Photo by Anthony Souffle, STAR TRIBUNE

Gophers big man Pharrel Payne: High school benchwarmer to NBA dreams

Pharrel Payne nearly quit basketball in high school before going through a growth spurt and finally finding his passion for the game.

By Marcus Fuller Star Tribune

November 2, 2023
Photo by Anthony Souffle, STAR TRIBUNE

There was a time when Gophers big man Pharrel Payne didn't think he had a future in basketball.

Growing up, he wasn't motivated to play or interested in watching sports. After spending years on C teams in youth basketball, Payne thought about quitting after beginning his high school career as a reserve on the Park of Cottage Grove freshman team.

"I was like, I don't know if I want to keep on doing this," the powerfully built, 6-9, 255-pound sophomore said. "I didn't think I'd ever make it."

Payne's family never let him give up on basketball.

Son to Cameroon immigrants who traveled to this country 20 years ago, Payne's hardworking parents raised their children "to put all of your effort forth" into everything you do, Payne said. "Growing up, I had super supportive parents."

Payne has gone from high school benchwarmer to having NBA dreams. His development is reminiscent of former Gophers All-America Daniel Oturu, who was an NBA second-round draft choice after his sophomore year in 2020.

Photos by Alex Kormann, Star Tribune; Stacy Bengs, Associated Press
At left, Pharrel Payne shot over Penn State guard Myles Dread last season; Payne's late-but-rapid development has been similar to former Gopher Daniel Oturu (right), who was selected in the second round of the NBA draft after his 2020 sophomore season.

"He's progressed in a really good way," Gophers coach Ben Johnson said. "That's the one thing you see when you come off a freshman year where you played a lot. You feel older. You act older. Now we've got to continue to build his confidence every day."

As a freshman, Payne averaged 8.2 points and 5.2 rebounds, and led the team in blocks (32) and field-goal percentage (69.3). Playing alongside the Gophers' scoring leader, Dawson Garcia, Payne scored in double figures in six of his final 10 games, including a team-high 17 points and nine rebounds vs. Maryland in the Big Ten tournament.

Payne missed Thursday's exhibition vs. Macalester with a minor injury, but the Gophers are hopeful he's back for Monday's season opener vs. Bethune-Cookman.

And Big Ten opposing frontcourts beware. This summer, Payne has worked on his free throws and boosted his footwork and agility.

"I feel stronger and faster," Payne said. "This vision [the Gophers] had for me is to come in and make a big impact. I made an impact my freshman year, but I'm definitely going to make a bigger jump."

New life in Minnesota

In 2000, Payne's father left Cameroon, an African country on the Atlantic Ocean, for the U.S. and was joined by his mother a year later in St. Paul.

George and Emma Payne had their first two children, Rodrick and Pharrel, a year apart after settling together in Minnesota. One was born in St. Paul, the other after they moved to Cottage Grove in 2003.

With the Paynes working 12-hour shifts as nurses at Twin Cities hospitals, Pharrel and his older brother were raised by their grandparents who lived with them for several years.

"I don't know how we would've put it together if my mom and dad weren't here," George Payne said. "They were babysitting them almost 24/7 for us."

As a child, Pharrel was "always a little rough, wild and super energetic," said Rodrick, who played basketball at East Ridge and UW-River Falls and now Western Illinois.

"We were just a year apart, but we were a little bit different," Rodrick said. "He was also [heavier]. For me, I was taller, slimmer and more athletic."

Pharrel started basketball before his older brother, who played only football until high school. The game didn't come easy, though, for the younger Payne as a burly 6-2, 240-pound middle schooler.

Photos by George Payne; Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Pharrel Payne (left, in 2018) was a 6-2, 240-pound middle schooler. After a growth spurt, Payne (right, vs. DePaul last season) transformed into a powerful, agile 6-9, 255.

"At one time he was gaining a lot of weight to the point we were concerned," George Payne said. "But then as soon as he got [serious] into basketball, he burnt a lot of that weight away and started developing. His work has brought him to where he is today."

Pharrel's sophomore year in high school changed everything. He stretched to about 6-6 and lost 30 pounds. He boosted his athleticism training with his older cousin, Edmond Nkwain, a former Park standout who now plays college football at Division II Colorado Mesa.

"I started to get into the habit of exercising a lot and was actually getting better at basketball, too," Pharrel said. "It's kind of thinking of me as two different people from my freshman year."

Park basketball coach Mike Weah was impressed by the transformation. He took over training after Pharrel's cousin left for college, meeting daily with him after school in the gym.

"You don't want to try to make a kid go too fast," Weah said. "But after his sophomore year [when Pharrel grew to 6-8], we were pretty convinced we had something."

Pharrel remembers being dominated his first year on the varsity by future D-I big men Steven Crowl at Eastview and Ben Carlson at East Ridge. That made him set higher goals.

"I remember Ben Carlson had 36 points and sat like eight minutes in the second quarter," Pharrel said. "Steven Crowl had like 40 points. After that I was like, 'Those guys are good, but I want to be that good.'"

'Fuels the fire'

Early in his final AAU season with Minnesota Select, Pharrel impressed Gophers coaches so much that Johnson and assistant Dave Thorson didn't care they were the first high major program to offer a scholarship.

Pharrel committed to the Gophers the summer before his senior season at Park. At Williams Arena, he'd be able to play in front of friends, former coaches and teammates, and most importantly his family, including younger brother, Ethan.

"I felt like it meant everything, staying home to play for the Gophers," he said. "Having Minnesota support on my side, especially having grown up here means a lot."

Last season, the Gophers had no choice but to throw Pharrel into the mix as an unpolished freshman against a gantlet of seasoned Big Ten big men.

In his first Big Ten game, Pharrel had four blocks vs. Purdue's Zach Edey, but the All-America finished with 31 points and 22 rebounds vs. the Gophers. The next game, Pharrel had 15 points on 6-for-6 field goals vs. Michigan's Hunter Dickinson. He scored in double figures only once in the next 11 games, but then he had 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists vs. Penn State in late February.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune
Pharrel Payne (dunking against Purdue at Williams Arena last season) held his own as a freshman against the Big Ten's best post players.

"Big expectation I have for myself is to be more efficient," he said. "It's tough playing against those really good players. They got the best of [the Gophers]. But it kind of fuels the fire. That I'll get you back next year."

Pharrel started just four games as a freshman, but he's ready to be the U's main man in the middle. He's prepared himself by battling against 6-11, 290-pound Washington State transfer Jack Wilson, whom teammates call a "brick wall."

The U frontcourt is deeper this season with Wilson and forwards Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen back from knee injuries. Garcia has been asked to lead, but he said he'll rely on Payne to be a "physical nightmare in the paint."

Once a big and clumsy kid from Cottage Grove with no love for sports, Pharrel still has other interests, like possibly pursuing a career in medicine one day like his parents. But when he looks in the mirror, he also now sees a basketball player with major potential for the Gophers.

"I feel like I started to figure it out," he said. "I can definitely build on that for this season. That's the goal."