I can relate to,” explained Payne after a recent loss.

It’s a relationship that bodes well for Payne’s development.  Nonetheless, the jury remains out on the rookie’s future in the league.

Talented big men are almost always given a chance – especially if they’re supremely athletic – but if their basketball IQ doesn’t catch up, a flight to China usually awaits.  Think Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee or Hassan Whiteside, prior to this season’s resurrection.

What’s not in question, however, is the size of Adreian Payne’s heart.

That’s where Lacey fits in.  Right next to Gloria.  And it’s where both live on to this day.

Payne had just become a teenager when his mother, Gloria, suffered a fatal asthma attack while cooking his dinner in their home in Dayton, Ohio.  Payne had tried his best to help, rummaging through drawers to find her inhaler, but to no avail.

“She died in my arms,” Payne would later explain.

With the help of his grandmother and, later, his father (who had been incarcerated on drug charges at the time of Gloria’s death), Payne soldiered on.  He managed to stay out of (serious) trouble through high school and eventually chose Michigan State for his college career, over the other high-profile schools that were recruiting him such as Arizona and Kentucky.

It was during his time at Michigan State that Payne made headlines for the special relationship he developed with Lacey Holsworth.

It began with a routine trip to the hospital, something Spartans student-athletes do from time to time under the guidance of coach Tom Izzo.

On that day the team met Lacey, a tiny six year old girl. A month earlier Lacey had been diagnosed with Neuroblastoma – an aggressive form of childhood cancer.  The cancer caused a football sized tumor in her abdomen and another tumor that wrapped around her spine, leaving her paralysed.  She was originally given two weeks to live but early chemotherapy had been effective and Lacey was fighting on.  Nonetheless, her future was bleak.

Lacey enjoyed the visit from her favourite sports team, but enjoyed meeting Payne most of all.  The power forward’s warm smile and caring nature instantly won Lacey over.

“She asked him to stick around, and he did,” explained Izzo.

Over the next two years, Payne would go on to develop a close bond with Holsworth; visiting her regularly, meeting with her before and after games and tweeting her motivational messages from the road.

“Adreian’s my brother,” Lacey would say.  “I just think of him and I smile.”

The feeling was mutual.

When Payne dropped 41 points on Delaware in last year’s NCAA tournament, he spoke postgame of Lacey’s struggles and the strength he drew from their relationship.

“It’s like having a family member who’s really sick,” he said. “The only thing you can do is play basketball. You can’t be there with them. Just knowing that when I play well, it makes her happy. It feels like I’m doing something, in a way, to make her feel better.”

Sadly, the girl who became known across America as ‘Princess Lacey’, was really sick and she succumbed to the horrible disease in early April last year, just weeks after Payne’s final game for Michigan State.

Deep down inside Payne knew it was coming, but her passing hurt no less for its inevitability.

Two months later, when Atlanta selected him 15th overall in the NBA Draft, Payne honoured his ‘little sis’ by stitching her name into the inside of his jacket.

“I wanted to do something in her memory,” Payne said.  “Something different and something I knew she’d really like.”


*         *

Adreian Payne’s game may be a work in progress, but his heart and character are as solid as a rock.

As an NBA prospect, Flip Saunders believes in him and KG is lending a hand.  But as a person, it’s Payne that’s leading by example.

So… the next time you stumble over a Timberwolves game as you’re flicking through your League Pass… cheer for him.  It feels good.  And enjoy the fact you’re not the only one cheering.  Lacey and Gloria will be pulling for him too.  They’re just harder to hear.


Follow me on Twitter @liam_santa

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