CHAMPAIGN — The conversations the Illinois men’s basketball staff had with Omar Payne before he decided to leave Florida for the Illini were rather straightforward. No supposition.
No theories about Payne’s role should Kofi Cockburn come back for his junior season or if last year’s starting center opts instead to take the next step of his basketball career in turning pro.
“All that would be would be a bunch of speculation that we don’t know anything about,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said Wednesday afternoon. “We’re trying to get him to be the best player he can, and he fits exactly what we do. He’s a very, very talented young guy who has next-level aspirations and deservedly so.”
Illinois officially added Payne for the 2021-22 season on Wednesday following his April 3 commitment after he signed financial-aid tender paperwork with the Illini. The 6-foot-10, 230-pound forward left Florida after playing a backup role the past two seasons and averaging 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds while shooting a team-high 75 percent from the field during the 2020-21 season.
Cockburn’s still looming decision will dictate how much Illinois uses Payne, but the Illini didn’t add the former top-50 prospect to sit the bench. Payne brings some of the same qualities as Cockburn from a rim running and catching lobs perspective, but he’s different enough to add some versatility to the Illinois frontcourt, even if Cockburn were to decide a third year in Champaign was best.
The starkest contrast between the two might come at the defensive end. Underwood used the phrase “quick twitch” multiple times Wednesday in his first opportunity to discuss his new big man.
Payne ranked 10th in the SEC last season in blocked shots at 1.2 per game, and his block percentage almost doubled Cockburn’s in significantly less playing time.
“He’s got that wiry strength and length,” Underwood said. “Very few guys have a (7-foot-5) wingspan, and when you add that quick-twitch athleticism, you’re talking about a guy who can react quickly and can move. He’s got very good hands, and he’s got very good timing. He’s already a very accomplished shot blocker.
“His shot blocking is something we can always use. I’m excited about him. He’s got a lot of experience under his belt — a guy we’re excited about in terms of being able to step in here and go right away.”
The Illinois coaching staff is also envisioning ways to use Payne differently in ball-screen actions than Cockburn. While Payne will have value as a rim runner, Underwood wants to get more out of the Kissimmee, Fla., native in the mid-range, noting Payne’s touch out to 17 feet he hasn’t really tapped into just yet. Payne attempted just 28 shots away from the rim in his two seasons with the Gators.
“He’s got some skill sets that we really like in terms of being able to pick-and-pop and short roll,” Underwood said. “That’s something we’re excited about is his ability to short roll. It’s a different way to attack certain ball-screen coverages. You can do some different things with him out of those short rolls, out of pops and dribble handoffs. It’s all about being able to be versatile and force the defense to have to do different things.”
Getting more from Payne than he showed in his first two seasons at Florida was, again, at the heart of Illinois’ transfer portal recruiting pitch. A previous relationship with assistant coach Orlando Antigua helped, but the biggest sell was what Cockburn accomplished during the past two seasons with the Illini.
Both were top-50 recruits in the Class of 2019. Payne was ranked one spot higher in the 247Sports Composite.
“Obviously, Kofi’s success was something other big guys follow and see how he was utilized and what we did,” Underwood said. “We’ve talked to him about becoming the best player he can be and growing his game.”