Indiana men’s basketball’s class of incoming players is full of big names.
Kel’el Ware and Mackenzie Mgbako were top-10 recruits and McDonald’s All-Americans, Gabe Cupps and Jakai Newton have been committed to Indiana for years now and Anthony Walker is coming off of a Final Four appearance with Miami.
Payton Sparks, a transfer forward who played center at Ball State, was Indiana’s first transfer portal commitment this cycle and has flown under the radar as multiple others have joined the program.
It wouldn’t be the first time Sparks hasn’t gotten credit he’s due. He was a 247Sports 2-star ranked as the 24th best prospect in Indiana, he didn’t even have a profile picture on the site. The COVID-19 pandemic affected his recruiting process, with coaches and scouts unable to easily watch him play.
Then he went and turned in a MAC Freshman of the Year season in 2021-22 after joining Ball State. He had the third most points by a Cardinals freshman in program history, leading the team in points per game with 13.5
And yes, Sparks is from Indiana. Specifically Winchester, a town of just under 5,000 people just east of Muncie. He grew up watching Indiana, remembering the Hoosiers win Big Ten titles and the Watshot game against Kentucky.
Now, after a transfer process that included interest from the likes of Illinois, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Pitt, Sparks will be wearing the candy striped warmups for Indiana next season.
It probably helped that his coach at Ball State, Michael Lewis, is an Indiana alum himself and reportedly encouraged Sparks to seek opportunity in Bloomington should he wish to.
There’s a reason why he received so much interest from the Big Ten, he’s an ideal type of player to handle the league’s physicality.
Here’s a list of scouting reports from CQ on a few of Indiana’s newcomers, with Sparks’ following below:
Indiana men’s basketball scouting reports
As a center at Ball State, Sparks made his living scoring in the paint. He had the ability to drift outside a bit for longer attempts over opponents, but he specialized in getting to the rim with his footwork. He brings the physicality that’s necessary to score down low in the Big Ten, with a willingness to fight through contact to score.
Sparks doesn’t have the same offensive drive as a high level athlete like Trayce Jackson-Davis, but he’s capable of throwing down a few thunderous dunks that get his team’s bench, and the arena, on their feet to keep energy high.
He has some ability to handle the ball and wasn’t entirely reliant on teammates passing him the ball in scoring position and has said he plans to work on those aspects of his game with the Hoosiers.
He drew double-teams in the MAC as Ball State’s No. 1 option in the post and was both willing and capable of passing out of them to find an open man, but it’s unlikely he’ll face the same defensive emphasis at a higher level.
Importantly, Sparks was a highly capable rebounder, especially on the offensive end. His offensive rebounding rate of 12.9% was good for second in the MAC, which could translate well in the Big Ten.
It’s not just rebounding though, Sparks actively looks for tap-in shot opportunities on box outs and was capable of converting at Ball State.
Sparks will need to work on his defense at Indiana without a high-level lateral burst. He’ll have the coaching to do so under Mike Woodson and co.
Sparks’ role will in all likelihood be as a reserve forward coming off the bench. He plays with enough energy to raise that of his teammates around him, reacting emphatically to key plays, including his own dunks (see attached photo) and hustling to get to either end of the court.
With Indiana’s current starting lineup looking likely to be Ware, Malik Reneau, Mgbako, Trey Galloway and Xavier Johnson, I’d expect Sparks’ role will be to step in for Reneau off the bench.
Reneau has a similar game albeit with a higher ceiling, without much range as a scorer. Playing both of them at the same time would reduce Indiana’s spacing significantly unless Reneau develops some scoring ability on the perimeter.
Both can remain down low to look for a pass or box out for rebounds on 3-point attempts while Ware is more mobile, capable of knocking down shots from the arc.