The Minnesota Timberwolves made two deals on Tuesday, with the first sending guards Mo Williams and Troy Daniels to Charlotte in exchange for Gary Neal and a 2019 second round draft pick, and the second seeing them receive rookie forward Adreian Payne from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for a protected 2017 first round pick. With the Wolves expected to buyout Gary Neal before the deadline, the long-term asset they received today is Payne, a 6’9″ stretch forward.
Selected 15th in the 2014 NBA Draft, Payne played just 19 minutes with the Hawks, stuck for minutes behind a talented frontcourt. With the Wolves not contending for a playoff spot, they should give Payne minutes to see if he can become a part of their future, an opportunity the Hawks could not afford him. Atlanta is focused on winning now, and with Millsap, Mike Scott, Elton Brand and Al Horford manning the front court, there was not enough minutes for Payne this season. While Atlanta could have hung on to him and developed him over the next few years, they decided to put all their chips in the middle and use this move to free a roster spot for someone who will hopefully contribute more than Payne would have for the rest of the season (which, according to Adrian Wojnarowski, could be either Neal himself, or the still-unsigned Ray Allen).
The selection of Payne raised eyebrows at the time it was made, as the Hawks already had these four big men on board, making minutes hard to get for Payne from the outset. It seemed as though it was a pick made with a long term vision, a player to bring along slowly and invest time in, and yet only seven months later, they are cashing their chips. Nevertheless, circumstances change, and this new draft pick allows the Hawks to reset in a few years with an additional draft pick and opens up space for another draft stash, Walter Tavares.
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With Payne a limited participant in the Hawks rotation, his current evaluation as a potential NBA player must go back to his days at Michigan State, as well as his time spent in the D-League with the Austin Spurs and Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
Coming into the NBA, one of the skills that Payne needed to show could translate to the big league was his perimeter shooting. Slightly undersized to be a full-time interior player, Payne needs his outside shot to stretch the floor and open up dribble-drive, pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll opportunities, and there were signs of that happening. After taking just three long distance shots in his first two collegiate seasons, Payne became a deadly outside shooter as a senior, recording a 42.3% three point field goal percentage in his final collegiate season.
This success didn’t translate to his D-League time, however, as he shot only 3-23 from three point range during his stints. Payne has been hesitating on his shot attempts down there, which seems to be messing up his rhythm. His release is already a little slow and any further pauses hurts his mechanics. The sample size of 23 shots is too small to say he won’t adjust to the NBA line, and more confidence in his shooting stroke along with some more game repetitions can help him get back to the success he showed at Michigan State. A lack of confidence does however appear to be a big drawback at the moment.
Payne’s shot chart shows his offensive struggles in his D-League minutes, as there weren’t many areas in which he had success.
On the plus side, Payne did have success around the rim, as his 65.3% shooting within five feet ranked seventh among D-League centers. He has good upper body strength, which can help him finish in traffic, and has nice touch around the rim and enough athleticism to be an above-the-rim player when open, which should allow him to have some success in the NBA. While he may struggle at times against bigger NBA players in the paint, Payne has the skill set to get a shot off or draw a foul around the rim, attempting 5.3 free throws per 36 minutes. He bounced back and forth between the Mad Ants, Austin Spurs and Hawks, so more consistent minutes may be the first key to unlocking his potential in these areas.
If Payne can find success with his outside shot, he has shown an ability to attack off the dribble. In the clip below, the defender is sagging off of him, and yet Payne still beats him to the rim. If he can knock down the three point shots, defenders will have to close out on him, giving Payne the chance to attack the closeout and beat the defender with his first step.
There were concerns about Payne’s defense coming into the season, and he has indeed struggled defensively. His awareness isn’t great and he can get caught watching the ball, as seen in the clip below. Scouts have questioned his ability to pick up a NBA level scheme, and not learning a team specific scheme while playing with two different teams in the D-League before being traded to a new team mid-season will not help his defensive development.
Despite his 7’4 wingspan, Payne isn’t a great shot blocker, and with the Wolves the worst team at protecting the rim, he won’t be able to hide a major weakness. Opponents shot 63.9% within five feet of the rim against Payne in the D-League, second worst among centers with at least 300 attempts defended. This can largely be attributed to his lack of awareness, as he can a step late to contest shots and he doesn’t have the length or explosiveness to recover and affect the shooter when he is late to rotate.
While not a shot blocker, Payne can contribute to the Wolves by being a useful rebounder on the defensive side. He had a 17.2% defensive rebounding rate, eighth among centers with at least ten D-League games played. He focuses on contributing in this aspect of the game, and looks to get rebounds outside of his immediate area. The Wolves are a bad defensive rebounding team at 72.8% (26th in the league), so if Payne can become a solid rebounder, he could find himself earning more playing time.
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One of the big concerns about Payne is his age, as he will turn 24 later this month. There were also some concerns about his lung capacity which could limit him from playing starter’s minutes on a regular basis. He averaged 28.1 minutes in his senior season and 27.4 minutes in his time in the D-League; compounding the potential problem here is that Minnesota averages 94.7 possessions per game, according to Basketball-Reference, the eighth fastest mark in the league. Even in limited minutes, Payne may have trouble playing at the Wolves’ tempo for extended stretches of time.
Additionally, the Wolves do have some redundancies in Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett, similar if certainly not identical players who already play Payne’s position and cannot really play any other. The move is therefore a bit curious on their end in terms of team composition and need. Nevertheless, the Wolves may have gotten some decent value. The pick Atlanta received turns into a second rounder if not conveyed by 2020, making this is a low-risk move for the Wolves, as they get a player picked 15th for a pick that will be 17th at best after the protections. At this point in their rebuild, it is most useful to acquire assets and take a chance on Payne, who may turn into net gain from this trade, as the pick they gave up won’t be in the lottery.
Any assessment at this time of the trade for the teams involved is of course going to be somewhat incomplete. It is unknown what player the Hawks will sign with this roster spot and what level of production they will get from this player down the stretch and into the playoffs. The Timberwolves’ position is similarly unclear – it is not known quite what Price they will pay for Payne, how Payne will project, and how he will fit with other pieces on the roster who could very well themselves be traded in the near future. But what is apparent is that this looks to be an excellent move for Payne personally. Moving to Minnesota should speed up his development as he leaves a crowded frontcourt on a team with championship aspirations for a team where he should see more NBA playing time. If he can start hitting perimeter jump shots, this would be the first step into becoming a skilled NBA offensive player. He has shown enough to suggest that he can.
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