PHOENIX – Until he truly finds his way as a proven player in the NBA game and becomes what they call in the league’s vernacular a “stretch” power forward, Adreian Payne probably is best served by the approach he displayed in the Timberwolves’ 89-76 loss to the Clippers on Monday in Los Angeles:
When in doubt, dunk it.
He reminded himself as much at halftime of a game that got away from his team in the second quarter. Unhappy with a first-half performance in which he coaxed shots near the basket, he vowed to get “more aggressive” and delivered two third-quarter dunks deserving of a bedroom poster on his way to finishing with 16 points and 15 rebounds in 37 minutes.
All three figures are highs in an NBA career now only 12 games old.
“He threw down a lot of ferocious dunks tonight,” fellow rookie Andrew Wiggins said.
Most notable was one that came straight in the face of Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, whom Wolves coach Flip Saunders called late Monday night the NBA’s best defensive center. The soaring dunk over Jordan’s outstretched hands brought Payne’s teammates on the bench out of their seats in a joyous reaction and even caused the Clippers’ sellout home crowd to murmur in appreciation.
“It felt good,” Payne said simply. “It’s part of the game. Everybody gets dunked on.”
He said he never heard his teammates’ reaction at the court’s other end nor saw them bolt out of their chairs and erupt in glee.
“I didn’t,” he said. “I was trying to get back on defense.”
Defense is where Payne made his initial impression when the Wolves last month traded a future first-round pick to Atlanta for him, believing his 6-10 height, 7-4 wingspan, athletic bounce and collegiate pedigree could improve a team that lacked size and reach at power forward.
Payne played four seasons at Michigan State for coach Tom Izzo, Saunders’ long-time pal who insisted from Payne’s freshman year that such an athletically gifted player both learn and commit himself to defend. Relegated to the D League or buried on Atlanta’s bench for his first four months as a pro, Payne instantly upgraded the Wolves defense with his ability to defend the pick-and-roll, a play that is bedrock in the NBA playbook.
“I don’t think we had any question he wouldn’t be aggressive defensively, just because of where he came from,” Saunders said. “Offensively, we’ve just got to get him to slow down a little bit.”
Payne might have misinterpreted Wolves coaches’ call to play aggressively as a mandate to shoot and score anywhere. Put it this way: He did not display a rookie’s typical shyness on either end of the floor once he joined the Wolves, for whom he made his third NBA start Monday when Kevin Garnett didn’t play because of a sore knee and a chance to rest.
“We don’t need him to lead us in scoring, we’ve got guys who can score,” Saunders said. “But he’s like all young guys: You want to have an impact on the game. That’s how you think you’re going to stay on the floor.”
Payne’s play Monday indicated he received Saunders’ message — no three-pointers, find your shots within the offense’s natural flow — loud and clear. He scored those 16 points on a variety of both soft jumpers and fierce dunks.
“Yeah, he did make his point,” Payne said, smiling. “I’m trying to kind of find a happy medium.”
That happy place includes doing the other things as well: He blocked a shot, had two steals, two assists and five of his 15 rebounds Monday came on the offensive backboards, where his ability to get off the floor on both his first and second leaps is obvious.
“I don’t know, it’s about being competitive,” he said. “I just try to get the ball. I don’t know what it is, probably genetics.”
Payne believes his shooting skills will establish himself as a legitimate three-point NBA threat, but that time is not now.
“It’ll come, just like it came in college,” Payne said. “I do feel more comfortable. It’s a matter of just staying out on the court. When you first get in the game, you’re excited and then everything calms down. The more I play, the more comfortable I get. It’s clicking. It’s just a process.”