CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – Omar Payne had previously played Kofi Cockburn. And the Kissimmee (Fla.) Native had success with Payne’s invited Monteverde Academy team, which included NBA first-round picks Cade Cunningham and Precious Achiuwa, and Cockburn’s prestigious Oak Hill Academy – which also included first-round pick Cole Anthony – 76-51 in February 2019.
So Payne, a tall man from Florida, wasn’t intimidated when he competed against Cockburn, an All-American center, for the first time this summer in Illinois.
“If we want to talk about it, we’ll beat it at 30; I already knew what I was getting myself into, ”Payne said with a smile to the Illinois Inquirer. “It’s a challenge. I played him once in high school so I knew what I’m getting into, but he’s fun to play against.”
But Payne admits that Cockburn is a different player than it was two years ago. Cockburn, a 7-foot, 285-pound giant, is now considered one of the finest players in college basketball, an imposing physical force whose presence has helped Illinois achieve its best consecutive seasons in 16 years while the Illinois went on Big Ten best 29-11 during the last two seasons conference play with Cockburn (17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds) on the list.
Cockburn is so good that Payne has signed to Illinois and expects to be the replacement for the second team All-American in the suit. But Cockburn made a somewhat surprising return to Illinois for a junior season after testing the waters in the NBA draft and NCAA transfer portal. Cockburn’s presence clogs Payne’s path for season, pushing Payne into another role, possibly further from being just the rim-attacking addition he gave to veteran Colin Castleton (12.4 pts, 6.4 rebounds) in Florida Has provided, last season, averaging 3.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 15.7 minutes per game.
Having both Payne and Cockburn – numbers 11 and 12 in the 2019 class, according to the 247Sports Composite Rankings – is a boon to an Illinois program that has been color-dominated for most of the last decade, but is now increasing belongs to the most talented center rotations in the Big Ten. But for Payne, who has three seasons left, Cockburn’s return could have been a disappointment. If so, he doesn’t show it.
“I feel like my role hasn’t changed because we’re two different players and we have two different types of games, so I think we can complement each other and add more depth to the team,” said Payne. “I think it’s pretty good. I feel pretty good We are competitors. We will compete against each other every day. That makes us good. “
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Payne gives Cockburn both a floor supplement and a foil in practice. Cockburn has beaten up littler Illinois players on the field – skinny 7-foot newcomer Brandon Lieb and shorter posts like Giorgi Bezhanishvili (now on the pros) and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk – but now the stocky tall Illinois man faces a 6- Foot-10. versus, 240 pounds nearly 21 years old with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and faster feet and faster hops, similar to the more versatile, bouncy athletes Cockburn will see every day on the next level.
“Omar is a strong, physical player and he has an engine like no other,” Cockburn told Illinois Inquirer. “He never takes a play-off. He’s making me aware of the edge now. You can’t really slack off with your long arms. You have to make sure that everything is strong and powerful. “
Cockburn felt no animus or friction with Payne after Cockburn’s return to campus. In fact, Cockburn said the two have compatible personalities.
“For a person who thought they were going to play a much bigger role, he was great,” said Cockburn. “He didn’t show a bad shadow. He was really great in practice just with his energy and improvement and listening. I have a feeling that he is a very special person. His personality alone reminds me a lot of me. He is 100 percent a great person. I love him.”
Payne added, who helped Florida go 20-14 during the SEC game for the past two seasons: “It’s been a pretty good transition, great culture, great environment. I love the team, the coaches, I feel very comfortable and I’ve had a lot of fun so far. The biggest thing that strikes me is “everyday boys”. You have to read every day to work and the trainers push us to our maximum potential every day. “
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Illinois assistant coach Geoff Alexander, who is focused on the posts, said Illinois expects Payne to make its biggest impact on the fringe. In Florida, Payne was among the top block percentages in the country (around 8.5), scoring 88.9% field goal last season on attempts on the edge, mostly at dunks – something he often found on feeds from Dynamo Illinois- Sophomore point guard Andre Curbelo should do.
However, Payne only shot 44.6% off the free-throw line during his college career and was 8-to-28 (28.6%) in Florida with two-point jumpers, so his offensive play is very limited on paper. But when Payne started the summer skill workouts, Alexander and Illinois head coach Brad Underwood were surprised to see the Florida transfer splash two-point jumpers from 15 to 18 feet. That’s a shot he was able to get many times in pick-and-pops with Curbelo, but a shot that Cockburn couldn’t, which injured Illinois when they lost to Loyola in the second-round NCAA tournament. While Payne has not yet shown this prowess in Division I basketball games, the Illinois have seen it in practice enough times to believe it was real.
“His skills are a lot better than I thought, a lot better,” said Alexander. “I thought he was just a rim runner and an athlete, but he’s got skill. …[His shot is] very consistent. It has great mechanics. He is convinced of it, believes in it. “
Like Cockburn, Payne’s long-term goal is to play in the NBA. So a coaching staff that believes in their jumper – a necessity for most modern NBA greats – has improved their prospects.
“The coaches really gave me confidence,” said Payne. “When I first came to practice and they saw me shooting, they were actually surprised at my shooting skills. Now they made it really comfortable for me to shoot while training. I did it, so now I’m really comfortable pulling it. “
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The Illinois people are so intrigued by Payne’s skill – length, athleticism, versatility to hold multiple positions – that Underwood said last week Payne will play some in the four and Cockburn in the five.
“If you throw these two together we’ll be able to do some things,” said Alexander, “6-10 and 7-feet with a lot of length at the front, you’ll be able to get to the brim and lots good things. [Payne’s] at this point you just have to make yourself comfortable. For him this is not yet a matter of course, but he fell unbelievably, fell unbelievably, unbelievably. “
Cockburn added, “It looks scary man. It looks scary. It’s scary to play each of us alone. When you put two guys out there who are physically dominant and have a high engine and never stop moving, there are defense issues. It’s going crazy. “
Underwood experimented similarly with Bezhanishvili and Cockburn, but for the past year and a half has relented on simply shoving Bezhanishvili into Cockburn’s backup role. While Payne will mostly be on the court without Cockburn, the Illinois team seems pretty optimistic when Payne and Cockburn sometimes play a few minutes together.
“[Payne is] a guy who got off the chart. I mean off the charts, “Underwood said.” If I give a guy an A-Plus in the summer and fall, from the start to where he’s improving and developing now, it’s him. His conditioning has turned out great. He spent a lot of time running with Fletch. He got stronger. He’s the kind of guy who always asks questions and is literally as quick as an athlete at the bounce off the ground that I’ve been training – at 6-10. He has an uncanny ability to block shots. I think he and Kofi go on it with him every day. It’s fun to watch. They’re different. He has a very good jump shot of 15 to 17 feet. He made two or three of them out of short roles today. This will be a great addition for us, but they will play quite a bit together. There is no doubt and he can guard anyone. He can literally guard point guards and five men. He has great speed. He has this great length with this 7-5 wingspan. So I’m very excited about his versatility and have to find ways to get onto the pitch together with Kofi and not just one after the other. “
Payne chose Illinois in part because he thought Cockburn was going to leave. Illinois went and brought Payne in part to hedge against the apparent likelihood of Cockburn turning pro. But now that they are both in Champaign, Illinois is trying to make the most of its rare wealth of color. And maybe centers # 11 and # 12 in the 2019 class are just doing each other better.
“It’s a great time every day to watch them walk. Each of them gives each other problems, ”said Alexander. “…Between [Payne] and Kofi, these guys are two of the best listeners I’ve ever trained in my 20-21 years. Best listeners. You want to be coached. They try to take and use whatever they give them.
“Completely different, what just for. good is [Underwood]. He doesn’t want to throw out two pieces that are exactly the same. But with Kof you have a power guy and then an athlete with him, both of great length, both of which give different things different dimensions. “