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When Ben Johnson saw Pharrel Payne at the start of Gophers basketball summer workouts, his first impression was that he had never coached a more physically imposing freshman.

And that's before the 6-9, 235-pound Payne really had the chance to engulf himself in a college weight room. Once that happened, the strength numbers were off the charts.

"If you just look at him physically, he could play in a Big Ten game right now," Johnson said about the former Park Cottage Grove big man. "He's probably one of the top developed freshmen that I've been around."

Among the Big Ten's incoming freshmen, you won't see Payne ranked too high yet because he was not a consensus top-100 recruit. In the U's 2022 class, Park Center's Braeden Carrington also arrived with more hype as a Minnesota state champ and Mr. Basketball.

But Payne is the most ready-to-play freshman, physically, the program's had in years.

And Payne could become one of the Big Ten's most impactful freshmen. His role will expand immensely after another season-ending knee injury to Parker Fox earlier this month.

"He can go toe to toe with anybody," Johnson said. "Now it's just him day by day following the process and worrying out the little details and getting better. But the biggest thing is the physicality piece and the maturity. He's going to be ready. Now we got to do our job to get him fundamentally ready."

The Gophers not long ago were in a comparable situation with former Cretin-Derham Hall star Daniel Oturu, who started on an NCAA tournament team as a freshman in 2018-19.

Oturu, now with the Windy City Bulls in the NBA G League, benefited from having veterans such as Jordan Murphy and Eric Curry in the frontcourt his first year in the Big Ten.

This summer, Payne is learning from top returning scorer and rebounder Jamison Battle. North Carolina transfer Dawson Garcia is another talented post to guide him. And junior Isaiah Ihnen can provide insight, having played two years with the Gophers.

Payne, who averaged 22 points, 12 rebounds, and two blocks last season at Park, brings something different for a player his age because of his physicality, length and athleticism. He weighs 20 pounds more than Oturu and last year's freshman center Treyton Thompson did out of high school.

Johnson, who recruited Oturu as a Gophers assistant, compared Payne physically at this stage to former Kentucky and current Miami Heat big man Bam Adebayo.

"Pharrel is just a physical force," Johnson said. "He's long. He's athletic. He's explosive but he also has a really high level of skill. So his ceiling is through the roof. He really cares about getting better, player development and understanding the game. It's going to be really exciting to see him develop and grow."

Before he became a high school sensation, Payne's humility and hard work were engrained in him growing up in Cottage Grove. His parents built strong roots in Minnesota as immigrants from Cameroon.

Working out with his older brother over the years, Payne learned how to use his body to dominate in the post. Rodrick Payne, who played at East Ridge two years ago, averaged 14 points and seven rebounds for Division III Wisconsin River Falls and earned the league's newcomer of the year award last season.

"He shows me his moves and pretty much bullied me [growing up playing]," Pharrel Payne said of his brother. "He's meant everything to me working out together."

Like his brother, Payne is confident he can start as a freshman in college, but the Gophers also told him he would "have to fight for my spot every day," he said.

"I think I got a little way to go," Payne said. "But this summer I think I'll be able to make the leap from high school to the Big Ten."