Tyreon Payne doesn’t have time to squander any more opportunities. The Merced College sophomore knows this is his last chance to make basketball part of his future.
Payne, 24, is the perfect example of what junior college sports can do for an athlete. He admits that a lack of maturity and focus led to him squandering opportunities to play basketball in college right out of high school.
Last year, Payne took advantage of a chance to reset his basketball career by coming to Merced College, where he averaged 18 points per game as a freshman. A solid sophomore season could lead to Payne getting another opportunity to play at a four-year school.
This time, Payne believes he’s ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities come his way.
“I don’t think I was ready for that college experience at the time, fresh out of high school,” Payne said. “If I would have had the same type of mindset that I do right now, I’d be so far... I’d be close to the league right now, no doubt.”
Payne hit the game-winnign layup in Wednesday’s season-opening 91-89 win over Skyline at Don Reid Court. Payne finished with 15 points.
Former Merced High star and Fresno State guard Allen Huddleston begins his third year as the Blue Devils head coach. Huddleston has led Merced College to back-to-back 9-18 seasons the first two years.
Huddleston says this year’s group is ready to take a step in a positive direction. Huddleston says the coaching staff has focused on two key areas this offseason.
“Toughness and defense, those are really what we’ve harped on,” Huddleston said. “Scoring is something you can do just being on the court. In college, if you can defend and rebound, you can be pretty successful.”
Returning with Payne is sharp-shooter and former Golden Valley High star Mateo Tangaan.
“He’s shooting the lights out right now,” Huddleston said.
The Blue Devils will add two key pieces in former Pitman High star Robert Salmon, a 6-foot-7 post player who transferred from UC Merced, and 5-8 point guard Yasir Rowell out of Philadelphia. Rowell poured in 35 points in the win against Skyline on Wednesday.
The leader this year is undoubtedly Payne, who was an all-Central Valley Conference second-team selection last season and second-leading scorer to former Blue Devil star Mike Teal, who is now playing at South Carolina State.
The hope is Payne will follow Teal’s path to play at a four-year school.
“He’ll do most of the heavy lifting as far as scoring,” Huddleston said. “Before coming here, he didn’t know how to play the game. He didn’t know how to be a student athlete. Now he’s starting to figure it out.”
Huddleston considers Payne as a three-level scorer, a player with the ability to score at the rim, in the mid-range or beyond the three-point line. He plays hard on the defensive end as well.
“It’s a second chance for him,” Huddleston added. “He’s had opportunities, but he didn’t quite grasp them because of academics or because he wasn’t 100% focused. Since he’s come to Merced, he’s just bought in on everything we try to tell him.”
Before coming to Merced College, Payne, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, thought his basketball days might be over.
Payne had an opportunity to play Division I basketball at Southeastern Carolina after Southern Laboratory High School as a walk-on, but it didn’t work out. He then went to a prep school in Houston, but nothing materialized.
It took former Merced College player Ad’aron Duncan, who coached against Payne in Houston, to open another door. Duncan reached out to Huddleston and told him about Payne. The next day, Huddleston called Payne.
“I didn’t think much of it, and then the next day I get a random California number call on my phone,” Payne said. “It was coach Huddleston, and he started talking to me and telling me we need someone to come out to play with Mike Teal.”
Payne was ready to drop everything.
“I told him, ‘Coach, I’m on the way right now,’” Payne said. “’What you need me to do? I’m coming, I’m the person you need.’”
Payne bought into Huddleston’s program as soon as he landed in California. He took his advice about showing up to classes early and sitting in the front of the classroom so he would pay attention.
Payne became a straight A student at Merced College. Payne says as he’s gotten older he has grown to understand the importance of his education. He doesn’t want his grades to be the reason he doesn’t fulfill his basketball goals.
Payne says trouble can easily find you where he lived in Baton Rouge. With basketball fading from his life, he could have easily seen himself hanging around the wrong crowd.
Payne says he was at a point in his life where he didn’t know what he was going to do without basketball.
“Now there’s more peace in my life,” he said. “I can come in and get in the gym every day. I don’t have this back home. I can wake up and get in the gym whenever I want to. The coaches here have changed my life. They’re like father figures to me. I love them for that.”
Payne has a few Division I coaches following him on Twitter. Other four-year coaches have reached out to Huddleston to inquire.
There’s still hope for his future in basketball.
“I’m a real hooper. I’ve been playing basketball since I was 4 years old,” Payne said. “I really love basketball. I just need another opportunity. As soon as I got out here, I didn’t want to do nothing else but excel. This is my last shot, I’m 24 years old. I’ve got time, but it’s going. I don’t have time to waste.”