Payne’s Shotblocking A Gateway To Important Role With Gators

Baseline drive from a Fighting Knights’ guard. Jason Jitoboh meets him, standing straight up with his arms vertical as to not pick up a foul. The Lynn player floats up a layup only to have Omar Payne soar in from the front side of the rim to slap the ball away.

On another play a Lynn guard drove right, euro stepped around Andrew Nembhard, and put up a floater not knowing Payne had sniffed it. Florida’s freshman big man wound back and spiked the ball off the backboard.

Lastly, a reverse layup that looked like it would find its way into Florida’s hoop was pinned to the glass by the extension on Payne.

Those three blocks were important defensive plays for the Gators and all came and the hand of Omar Payne, Florida’s key frontcourt freshman who has done nothing but impress in his time with the Gators so far. Those three blocks erased three high percentage attempts for Lynn and kept six points off the board. Maybe those points wouldn’t have ultimately mattered in a near twenty point spread in an October exhibition but it gave us a glimpse of why Payne is going to command a role on this team.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. is a lot of things on the basketball court. He’s a tremendous finisher inside, a lethal threat from the perimeter, a tactical passer, and a responsible rebounder. Unfortunately, one thing he is not is a shot blocker. Not only is he not particularly skilled in that area but he actually struggled and would be considered below average when it comes to protecting the rim.

For starters, he only averaged 0.8 blocks per game last year and he had a block rate of 4.1. For reference, that is below what Dontay Bassett’s block rate is and he’s someone he didn’t get his fingertips on too many balls last season. The thing about blocking shots is that it’s not always the shots a player actually knocks away but it’s about how many shots he can deter and how many misses he can force at the rim.

Unfortunately, that only makes things worse for Blackshear. You see, he allowed 67.9% at the rim last season. Considering the average college big man allows around 48%, this number is quite unflattering.

This is of particular interest to the Gators because they’ve been a team that has blocked a lot of shots the last two seasons and it’s a key part of their defense. Last year they were 93rd in team block percentage, in 2018 they were 37th, and in 2017 they were 47th. As one of the best defensive teams in the country over this three-year period it’s clear blocking shots is important to Mike White and the Gators. Furthermore, this is where the loss of Kevarrius Hayes could really hurt.

Hayes was 33rd in the country in block percentage last year helping to show just how good of a shot blocker he is. Not only was he getting his hands on a lot of shots but he was forcing misses. He only allowed 38.7% at the rim on a big sample size and when you put that next to Blackshear’s 67.9% you can really see the drop-off. So, with Hayes leaving and Blackshear entering his spot but not providing anything close to the same caliber of rim protection there is definitely a need for the Gators to cover up that potential hole somehow.

This is where Omar Payne comes in.

It didn’t take long in the exhibition with Lynn for Payne to enter the game and showcase his incredible length and athleticism. He was soaring above the rim for rebounds on both ends, beating smaller players up and down the court, and causing havoc on defense with his length. It wasn’t just his physical tools on display as he also showed a good understanding of Florida’s defensive schemes and help concepts and was often in the right place at the right time, not even needing to tap into his monster leaping ability to recover and block a shot.

If Tuesday night was any indication Omar Payne is looking like the Gators’ best shot blocker and there is definitely value there. We have seen that shot blocking is important to the Gators. Behind Blackshear the Gators won’t get a lot of shot blocking from Dontay Bassett either and it’s still to be seen what Jitoboh will offer though he has the size and length to potentially be impactful defending the lane. For the Gators to best protect the rim it’s appearing the best option will be having Payne play center while Blackshear plays power forward. Using this lineup Payne will likely have more possessions where he plays closer to the rim which will allow him to be in rim protection scenarios, an area where you’d like to see him instead of Blackshear. Additionally, teams often like to use their center as the screener in pick and roll settings and Payne might be better suited to guarding those than Blackshear with Payne being slightly quicker moving side to side. Nowadays more and more teams have a stretch four playing the power forward position and that would allow Blackshear to simply stay in a help position and guard a relatively stationary shooter, something that also allow him to preserve his energy for the offensive end.

It’s looking like Payne has carved himself out a role as Florida’s third big that can play in a few different roles whether it be alongside Kerry Blackshear Jr. or Jason Jitoboh in a jumbo frontcourt setting or next to Keyontae Johnson in a faster, athletic frontcourt. Something that is going to bring the Gators value is his shot blocking and ability to protect the rim. The importance of rim protection can’t be overstated as in basketball defense starts first with protecting the rim and if the Gators can’t keep things on lock in the paint they’ll start to struggle elsewhere. Payne’s ability to defense inside could be his calling card throughout his time at Florida and it looks like he’ll be able to contribute sooner than later.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.