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Indiana basketball player preview: Payton Sparks

From Hoosier dreams to Big Ten ball.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 17 Indy Classic - Illinois State vs Ball State Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Payton Sparks grew up in Winchester, Indiana (population: 4,834) watching Indiana basketball, dreaming of suiting up in the candy stripes himself one day.

He left high school in 2021 as a 247Sports 2-star recruit rated as the 24th best prospect in the state. He didn’t even have a profile photo on the site. He didn’t go far, committing to Ball State.

Sparks’ two years in Muncie earned him two All-MAC nods despite a coaching change following his freshman season. The second coach was Michael Lewis, a famed Indiana alum.

When Sparks entered the transfer portal this past offseason, there was instant mutual interest with Indiana. Lewis gave him the advice he needed, and on March 29 he became the Hoosiers’ first offseason commitment:

Speaking at Indiana’s media day, Sparks detailed how much being in Bloomington means to him:

“I can’t explain, in words, how much it means to me to wear this jersey right now and be able to walk around campus,” Sparks said.

On the court

Sparks, coming in at 6’9” and 240, played center for the Cardinals during his two seasons with the program. He had impressive averages with 13.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. That rebounding number was good for fourth in the MAC last season.

Sparks’ size and frame naturally allow him to go through defenders in the post, it takes quite a bit of contact to stop him when he’s trying to score. And he says he’s gotten even stronger since coming to Bloomington.

“Nobody’s really pushing me around,” Sparks said at media day.

But he’s not all size, he has the footwork to get around his man under the rim and the standing vertical leap to get up for a thunderous dunk. If he gets an open lane and he’s an able rim runner and can get down the court in transition.

The verticality comes in on defense as well, he’s able to get up for a rejection if the situation calls for it.

He’s mindful with the ball and looks to make plays when passing, a skill that came along for Trayce Jackson-Davis particularly during his two years working with Mike Woodson. He’s not gonna be the hyper-athlete and immediate draw on defense that TJD was, but there’s clear awareness as a passer to work with.

It’ll be interesting to see how his skills translate against Big Ten-caliber athletes over those in the MAC, but he’s here for a reason.

Sparks said it’s always been his dream to play in the Big Ten and made note of the league’s physicality. He knows what he’s getting into with conference play and is by all accounts rising to the occasion. Additionally, he mentioned working on his midrange game as he looks to expand his skills on offense.

What doesn’t show up in the box score is Sparks’ motor.

The sheer effort he puts into his play is infectious, raising the team around him. Indiana already has players like that in the likely starting backcourt in Trey Galloway and Xavier Johnson. With Sparks likely coming off the bench, it’ll be good for that unit to have a high-energy presence on the court at all times.

“You’re gonna see a guy who’s gonna work his butt off on every play,” Sparks said.

Overall, with the frontcourt’s offseason depletion, signing Sparks looks to be a great move overall. It’ll be a fun story to watch another Indiana kid on the Hoosiers and that first Assembly Hall dunk is certain to get the crowd on its feet.