Looks Like University Of Illinois - Omar Payne
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I'm not kidding when I say this feels like following recruiting in 1986. Back then, there was no immediacy. Recruiting was important, and there were always in-state players who were "Illinois has to land this guy" players (usually the best player on the state championship high school team), but it was never day-by-day (or hourly) updates and analysis. You'd wait until the grocery store had the newest Lindy's or Street & Smith's (or Athlon or whatever) and then you'd flip to the recruiting page and there'd be a list of the top 100 players in the country and you'd scan the corresponding schools on the right to see if any of them were coming to Illinois.
My point: you learned about the rankings of the full class all at once. If there was a Marcus Liberty, and he was pushing for "best high school player in the country status, obviously you knew about it the moment he verballed. And if a player was in the McDonald's All American game (like, say, Bruce Douglas and Efrem Winters in 1982), you knew in the spring that Illinois was getting a great player. You could also scan the Parade Magazine that came with the Sunday paper looking for Illini players on the list (I want to say there were six "teams", so 30 players). But to know what kind of full class you were getting (and how it compared to the rest of the conference), you had to wait for the magazines.
Let me give you an example. If Andre Curbelo picked Illinois in 1986, 95% of you would have learned his name on Signing Day. But you wouldn't have had any context. You'd have no idea if Curbelo would give you minutes next season or if he was project recruit who you'd hear from in 2-3 years. Once the magazines came out, you'd go grab that Street & Smith's, and you flip to the recruiting page, and they'd list the top-100, and there's Andre Curbelo at #45, and THAT'S when you'd learn that this kid might really help the team as a freshman. (But even then, the rankings were not nearly as accurate as they are today.)
That's difficult to explain to someone born in 1995. The moment Curbelo commits, you know where he's ranked and who he was considering. You know that he's a plus ballhandler who needs to work on his shot if he wants a pro career but that he'll likely be an instant impact guard in college. And then you can take that description and project him in the 2020/21 lineup. In 1986, we had none of that. At best, just before he enrolls and begins his freshman year, one of the magazines would tell you "he's pretty good". Really, if they didn't make it on the Parade All American or a McDonald's All American lists, they were in one big group of "other" recruits. And so projecting the lineup was very difficult.
Here's maybe the best way to say that (and this is not meant to be an insult). Going into this season, we knew that Andre Curbelo might be pushing for a starting spot and Brandon Lieb was a project big man who needed a few years in the gym. In 1984, I would have seen that Illinois signed a skinny 7-footer named Lieb and a skinny point guard named Curbelo and thought "Illinois probably needs another big in the rotation this season - I bet they recruited Lieb to be that guy". So I'd have assumed Lieb (and Coleman Hawkins) would have been more important recruits than Andre Curbelo. I'd have used my Kevin Turner "he's probably too skinny for Big Ten basketball" #take with Curbelo and not expected much (at least until I got my Street & Smith's magazine).
That feels a bit similar to today. We have mountains of information now, but with the Transfer Portal, the "will he leave or will he return?" sagas, and the "this guy is turning pro to play in Europe but this guy is transferring in from Florida", I'm having this familiar "man, I don't know anything about the team next year" feeling. Back then, when the semester started you had a pretty good idea (the preseason magazines were out and those writers had done the research), and then as you got closer to the season you'd go deep on the Sporting News preview and the Sports Illustrated preview and by the time the season started you had the bar set for expectations. That feels like both the past and the future.
Here's what I mean. Omar Payne has transferred to Illinois. When the news was announced there were four scenarios:
- Kofi and Giorgi both return and Payne is worked in as the "third" big as we go with a bigger lineup next season.
- Giorgi returns but Kofi does not and Payne + Giorgi become the 1-2 punch in the frontcourt.
- Kofi returns but Giorgi does not which means Payne gets Giorgi's minutes from last year.
- Both Kofi and Giorgi leaves and Payne is probably the most important player on the entire roster next season.
It's a few weeks later now, and we know that Giorgi is leaving which means 1 and 2 are eliminated, but it's still really hard to write a Looks Like University Of Illinois post without knowing if it's 3 of 4. Or maybe even a 5 that includes some other big man transfer.
The whole point behind the LLUOI is to make the recruiting evaluation contextual. Given this team and its needs and its schemes, here's how I see this player fitting. And there's a big difference between "needs to replace Giorgi's 15 minutes next season" and "needs to replace Kofi's 27 minutes next season".
So I find myself wanting to wait until August to write any of these. I want 1986 rules to return. "We know a few things, but really, there's no way to say until we see how it all sorts out once the fall semester starts and the players are all enrolled".
I won't, though. I'll write it. This is me writing it. Omar Payne has transferred from Florida to Illinois and here's what I think.
I think this is a fantastic move if he has to be Giorgi next year and a scary, that's-too-much-pressure-on-him move if he has to try to be Kofi. And it's not really even "be Kofi". It's a bit scary if he has to arrive on campus, learn the system, and immediately be the starting big man playing 28 minutes per game, scoring, rebounding, and staying out of foul trouble. It's good that it's a junior doing that and not a true freshman, but it's still scary.
There is, however, a decent comp for him. And it's the player he was behind at Florida - Colin Castleton. Remember him? Visited over Labor Day in 2017, looked like he was leaning towards Illinois, ended up picking Michigan? Castleton spent two years at Michigan, didn't play much at all, transferred to Florida as a true junior, and blossomed. Here's his stats:
2018-19 Michigan: 3.5 minutes per game, 1.1 ppg. 1.1 rpg
2019-20 Michigan: 7.9 minutes per game, 3.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg
2020-21 Florida: 25.7 minutes per game, 12.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg
So there you go. Skinny big guys sometimes take a few years to develop, so you can understand a third-year leap for a guy with Castleton's frame, but I'm sure the change in scheme had a lot to do with it as well. So if you're looking or a comp for Payne, look for the guy who got 25.7 minutes per game in Florida's rotation in front of Payne's 15.7 minutes. Payne now leaves Florida in search of a third-year leap after these numbers:
2019-20 Florida: 15.1 minutes per game, 3.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg
2020-21 Florida: 15.7 minutes per game, 3.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg
A concise way to say all of that: Payne was Giorgi to Castleton's Kofi at Florida this year (I mean, Castleton is no Kofi, but you understand what I'm saying). Now he's transferring to Illinois. If Kofi returns, Payne will be Giorgi next year. If Kofi doesn't return, he gets to try to do what Castleton did at Florida.
Does he have the talent for that? Sure. #46 in the RSCI back in 2019. Kofi was three spots above him at #43.
It's quite interesting to look at his grouping there on the RSCI. Payne was #46 and Alonzo Gaffney was #47. I guess you could say "bust" for Gaffney - he went to Ohio State, transferred out after one year (7 mpg, 1.8 ppg), and just completed a year at NW Florida (Juco) where he put up 8.4 ppg/5.3 rpg. #48 was Anton Watson, the big from Spokane who picked the hometown school (Gonzaga) and is supposed to have his breakout moment next season (he was 7th-man this year, playing 18.9 ppg). #49 was Aidan Igiehon, a guy who was absolutely supposed to be Kofi at Louisville but is transferring after two seasons where he only played in 18 games and scored 26 points. And then #50 was another project big (from the Bahamas), Kai Jones, who only had an 8.8/4.8 stat line this year as a sophomore at Texas but has already declared for the draft (and will probably be a lottery pick because of his otherworldly length and jumping ability).
So that's probably the best way to look at all of this. Go to the players 40-45 on that same RSCI and you'll find EJ Liddell, Drew Timme, and Kofi Cockburn, probably three of the 20-best players in all of college basketball this season. So yeah, I've already landed on a perfect way to frame this.
Bigs are developmental projects. Colin Castleton was nothing until he was something. Alonzo Gaffney was supposed to be the future at Ohio State and he struggled at juco this year. Anton Watson is waiting his turn at Gonzaga while coming off the bench. Kofi was a 2nd-team All American. Aidan Igiehon was a complete bust. Kai Jones didn't have the best stats in college but will likely be a lottery pick.
Omar Payne? We shall see. The hope is Castleton (did nothing for two years at his first stop, did a ton as a junior in a different system). The fear is Gaffney or Igiehon (just shouldn't have been rated as a top-50 recruit - 200th would have been a better ranking). What does that mean for next year? It means we really need Kofi to return because it's doubtful that Payne is ready to be the 27 mpg guy.
What does that mean for Tom Cruises? That we probably need to stay right in the middle. A five out of ten. Which translates to...
Omar Payne - Two and one-half Tom Cruises