There are a lot of intriguing positional questions heading into the season for Michigan State basketball, but it's pretty safe to say that MSU absolutely has to get more out of Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix next season. Hopefully, the way they played down the stretch in their head-to-head meeting Sunday in the Lansing Moneyball Pro-Am is a good indicator that they're growing into more confident and reliable players.I didn't get to see Payne the first time I went and watched Moneyball games, so I was excited to see him in action. Even better, he was playing Nix's team. And even better again, both guys were playing key roles in the offense and both guys were defending. Their teams played a competitive game that featured an exciting back-and-forth finish, one that Payne and Nix figured prominently into. Here were some of their key moments:
* Payne caught the ball facing up about 18-feet out. Nix was in front of him with a hand in his face. Payne elevated and confidently knocked down the perimeter jumper. He looked really comfortable taking it. I'm not sure if it wasn't in his arsenal last year or if he was just told not to shoot from outside (that wouldn't be unprecedented ... I was shocked to see how well Marquise Gray shot from the perimeter after his MSU career was over, it was just a skill he didn't show off much in college because he rarely strayed out of the paint), but with Payne's quickness, having the ability to hit an open jumper like that will only make things easier on him if he attacks the basket more this season.
* Payne grabbed a rebound and dribbled through traffic the length of the floor for a layup and looked comfortable doing it. Now, this is probably something he should not attempt to do often for MSU. But, like the jumper he flashed, it was a skill that he didn't unveil last season, and if he can handle the ball a little bit from a face-up position, that should allow him to create shots for himself.
* Payne's two best plays came pretty close together. On offense, he caught the ball cutting to the basket, took a shot from Nix and still managed to contort his body and finish with an off-balance jumper and get to the line. Then, at the defensive end, he came out of nowhere to block a shot but, more importantly, he kept it in play, allowing his team to push the ball up-court and hit a tying 3-pointer with :42 seconds left.]
* As for Nix, he once again looked to be in better shape than last season. The pro-am games might be helping as many of the guys play close to all 40 minutes, depending on how many bench players show up in a given weekend.
* The best sign came on a play in the third quarter for him. Despite his size, Nix has had a hard time consistently finishing around the rim. He's sometimes a bit too tentative or has awkward footwork in the post. He caught the ball confidently in the second half and generally made quick decisions to either get his shot up or give the ball up. On one play, he used a pump fake, drew a defender in the air, kept the ball high, absorbed the contact and finished. Then he went to the line and knocked down the free throw. Nix is always going to draw contact because he's so big, so if he's learned to get shots up more quickly and also protect the ball, that could help him get to the line more.
* Nix actually made the game-winning play for his team. After the opposing team turned it over inside, Nix took off sprinting down the middle of the floor. A teammate found him cutting hard right down the lane and Nix caught a tough pass that was a bit low and softly laid it in just before the buzzer.
Pro-am performances are certainly no clear indicator that either will perform better during the season, but it is good to see both big men flashing skills that could make MSU's center position a bit more of a threat offensively this season. Because their builds and games are so diverse, if Michigan State can get reasonable production out of both guys, they could be a really difficult team to defend in the middle since Payne and Nix each play so differently.