• Alder Almo

What Hiring Kenny Payne Away From Kentucky Does for the New York Knicks

Updated: Aug 13, 2020

Kenny Payne’s reputation as a player’s whisperer, outstanding recruiter, and a solid big man’s coach will be put to test in New York.

The Knicks announced on Tuesday that Payne, 53, will join Tom Thibodeau’s staff. Aside from his strong ties with Leon Rose, William Wesley, and Scott Perry, Payne fits the bill as a prototypical Thibs guy.

“I’m thrilled that Kenny has joined my staff as an assistant coach,” Thibodeau said in a statement. “He has an outstanding ability to forge relationships with players and improve their skills...He knows what it takes to win and has learned from one of the best coaches there is in John Calipari. Kenny will be a tremendous addition to our organization.”

The move is seen as a concerted effort by the new Knicks front office to avoid the pitfalls that led to Thibodeau’s firing in Minnesota.

Payne, a former small forward for the Philadelphia 76ers, joined the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team coaching staff in 2010. There he worked under the legendary John Calipari.

OTG spoke to Nick Roush of Kentucky Sports Radio about the relationship the two men shared.

“[Payne] acted as the good cop to John Calipari's bad cop,” Roush said. ”I don't know Thibs well, but from everything I've heard he needs to have a good cop around to keep the players happy. Payne is the consummate players coach. When former guys like Karl-Anthony Towns returned to UK's campus, he was the first person they would go see.”

Payne’s track record speaks for itself: four Final Four appearances with Kentucky, including winning the 2012 National Championship. One year after being promoted as an associate head coach, he helped Calipari lead the Wildcats to the first 38-0 record in college basketball history in 2015.

Payne was widely credited for the strong recruitment and player development programs at Kentucky.

“His ability to develop big men is obvious,” Roush said. “Towns and Bam Adebayo were not sure-fire lottery picks in the fall of their freshmen seasons. By late January, they were consistent contributors, almost automatic offense in the post.

A critic would argue that each of those players was destined to become a star. The same could not be said for Nick Richards. For two seasons he looked more like a lost cause than an SEC player of the Year candidate, but Payne never gave up and helped transform him into an All-SEC player as a junior.”

The 6-11 Richards withdrew from the NBA Draft last year after getting little interest from pro teams. This year, however, Richards is projected to fall in the second round following a breakout junior performance. Under coach Payne’s guidance, Richards posted 14.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks per game and was an efficient 64 percent from the floor last season.

If drafted, Richards will join the many NBA big men who have worked with Payne over the years. This includes Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle, Karl Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissière, Bam Adebayo, and PJ Washington.

Payne also worked alongside and helped develop some of Kentucky’s other stars, from Devin Booker and De’Aaron Fox to Malik Monk and Tyler Herro.

Current Knicks Randle and Knox figure to benefit from this hiring. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have a big spot to fill on the sidelines.

“Kenny's approach with his players, his knowledge of and his experience in the game, and his work ethic will serve him well on the professional level,” Coach Calipari said in a press release. “I have high expectations for him in the NBA. For Julius Randle and Kevin Knox, it will be immediate, but as other players get to know and trust him, they'll know he's about one thing: their improvement and their success. I have no doubt that Kenny is going to be a great asset to Coach Thibodeau's staff.”

While it pains Payne to leave the Calipari and the Wildcats, the opportunity was too good to pass up.

“This decision wasn’t easy for me,” Payne said. “I have a great job at Kentucky, and to think about leaving has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. But I have also been offered an incredible opportunity with the New York Knicks and a chance to help restore what I believe should be the premier organization in the NBA.”

Part of that restoration starts with Kevin Knox. The lottery pick who regressed in his sophomore year in the league was thrilled to be reunited with Payne.

It remains to be seen whether Payne’s strong relationship with the former Wildcats around the NBA could draw them to New York when they hit free agency. But one thing for sure: this hiring reinforced the Knicks belief on the 21-year old Knox.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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