Omar Payne, a Kississimee, Florida, native, isn't at all unfamiliar playing for good programs loaded with talent. Before his college career Payne played for Monteverde Academy with future first-round draft picks Cade Cunningham and Precious Achiwua.
He also is not unfamiliar with Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn; the two battled against each other in high school where Payne’s school got the better of Kofi and Oak Hill. The two Illini were ranked the No. 11 and No. 12 center prospects in 2019, Payne actually being the highe ranked of the two at the time. Now as we approach the start of the 2021-22 season, the duo is ready to be a frontcourt to be reckoned with.
Payne stayed in his home state out of high school committing to Mike White’s Florida Gators over other respected programs like Florida State, Ohio State and LSU. Payne was seen as an immediate impact guy upon his commitment, however, his role played out to be less than anticipated.
As a freshman, Payne played in 30 games with 7 starts and averaged just above 15 minutes a game. His most notable performance came against No. 4 Auburn where Payne posted a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double. In his two years at Florida, Payne had 63 career blocks, which he developed an identity for in his role behind Colin Castleton.
Payne’s scoring numbers don't jump off the table by any means, averaging just 3.8 points a game in 59 appearances. However, in his sophomore campaign, he managed to reach double-digits three separate times.
Then there is Payne’s least appealing stat: his free throw percentage. Shooting only 44% from the line in his career at Florida, there’s plenty of room for improvement, but the talent and intangibles are most definitely present.
There is still a lot of speculation on exactly how Payne is going to fit into this roster. The coaching staff has expressed how excited it is to have Payne, and with his skill set, he could be a huge piece to the roster down the stretch.
It is likely game to game Payne will see different roles and varying minutes. On the defense end, he has shown the ability to block a high percentage of shots. On the offensive end, Payne’s ability to get up by the rim should provide for easy buckets with Andre Curbelo’s passing ability.
The theme here? Payne is really good at playing at and around the rim, which complements this roster well.
Payne’s production at Florida was likely underwhelming for his expectations. However, the 6-foot-10 junior could have a golden opportunity in front of him with the Illini. When Kofi Cockburn announced his return to the Illinois program, it was obvious this drastically changed the role Payne would play on the team. Although the two play the same position, their game styles could complement each other well.
Cockburn can just overwhelm and drain teams with his pure size, while Payne’s athleticism is a challenge for most bigs to keep up with. If Underwood and his staff can figure out how to implement these two players' skillsets into gameplans, most Big Ten teams will have headaches figuring out how to stop them both.
At times last year Kofi found himself in foul trouble, whether it was because he was unfavorably officiated or not. This often left Giorgi Bezhanishvili in tough matchups with opposing Big Ten centers. Don't get it twisted — Giorgi will always get every bit of praise from me, but it's hard to not see how Payne isn't an upgrade in this role at least for now.
I would be willing to bet that Payne has multiple games where he has to play significant minutes. Payne is not at all a bad second option on nights Kofi may be struggling for any reason. The depth of the Illini roster entering this season is extremely appealing, and Omar Payne is a huge contributor to the added depth.