MEMPHIS – Adreian Payne has gone from unused to a place in Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation these past four games. Before Saturday’s 93-71 loss at Memphis, the third-year forward was asked about his newfound role after he starting the season unsure just where he fits in.
“Yeah,” he said, “I’m still not sure about it.”
So goes life in the NBA near the end of the bench, from which he has discovered a supporting part just a month after it wasn’t nearly certain he’d make the team’s final roster.
Thibodeau has turned to Payne this past week, calling upon his physicality and athleticism after Shabazz Muhammad missed three games because of a sore knee.
A “stretch” power forward, Payne played nearly 15 minutes in Saturday’s blowout loss at Memphis, where he seemed to be one of the few Wolves who played with any real passion and energy.
Given how he didn’t play at all until recently, Payne said his job is to do whatever he can, whenever he can.
“I look at it as just trying to be a positive impact,” Payne said. “It’s really just trying to watch the game, get a feel for it, see what’s going on and then do what I always do: Play hard, bring energy and be tough. It’s just part of what I do.”
Thibodeau has called upon Payne over a veteran such as Jordan Hill despite a preseason when it looked like Payne didn’t fit the new coach’s plans, although he does have a $2 million contract guaranteed for this season.
“I see him every day, I see the way he works,” Thibodeau said. “He’s expected to do his job. He’s here. You don’t get here by accident, so knowing what your job is and then going out and doing your job is important. I think he has played well. He has been ready to go. He has got to continue to do that and he has to continue to improve, as does the rest of the team.”
Flip Saunders, former Wolves president of basketball operations and coach, acquired the former Michigan State star during his rookie season for a future first-round pick the team still owes Atlanta. A longtime friend of Spartans coach Tom Izzo, Saunders considered selecting Payne during a 2013 draft in which the Wolves took Zach LaVine 13th overall and Atlanta chose Payne two picks later.
He averaged 9.3 minutes while playing 52 games for Wolves coach Sam Mitchell last season, when he also was assigned to the D League for three games.
He played fewer than eight minutes in two of the Wolves’ first eight games before he found his way into Thibodeau’s rotation a week ago against the Los Angeles Lakers, the same night Muhammad missed his first game.
“Being patient is part of the NBA, being ready,” said Payne, whose team plays Boston Monday at Target Center. “You just have to continue to work. Just going through this has been tough. It can break a lot of people. You just have to stay positive and continue to work.”
Both Saunders and Mitchell urged Payne to be aggressive, which he initially seemed to interpret as a command to shoot at every turn.
Now in his third season, Payne said he resists the temptation to do too much when he finally does get his chance to play.
“There is a little bit,” Payne said about temptation, “but if it’s an open shot, he [Thibodeau] wants me to shoot. He just wants me to play basketball. That’s what I do. I’m not trying to do too much. I’m not trying to create too much off the dribble or anything. Just go out there, make the shot, play my game.”