Brandon Salsman has seen more than his share of great players come through Lexington Catholic over the past 25 years or so, and he’s been a part of so many of the Knights’ best teams.
The program’s head coach for the last 13 seasons — and an assistant coach and LexCath player before that — Salsman hasn’t seen many like Zan Payne.
“His ability to take things for what they are and really just keep an even keel — he was one of the more focused basketball players we’ve had, in the aspect that things didn’t bother him,” Salsman said. “He didn’t get too high, he didn’t get too low. He just played hard all the time. That was his MO — just play hard. And he did it better than just about anybody we’ve had at Lexington Catholic. We were very lucky and fortunate to have him.”
The Knights will certainly miss him this season.
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Payne scored 1,282 points and hauled down 934 rebounds as a three-year starter before suffering a high school career-ending knee injury with three games left in the regular season last February.
At that time, there was still the possibility of some Division I scholarship offers coming his way. Payne was also considering a season of prep school. The injury — and likelihood that he’d have to sit out the following season — led to a change of plans.
Payne, the son of UK assistant coach Kenny Payne, had a standing offer to join the Wildcats as a preferred walk-on. The 6-foot-4 wing player — looking at the resources that could be provided by UK as he went through his rehab and the enticing opportunity to be part of the storied basketball program — made the decision to stay in Lexington.
HIs father approved.
“He was fine with it,” Zan said. “He just told me they have a lot of expectations. And it’s a big platform. Everybody’s watching you.”
The younger Payne is doing a lot of watching from the sidelines so far, something he’s accustomed to after growing up around the Wildcats’ program. He said his favorite memory was watching the 2012 team win a national championship. He hopes to make similar memories for himself and his teammates down the line.
His rehab is going well — he was recently cleared to start running — but he knew going into his first year of college that he wouldn’t be playing at all this season. His former coach says Payne’s presence can benefit this Wildcats’ team in other ways.
“He was the best teammate to have. He was always helping everybody,” Salsman said. “He was always saying something funny when it was time to say something funny, and he was always getting on guys to play hard when they needed to. You could tell he was a coach’s son. He just knew how to help with the team. He knew how to get the most out of guys. He really connected with so many people on so many levels, not just on the basketball team but at the school.”
Payne, who has seen every UK team since his father came to Lexington in 2010, gives the current squad high marks at this early stage of the preseason.
“It’s a great group of guys. They’re really competitive,” he said. “They like to get after each other. It’s really fun to watch. I wish I was out there with them, competing.”
He’ll get his chance. Payne is expected to be cleared for all basketball activities in the spring and should be able to join his teammates on the court next summer.
Of course, there are no guarantees for playing time at Kentucky, especially for walk-ons. Payne knew that coming in. And if John Calipari needs him, he’ll be there.
“He’ll be there every day giving everything he’s got,” Salsman said. “Coach Cal does a great job getting the best of the best, and Zan knows that. And I know he’ll rise to the challenge. He’ll have his body ready. He’ll have his abilities ready. And whatever they need from him, I know Zan will give it to them. And if that’s something major, he’ll be there. I know he can handle the moment. I know he can handle the work. It’ll just be how much they need him.
“I guarantee you, no matter what, Coach Cal will be thankful he’s got Zan Payne on the sideline with him.”
About this series
This is the ninth in a series of 13 stories featuring members of the 2018-19 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Watch for all 13 in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.