Adreian Payne: Flip Saunders’ gamble is a long way from paying off


When the Timberwolves traded for Adreian Payne just prior to the NBA trade deadline, I was less than excited.

A little more than six weeks later…I’m still disappointed in the move. Payne has done nothing to suggest that the Wolves should have given up a first-round pick (irregardless of protections) for the former Michigan State big man.

In 19 games with Minnesota, Payne has started 12 and averaged 23.9 minutes per game. While his per game averages (7.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 43.1 FG%) are underwhelming, that’s not necessarily why I believe the trade to be a mistake. In fact, follow the above link to read more about why I disliked it on the day it happened. In short, the only NBA-caliber skill he demonstrated in college was shooting wide-open 17-19-foot jumpers at a nice clip.

As it turns out, the three-point line is pushed back further at the pro level, so that skill is, well, unimportant. His length and athleticism is nice, but it has not manifested itself on the boards.

In watching Payne with the Wolves, the most concerning aspect of his game has been his overall understanding of concepts on both ends of the floor. He’s hard to watch when it comes to defending the pick-and-roll, which is a real shame considering just how formidable his wingspan could be if utilized properly. But instead, this happens:

This isn’t a good start for Payne. Howard has angled his screen to encourage Payne to fight over the top and trail Smith to the paint, leaving poor Sean Kilpatrick to try and cover the rolling Dwight Howard. Smith, of course, is shooting just 32.3% from three-point range on the season and isn’t likely to pull-up for a long-two since he plays for the Rockets. They don’t shoot those. (In fact, just 7.2% of Smith’s shot attempts with the Rockets have come between 16-feet and the arc.)

Sure enough, Payne is frozen in time while Howard waltzes to the rim. Payne is now out of the play, and the Wolves are playing four-on-five. Here’s the thing: choosing to go over the screen is one thing, but not actually fighting through it and ultimately just standing in the same spot is a whole separate issue.

And in case you weren’t sure, above is the result of the play. Payne is a full stride behind Howard as he catches an easy lob for a bucket.

This time down the court, the Wolves decided to switch the screen up top. That isn’t a terrible strategy, but then Payne needs to follow through. Here’s how it starts with Payne guarding Smith and Justin Hamilton defending Howard.

The play doesn’t actually start out too bad. Hamilton is in a good spot to defend Smith (with the ball) and Payne, since he knows his assignment is to guard the roller, can roll hard and contest an easy lob or bounce pass.

Wait, where’s Adreian? Oh, there he is, lingering behind Hamilton, in no-man’s land. Sure enough, Payne didn’t roll hard or use his length to his advantage, and here’s where he ended up:

Yeah, it’s another dunk for Howard. Payne is once again a full stride behind the Rockets’ star center, refusing to use his length to his advantage in the very situation that he should be able to defend. He doesn’t defend one-on-one in the post well, so one might think he could both the opponent in the pick-and-roll. But alas…

At any rate, he needs to improve. I’m not terribly optimistic. You may say that he’s a rookie, to which I would say that he’s 24(!!) years old. And he played for four years under Flip Saunders’ buddy Tom Izzo, one of the best college coaches in the nation.

But this is where we’re at, and it’s Saunders’ job to make sure that he improves. I just won’t be holding my breath.

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