Two years and nine months removed from a gruesome knee injury that prematurely ended his high school basketball career, Kentucky walk-on Zan Payne is finally ready to return to game action.
“It’s been super long,” Payne told the UK media Wednesday morning. “But I’m back at 100%. I feel good and I’m ready to go.”
The 6-foot-4 forward torn his MCL, ACL and patellar tendon in his right knee back on February 9, 2018, abruptly ending his senior campaign. The brutal injury came on a last-second shot attempt with his Lexington Catholic squad down 64-62 to Lexington Christian, with the in-state standout landing awkwardly on his leg.
The injury would end a productive high school career that saw Payne join the 1,000-point scoring club for the Knights, with the Kentucky walk-on averaging 19.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as a senior. He finished his time at Lexington Catholic with 1,282 career points, good for 14th all-time in program history, along with 934 career rebounds to finish as the school’s fourth all-time career leader on the glass.
Nearly three years removed from real game action, Payne is excited to do what he does best: play hard and do whatever it takes to help the team win.
“Whatever coach needs me to do, I can do,” Payne said. “I can go in there and play hard. I love playing defense and I love playing hard. I play to win.”
Once seen as the star for his Lexington Catholic team, the redshirt sophomore understands that his role at Kentucky is not going to be the same as it was back in high school, especially following the injury.
After having the game taken away from him for so long, though, he’s just appreciative to help out however he can.
“In high school, I was the captain of the team. The coach always wanted me to just go score and stuff like that,” Payne said. “But, here, I’m just probably going to play like defense. Go out there and play hard and play to win. Just do what the game tells me to do. That’s what coach always tells me, Coach Cal. Just do what the game tells you to do.
Payne’s return to the floor will come without his father, Kenny Payne, in Lexington for the first time since 2010, as the former Kentucky star assistant took a job this offseason with the New York Knicks to become an assistant under head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Admittedly, things are a bit different without him around.
“It’s definitely different not having him around. Practice is way different,” Payne said of his father. “I still talk to him every day. … He just says to keep working hard and keep working out and stuff like that.”
Though the adjustment was difficult initially for the redshirt sophomore, Payne knows it was an opportunity his father couldn’t pass up, as coaching in the NBA has always been one of his dreams.
“It was hard at first because he’s always been here right by my side,” Payne added. “Everybody in my family, we were all happy for him. We were happy he’s going to work for the New York Knicks. That was one of his dream jobs, working in the NBA, so we were all happy for him.”
Without the elder Payne, new Kentucky assistant Jai Lucas is getting his first look at the 6-foot-4 forward in on-court work for the first time, with the results being solid thus far.
As he continues to trust his knee, Payne’s production in practice will build.
“That’s coming along. He’s coming along from [his knee injury],” Lucas said. “He’s starting to get to where he is able to come in practice and get some things done. He’s been practicing well, he’s been in a bunch of the five-on-five stuff. I think he’ll get more and more comfortable as time goes along and he gets back to having confidence in his knee.”
He’s back to 100 percent physically, his confidence is improving, and his conditioning is where he wants it to be.
Now, he can get back to having fun playing the game he loves.
“My conditioning is way better. Last year when I was practicing, I would just be tired when I was doing everything when I came back from the injury,” Payne said. “… Really [my expectations are] just to have fun with it. Go out there and have fun and play basketball.”