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Kevin Payton focuses on this season, stays open-minded about the future

10/30/2008, 12:00am CDT
By Jake Ricker

Gopher Basketball

Gopher guard Kevin Payton was born to play basketball. The son of former pro, Charles Payton, he grew up around the game. But until his freshman year of high school, Payton didn't even play basketball, instead devoting time to sports like soccer and track. His unique story goes way beyond his life in basketball though. After spending his childhood in Vienna, Payton transferred stateside to Camden High School in southern New Jersey for his junior year of high school, where it became clear that Payton had the skills to earn himself a college scholarship on the hardwood. Though the passion and ability in the other sports never waned (Payton won the New Jersey state title in the 400 meters his senior year and also placed second in the 200 meters and the 4x400 meters), his abilities on the basketball court caught the attention of Dan Monson, who was the head coach of Minnesota at the time. Payton chose to become a Gopher shortly after visiting campus in October, 2004.

Payton's role during his career at Minnesota has changed season-to-season. After redshirting in 2005-2006, Payton played in every game in 2006-2007, including 13 starts, playing a majority of his minutes at the point. Last year, with the emergence of freshman Al Nolen at that position, Payton contibuted by coming off the bench, often to play the 2 or the 3. This season, as one of the more experienced players on the Minnesota roster, Payton's role will likely change again as the coaching staff and younger players look to him to use his experience and be a leader.

More questions surround Payton this season than just what role he'll play, however. Speculation over the Gophers' scholarship situation for the 2009-2010 season has spawned almost daily theories from fans and writers alike since news broke earlier this month that Trevor Mbakwe had accepted a scholarship offer from Minnesota. It seems that Payton's name is firmly entrenched in the rumors about how everything will play out.

Fortunately for Payton, being open-minded about the future and staying focused on the present is nothing new to him.

GH: Last year there was major improvement on this team, and it truly was improvement by the entire team. Everyone seemed to improve in some way. What did you see as your role in this improvement? What did you work on that contributed to your improvement last year?

KP: One thing I learned from my dad as a professional player is that you have to work on every aspect of your game in the off-season. So, there wasn't really one main thing I focused on. I tried to improve on everything. My defense always needs work. My offense definitely needs work. Everything: footwork, weight room, whatever it may be. I just worked on everything this summer.

GH: You mentioned some of the things you're working on all the time. Can you name one or two things specifically that you're working on for this season?

KP: Under the guidance of the coaches, talking to Coach Smith and the supporting staff, it's pretty much my outside jump shot. I've been working a lot on shooting this summer, this offseason. Also, going to the rack. Just being an offensive threat really, being somebody that can score and help the team out on offense.

GH: Fans got a backstage look at the Gophers last season through watching The Journey on the Big Ten Network, and I think a lot of people came away with the impression that you're one of the leaders on the team. Do you embrace that role?

KP: Yeah, I think that's something I have to do, being one of the older guys on the team. Talking to Coach Smith, trying to define who we need to step up on this team, I think"¦ with me being one of the veteran guys I need to step up and be a leader, on and off the court. Telling guys how to run a certain play, how to conduct themselves on the court and off the court. It's just being a role model for everybody. But the young guys are also leaders. They do different things on the court that help me improve, so they lead by example. That makes me a follower in that situation. I think we all lead in our own separate ways.

GH: As a leader, are you a vocal leader or a lead by example type of guy?

KP: I think I pick my spots. Each day might be something different, you know? If we're slacking in practice some, and you can kinda see in Coach Smith's eyes that it's not going good, sometimes you have to be a vocal leader, be like, "œc'mon, let's pick it up." Other days, you might have to be somebody that's quieter. When there's a lot of talking going on, you just stay quiet, step out there and get the job done.

GH: You're known as somebody who brings a lot of energy to the floor. When you come off the bench, you're going to be in people's faces, playing tight defense and all that. Is that a natural part of the game or is that something that's part of the role the coaches ask you to fill?

KP: That's something"¦ that's just me. That's my personality. That's something that I've been doing all my life. Whether it's playing soccer or basketball, I've always been a high energy type of guy. I try to bring as much to the team as I can. Sometimes energy is the easiest thing to do. If you come out with energy, everything else falls into place.

GH: You used to play a little bit of soccer? Did you play in high school?

KP: I've been playing soccer all my life, really, even before I started playing basketball. I started playing basketball my freshman year of high school.

GH: So is soccer the first love and basketball just happens to be the sport paying for college?

KP: They're both on same level I'd say. I can't put that out there. That's like my own little secret.

GH: Like saying what kid you love the most or something?

KP: Exactly. You can't say that. You kinda know, but you don't want to really put it out there. But no, my heart is in basketball, 100%.

GH: Is soccer something you do to stay in shape during the off-season?

KP: Yeah, it is. When I go back home, overseas, I play a lot of soccer, combined with basketball. I think it's a different kind of conditioning. It helps you with your footwork.

GH: Will you specify for our readers that might not know what you mean when you say you go home overseas?

KP: That would be Vienna, Austria, in between Germany and Italy. That's where home is.

GH: And you lived there because of your dad's job, right? Can you explain to readers who might not know what your dad does?

KP: Right now, he's a head basketball coach over in Austria. Back in the day, he used to be a player in different places overseas.

GH: As a result of that, did you travel a lot when you were a kid?

KP: No, I stayed in Vienna. But because of basketball, because of my father, I've been able to travel a lot of different places around Europe and around the world.

GH: What were those experiences like? What are some of the things you learned from traveling around the world when you were younger?

KP: I think traveling with him and traveling with basketball helped me broaden my horizons. It opened my ways of looking at things in the world. Not being narrow-minded, but really open-minded, just open to anything.

GH: Bringing it back to the United States, I heard you're on schedule to graduate in four years. Is that true?

KP: Yes sir! I'm set to graduate in May. Thank God.

GH: Thank God? Are you relieved to be done with it?

KP: Not relieved to be done with it, but I think once you graduate and you got that degree, it lifts a lot of weight off your shoulders because it's something that's really important.

GH: Is that something your parents stressed when you were younger? Something Coach Smith emphasizes? Where does that value in education come from?

KP: As soon as I found out that I wanted to play basketball, and then the thought of college came in, the first thing that was stressed to me by everybody I talked to was "œMake sure you get that degree because down the line you're going to need it. It's really gonna help you out."

GH: So, you graduate this year, but you've got one year of eligibility left. Are you going to work as a grad assistant next year or are you going to be the Gopher basketball version of Matt Leinhart and just take some dancing classes to play out that last season and enjoy it?

KP: I definitely want to play that last year and be a part of the team. But who knows? Whatever happens happens that next year, but it should be fun.

GH: What kinda classes would you take to fill your time? Ball room dancing like Leinhart? Is there a soccer class you could take?

KP: I don't even know. I haven't even thought that far ahead. Right now, the focus is really on the season and trying to get things started with today.

GH: Ok, let's focus on the season. Among all the players on the squad, who do you think will be the most surprising this season?

KP: Wow. Wow. That's all I gotta say. That's how exciting it's going to be for Gopher fans. They're going to come in here and be like, "œWow." That goes for everybody they're gonna see. That's the easiest answer I can give you. Wow.

GH: Obviously it was a major turnaround for the team last season, going from a nine-win season to a 20-win season. Gopher fans have heightened expectations, but what kind of expectations are you guys putting on yourselves as a team?

KP: Like you said, Gopher fans have high expectations. I think our expectations are even higher than theirs. We're just trying to improve on last year's numbers, trying to be a better team, trying to be one of those Coach Smith-type teams: hard, nitty gritty, fast-paced, well-conditioned. We're just going to try and make a run for it this year.

GH: What are you expecting from yourself individually this year? What kind of expectations have you placed on yourself?

KP: Whatever needs to be done for the team, I'm gonna be there to do it.

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