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In the interest of making sure it was the right decision, Payton Sparks didn’t commit to Indiana on his unofficial visit Monday. He wanted to sleep on it.
The Ball State transfer and Winchester grad grew up an IU fan. He remembers watching IU beat No. 1 Michigan in 2013. He remembers being in his living room to watch Christian Watford hit the famous shot to beat Kentucky. By his own recollection, he just sat there, shocked after, "like wow, they really just beat the No. 1 team in the land.”
“Just the tradition and just seeing them win every year,” Sparks said. “Playing on TV. Being a kid, that’s where you put yourself and want to be and succeed.”
So the unofficial visit was a collision between that kid and the impressive athlete he has now become. He and his family sat down with IU coach Mike Woodson, where they watched film on how he could fit in with the program.
“It was everything that I dreamed of, being a little kid, wanting to play for IU,” Sparks said of the visit.
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And yet, in perhaps a move of maturity, Sparks decided to wait, although briefly, to make a decision.
“I wanted to sleep on it and make sure it was the best, the right decision for me,” Sparks said. “You can come off the visit high on emotions. I just didn’t want to make a decision right off the visit. I just wanted to sleep on it, make sure I was making the right one.”
After waking up the next day, his answer was cemented.
“I was like, I know where I want to go to school and compete and just play at the highest level,” Sparks said. “And I’m like, 'I’m going to IU.'”
Sparks announced his commitment to Indiana on Wednesday. It was the first incoming in what figures to be a busy offseason for the Hoosiers' roster reconstruction. IU has a variety of holes to fill, especially in the frontcourt. Sixth-year Race Thompson, who started 91 of the 92 games he played the past three seasons, has exhausted his eligibility. All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis has made his intentions of going pro clear. Logan Duncomb, though seldom-used, entered the transfer portal.
That leaves IU's frontcourt very thin. But Sparks’ commitment alleviates some of that. Listed at 6-9 and 240 pounds, Sparks can help give IU much-needed strength in the paint. Over his two seasons at Ball State, he averaged 13.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.7 blocks per game.
“He’s generally probably like the nicest kid you’ll ever meet outside of a basketball floor,” said Andrew Martin, Director of Midwest Basketball Club. “But then when he’s on the hardwood, he turns into a different beast. He’s tough, competitive, just fights. He’s a gamer. That’s for sure. And I’ve always been a big fan and he just competes his tail off. Same thing he did in high school to Ball State to hopefully now he’ll get to showcase that at Indiana.”
Sparks was a relatively underrated recruit in high school. He was listed as just a two-star prospect, according to 247Sports. There is no profile photo on his 247Sports recruiting profile, instead just a shaded outline of where it should’ve been. He had a variety of lower-level Division-I offers, including Toledo, Elon and Valparaiso. He took a visit to IU but was not offered. His lack of recruiting attention, though, was partly because the summer heading into his senior year was derailed by COVID-19, making it difficult for him to fully break out.
“It was just such a weird time where the coaches are trying to get a look at the kids and stuff, but they’re watching streams and some of the streams aren’t super good quality,” Martin said. “So it’s really hard to get a good feel. That’s where the live periods are so important because coaches can get eyes on them, see them in person and just get a feel for what they can do. And all that stuff was done literally over streaming. So it was super hard for those Power 5 and 6 coaches to make that jump really quickly without having to see the kid.”
He was named MAC Freshman of the Year, but after Sparks' first season in Muncie, coach James Whitford was fired. Sparks entered the transfer portal but ended up returning following the hiring of Michael Lewis.
“I just learned how to work hard,” Sparks said of his time at Ball State. “I really came in from high school thinking I knew how to work hard. And getting here the first day, just learning how to work and get better. Ball State has been incredible. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
It’ll be intriguing to see how Sparks fits in at IU. For how dominant IU’s frontcourt has been in recent seasons, the Hoosiers are now having to retool it. It would be a huge lift if Malik Reneau could make a significant jump after an up-and-down freshman season. But floor spacing has also been an issue in recent seasons. How can IU make it work? It would be key if Reneau can show more consistency as a stretch big man, something he showed flashes of. Though he is dominant in the paint, Sparks said that he’s trying to become a little more versatile.
“I’m just trying to be in great shape when I get there,” Sparks said. “I’m trying to expand my game a little bit more, too. Try to face up with it more, hit more shots just not from scoring in the paint, work on my ball handling a little bit. Just getting quicker and faster.”
Sparks admitted “it’s been crazy” since entering the portal not long ago. He had suitors from the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12. But in the end, Indiana stood out.
“I just think committing to IU was a dream for me,” Sparks said. “As soon as I did, I just haven’t stopped smiling the whole day.”
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IU basketball: Ball State transfer Payton Sparks talks Indiana choice