Development and consistency were two of Adreian Payne's biggest improvements during the 2012-13 season.
The Michigan State Spartans' junior power forward/center showed the nation why he was a 5-star prospect coming out of Jefferson Township High (Dayton, Ohio) as the nation's third-ranked center in 2010. He showcased a decent perimeter game along with a ferocious appetite for rebounds.
He was the real deal.
Now, Payne has speculation looming about his potential in the NBA. He has the size at 6'10" and 240 pounds to attract the curiosity of pro scouts—a big man with a lengthy, 7-foot wingspan that can knock down mid-range jumpers and three-pointers will do that.
Spartans followers, obviously, would love to see him stay another year. Not only is he an interesting athlete to watch on the court, he's become a fan favorite due to his academic and personal development.
College fans hold guys like Payne near and dear to their hearts. They want the best for him, but they also wish a kid like Payne could remain in East Lansing forever—or for at least one more season.
In Payne's case, the aforementioned will likely affect his decision on whether or not to get a degree and share his final year of collegiate hoops with a fanbase that adores him. On the other hand, his stock may never be higher—and striking while the iron is hot is in his pocketbook's best interest.
Payne may never stare down a sure payday in his life like the one he'll get by entering the NBA draft this year.
And if Spartans fans truly wish the best for Payne, they'd encourage him to make the right life choice, not the right choice for the lives of fans. He's spent three years at Michigan State, possibly a year longer than some expected once he joined the program as a lanky, wide-eyed, 210-pound freshman.
What former Spartans Say About Leaving Early
The Lansing State Journal's Michigan State hoops beat writer Graham Couch recently published an exemplary piece on the pros and cons of leaving college early to collect a huge check.
Couch talked with former Spartans guard Durrell Summers, who all but certainly had an NBA future but didn't necessarily have the best committee of advisers.
Summers had hops. He had a knack for scoring in bunches.
But he's playing in the D-League with the Idaho Stampede rather than the big time. He told Couch the following about his decision-making process on whether to stay put or make the jump to the pro ranks.
...You’ve just got to listen to the people who are always living in your corner, the couple people you have as your rock, that you value what they say, the good and the bad. If I look back on it, that’s how I would have approached it.
To be honest, I met with coach Izzo and I got some insight from him. Then I pretty much rushed the decision myself. The people I was looking for, around my time, didn’t step up. Who knows if I would have changed my decision, I don’t know. You’ve got to live with the decisions that you make.
Summers' former teammate Kalin Lucas is overseas. Had "Too Easy" left after his sophomore year in 2009, he would have likely been a late first-round draft pick. Lucas had a great junior year, but he suffered injuries in senior year, all but plummeting his NBA potential to the ground.
Spartans legendary point guard Mateen Cleaves also spoke to Couch about struggling with the stay-or-go decision. Cleaves led the Spartans to a national championship in 2000 as a senior but had the opportunity to leave a year earlier.
Cleaves on leaving (via Couch):
I listened to the advice from coaches, from NBA people. I didn’t listen to the runners and the agents and my cousin, and the guy across the street who doesn’t know anything about basketball. I listen to the people who already had a great understanding of what you should do in those situations
Cleaves later says that "leaving for the money" isn't the best path to travel in the same interview.
The Differences Between Payne and Others
Lucas would have been an average NBA guard. The same would have been true for Summers. Drew Neitzel didn't work out in the NBA. Paul Davis had a short career, and Goran Suton barely got his feet wet with the Utah Jazz.
Michigan State develops preps into great college players, not necessarily NBA stars.
The exception may be Shannon Brown, who left in 2006 with Maurice Ager. Brown, though, didn't exactly become a star—he's been an effective journeyman, and that's OK. Not everyone evolves into Jason Richardson, Morris Peterson or Zach Randolph, three Izzo-era players who made a mark in the NBA.
Payne is a different animal all together. Men his size who have his type of athleticism are at a premium. In a world full of 90-mph-throwing righties, Payne is like a lefty who throws 93. Pardon the baseball reference, but you can see where this is going—Payne is special.
Raw. But special.
Window of Opportunity
Payne has the skill set to play at least 20 minutes a game for an NBA team...eventually.
Maybe not as a rookie, but if he continues to develop at this pace, he'll surely be a solid rotation player. NBA careers don't last long. Couple that with the fact that taller athletes are usually more prone to arthritis or other stress on their bones, and Payne's window of opportunity doesn't appear to be guaranteed for more than six or so years.
Just ask Greg Oden. His knees were already in rough shape, but lugging around a significant amount of weight on a giraffe-like frame isn't the best thing for ankles, feet and knees.
Injuries and medical conditions are a part of life; they're also a part of sports. Payne, now age 22, may not have many years past his 30th or 31st birthday to excel at a high level. Then again, he could play into his late 30s—it's a game either way.
As mentioned above, Payne has a difficult, life-altering decision to make. Staying in college may be in his best interest on a personal development level. But leaving for the NBA draft may be his best bet to achieve his dream of playing pro ball and securing a nest egg to assure a comfortable financial future.
Michigan State wouldn't be a national contender without Payne next season. That much is clear. And if Gary Harris and Keith Appling decide to abandon ship with Payne, the Spartans will be in a world of trouble.
However, Payne should absolutely consider all of the variables, talk to former college players who had success when leaving early and talk to those who made grave mistakes.
As a 6'10" giant, Payne is an injury away from watching his NBA dreams slip away faster than Kansas' lead over Michigan in the 2013 Sweet 16.
Payne has worked endlessly to improve his craft. He's made a commitment to development. He's blossomed under Izzo.
But the time is now for Payne to seize the moment. Spartans fans may not want to see him enter the draft, but the potential of a disastrous senior year is enough reason for him to highly consider saying goodbye to the Spartans.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan Spartans basketball lead writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81