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MSU Players Leave East Lansing Ready For Next Level

by Mark Remme
Web Editor

Keith Appling keeps track of his Michigan State teammates as he maneuvers his way through the rigors of the NBA Draft workout schedule. He, along with former Spartans Adreian Payne and Gary Harris, are meeting with teams, being evaluated and trying to show why each should be selected come June 26.

It’s all new territory for them. No matter how much experience you have at the collegiate level, working out for NBA teams—in what is essentially a job interview—is a bit daunting. They try to lean on each other a bit as they go along.

“We all kind of go into it blindfolded—we really don’t know what to expect,” Appling said on Sunday after his workout with the Wolves. “But yeah, we talk every now and then, whenever we touch down in a certain city or things like that. But as far as the process, we really don’t know what to expect so we just ask each other what’s going on and what are some of the things they’re going through.”

At the very least, they’re coming from a program that fuels the NBA Draft on nearly an annual basis.

Spartans players leave East Lansing not only with collegiate success as a team but also a readiness to move on to the next level. In 19 season as Michigan State’s head coach, Tom Izzo has produced 17 straight NCAA tournaments, seven Big Ten regular season titles, six Final Four appearances and one national championship. Along the way, he’s coached 13 NBA Draft picks—including six first rounders.

In this year’s crop of players, Harris and Payne are seemingly locks for the first round. Harris is revered for his defense, basketball IQ and his versatility. He’s arguably one of the top shooting guards in the draft. Payne, at 23, is one of the older prospects in this year’s class. But his play at power forward—especially his ability to score inside, stretch the floor and rebound—have made him an intriguing big in the middle portion of the first round.

Appling, a point guard, is considered a fringe draftee. He’s working out this month with teams to showcase that he can be a second round pick, or if he does slip, to show he can be an asset on a Summer League roster. He overcame a wrist injury that affected his shooting last year, and Wolves President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders said this weekend he’s got some things to prove to NBA teams over the next month or so.

Still, the Spartans are heavily represented again this season in Draft workouts, and the Wolves have seen all of them either at the NBA Draft Combine last month or through this weekend’s individual workout.

Not that Saunders, a Big Ten alum himself, needs more than a refresher on these guy.

“I’m pretty familiar with all those kids from Michigan State,” Saunders said.

A lot of their NBA readiness comes from Izzo and the level of commitment and accountability he instills in the Spartans program. Harris said the combination of playing in the physical Big Ten in rowdy arenas each night helps to get them prepared mentally and physically, and Izzo’s style and approach gets his players prepped for the next level.

“He knows how to adapt,” Harris said. “He knows how to adjust to situations.”

That’s what these guys will need to showcase to NBA teams over the coming weeks and into Training Camp, should they be selected or invited to participate for team roster spots later this fall. They’ll need to show that their skills that made them successful at the collegiate level can, indeed, translate to the NBA.

Harris, at 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, is being evaluated for his physical ability to translate to the NBA. He said he’s confident he’ll be able to make that transition because of his competitive nature: “I’m not worried about [being undersized],” he said in Chicago. “I’m a competitor. I’m going out there and compete regardless of my size.”

Payne said he views himself as a well-rounded player, a solid teammate in the locker room and a guy that can knock down shots and play defense. He said he battled through an undiagnosed case of mononucleosis last season, which altered his final season in college a bit, and he’s been asked about his ability to fully grasp advanced team systems.

His response? Izzo has over 100 plays, and he didn’t have any trouble handling the Spartans’ game plans.

“I think I’m ready to contribute right away,” Payne said. “I think I have a lot of experience. I feel I can come in and play and do whatever it takes for this team to win.”

Appling said Payne improved tremendously at Michigan State, had a big NCAA tournament (the Spartans lost to eventual champion UConn in the Elite Eight) and had a number of big plays. He said Harris is a smart kid who will make the transition well, just like he did in college.

As for Appling himself? Well, he’s hoping to show that he, too, can build off the Michigan State philosophy that, under Izzo, has produced so many draft picks before him.

“I feel like up until this moment everyone should be a competitor or else they wouldn’t be at this level,” Appling said. “But I feel like since coach Izzo did a great job of envisioning that environment throughout the course of practice all four of my years at Michigan State, so that’s something that’s been instilled in me since I stepped foot on campus.”