Walking on at the University of Kentucky was an option for Zan Payne before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in his final year at Lexington Catholic High School. It became the option for the Knights senior after that.
Payne, who committed to UK on Friday, tore multiple ligaments in his right knee after landing awkwardly in a game against Lexington Christian Academy late in the high school season. He's wearing a device to help stabilize his leg and still has to undergo one more surgery to help him bend his knee; he's hoping to get that out of the way and be able to walk freely during Catholic's graduation ceremony on May 20.
"After I got hurt I decided that it'd be the best decision for me," said Payne, the son of UK associate head coach Kenny Payne. "UK is gonna help me recover, and when I'm done recovering then I should be good to be on the court."
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Kenny joined the staff ahead of the 2010-11 season, providing Zan unparalleled exposure to the program during the family's eight years living in Lexington. Zan formed a tight bond with current New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis, who sent him a couple pairs of shoes and other "Get Well Soon" materials after learning of his February injury.
He's gotten very familiar with the Big Blue Nation, too.
"The fans are crazy," Zan said with a big grin. " ... It's a great opportunity, for real. I really like it here (in Lexington). The next level's gonna be a big stage, though, with all the people and everything."
Fans upon hearing of Zan's commitment began celebrating not only the acquisition of an in-state prospect — something the team lacked last season — but what it could mean for Kenny Panye's future with the program. Could Zan's commitment also be interpreted as one by his father, whose name has frequently arisen in discussion of head coaching vacancies?
"Yea, kind of, yea," Zan said with a grin. "I don't really know how to explain it."
Brandon Salsman, Zan's coach at Lexington Catholic, said he has "no inside information" on Kenny's aspirations beyond next season.
"I've never known nothing," Salsman said. "I've never asked and I never will. That's their business. I'm tickled to death as a Kentucky fan that he's there next year, that they're gonna have a great team and that Zan's gonna be a part of that. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine."
Zan won't be the only coach's son on the roster next season. Brad Calipari, head coach John Calipari's son, will be a junior. Brad, who suffered an ACL tear in Dec. 2013, heard about Zan's injury and immediately offered tips on recovering, and expressed excitement then about him joining the team.
Brad hasn't spoken with Zan about the pros and cons of being a coach's son at a program the likes of UK. Salsman believes Zan's upbringing and extensive exposure to the program will help him transition easily.
"It doesn't matter what people say about it," Salsman said. "Somebody's gonna say something and somebody else will say something else. You've just got to go on with yourself."
Payne joins a 2018 recruiting class that's ranked second overall in the nation by 247Sports as of May 3. He's the fifth commitment, joining Keldon Johnson, EJ Montgomery, Tyler Herro and Immanuel Quickley. Ashton Hagans, a five-star point guard in the class of 2019, has committed to the Wildcats and is expected to reclassify to the 2018 class.