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MSU great Paul Davis talks Spartan bigs in the NBA

Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

As long as they “find their niche,” “don’t try to do too much,” and of course, remain healthy, former Michigan State big men should hold their own as pros, says Spartans great Paul Davis, who just finished a successful decade of professional basketball.

In 2006, Davis — a 6-foot-11, 270-pound former All-American — was drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Clippers. After three years, he was moved to the Washington Wizards before spending his final six playing abroad, capped by a championship in Russia that past season.

With that being said, it takes a lot more than size in order for big men to flourish as a pro — they need to be smart and know how to adapt amidst change, injury and adversity. Eventually, Davis, who has been through all of the above, would like to help up-and-coming Spartans as an assistant on Tom Izzo’s staff. During a recent phone conversation, he was asked to assess Izzo’s former bigs who are either entering the NBA or trying to stay afloat in the world’s best hoops league.

Deyonta Davis — a ‘Cautionary Tale’?

Following Deyonta Davis’ decision to leave MSU, Izzo began to express a bit of cautious optimism, tabbing the one-and-done’s early departure as a cautionary tale during a television interview. Sure, it was a gamble. Sure, Deyonta could have probably used more polishing at MSU.

But evidently, at least money-wise, Davis appears to have come out on top of the situation, signing a three-year deal worth $4 million of guaranteed pay, according to MLive and other reports. Or, in other words, Davis signed a deal comparable to that of a mid-first-rounder — where he was supposed to be drafted — despite having been drafted in the second round by the Boston Celtics and then traded to the Memphis Grizzlies.

“He’s got tremendous potential. He’s got a few things that nobody can teach — the size, the long arms, the big hands… that kind of stuff, you just can’t teach,” Paul Davis said of “DD,” one of Izzo’s most athletic big men in some time. “I think, a minimum, of one more year (at MSU) would have done wonders. It’s not even from the standpoint of his game, just for his mental toughness, his mental level.

“You have all the support in the world, especially at a place like MSU. Once you go to the NBA, then it’s a business — and you have help, but you’ve got to be ready to perform from Day 1. If you’re not, you’re at the end of the bench. It can be a very difficult transition…”

So far, Deyonta has been used to being a focal point. Life isn’t always like that as a pro. Everyone, at one time, was the focal point, a highly touted prep or a college star. Deyonta Davis must learn to quickly adapt to that mindset. Yes, he’s 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds. Yes, he’s a young phenom with immense potential.

But he just made a huge leap. One huge leap.

“I think he should have stayed another year,” said Paul Davis. “But it’s hard when people are saying, ‘You’re going to go in the first round. You’re going to make millions of dollars.’ It’s just hard. I understand that part, but it’s a difficult situation for everyone involved: Coach wanted to have him for another year, the fans wanted him for another year.

“But his dream is going to the NBA, and when that door opens, it’s hard to tell a kid ‘Don’t do it.’ It might take him a couple of years to get used to the NBA, and the physicality — all that kind of stuff…”

Cautious yet optimistic, Paul Davis feels as if Deyonta could develop into a respectable center in the Association. He’ll overhaul his overall game. He’ll handle the lifestyle/transition things, too. He has control of those aspects.

But injuries — those are out of his hands. And right now, he’s dealing with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, per reports (via the Detroit Free Press). In 2015-16, MSU guard Lourawls “Tum-Tum” Nairn dealt with a similar condition. However, for big men, the injury has the potential of being much, much worse. It’s not good for anyone, but when you’re carrying nearly seven feet of skeleton and 240-plus pounds on that foot…

“It’s like stepping on a golf ball,” said Paul Davis, who has dealt with the recurring ailment for years. Sometimes the pain goes away for weeks or months on end. Sometimes for just hours. In all likelihood, Deyonta Davis will deal with his plantar problem for the rest of his life, per Paul Davis.

Matt Costello — Energy Waiting to Burst

An undrafted free agent coming out of MSU, Matt Costello ended up signing with the Atlanta Hawks. At 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, Costello has the size and length to make it in the NBA. As a senior, he averaged 8.2 rebounds per game and had 11 double-doubles. Twenty-two-and-11. Seventeen-and-15. Costello has proven capable of completing the job.

“Getting those 10 rebounds and taking advantage when you do get inside — getting fouled, getting free throws, and really just being great on defense,” Davis replied when asked to outline Costello’s ideal path to success. Also physical, Costello could be used to wear down the opposing center with his constant energy.

“Matt’s not going to be a 30-point scorer in the NBA — but he can be a couple blocks, 10 rebounds… and like I said, some of those game-changing plays,” Davis said. “He gets the crowd into it, gets his teammates into it. That emotional side that Matt has, it just energized the crowd. I never had that. That was going on in my head (but not on the court) — and that’s another thing that you can’t teach.

“It can separate him from other guys. That’s what NBA teams love — it’s having those guys who can change games. It doesn’t matter how. He has that and the defense…”

Should Costello string together three good years, he could be in line for a major payday.

“I mean, you’re seeing guys getting big contracts (after a few years), and they’re averaging just a few points, a few rebounds,” said Davis, referencing low-stat players such as Timofey Mozgov, who just signed a four-year deal with the L.A. Lakers worth $64 million.

“So hopefully he can stay healthy and find that nice and have a great career,” Davis said.

Derrick Nix — Trying to Make it with Motown

Following a four-year career at MSU, Derrick Nix took his basketball skills across the Atlantic, playing two seasons in Europe before returning stateside. Today, the 6-foot-9, 260-some-pounder is giving it a go with the Detroit Pistons’ summer league team.

However, injuries and time away from the game have presented their share of challenges. Nix was also recently dumped by his agent, per the Free Press’ Vince Ellis.

“It’s good for him to keep pushing and keep trying. He’s very physical. I think he’s a little undersized for a true 5-man, but if he were to work on his game and find his niche,” Davis said. “If he can do a couple of things well, like getting 10 or 15 rebounds in summer league — every team needs a hardworking big man who’s going to rebound.”

Two weeks ago, Nix scored nine points during a 71-58 win over Orlando. A nice surprise, but not entirely necessary.

“He doesn’t have to worry about the offense,” Davis said. “The NBA has guys who are going to score. If he concentrates on defense and rebounding, and stays healthy, he’s going to find a spot and finish his career like he wants to.”

Adreian Payne — Is His Time Near?

A four-year player who eventually became a star at MSU, Adreian Payne serves as a great example of a recently dominant Spartans big man. Remember his senior year? He shot three-pointers. He dunked and rebounded. He looked like an NBA-caliber player.

Two years later, Payne remains in pursuit of consistency. After being drafted by the Hawks, Payne was shipped to the Minnesota Timberwolves. In 2015-16, he averaged 9.3 minutes, 2.5 points and 2.1 rebounds per game and currently plays for their summer team.

“Just like Derrick, he’ll have to find his niche and not try to do too much,” Davis said.

Follow Adam Biggers of Today’s U on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

MSU great Paul Davis talks Spartan bigs in the NBA

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