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Florida’s Omar Payne entering transfer portal

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The talented but raw big is departing Gainesville after two years.

NCAA Basketball: Stetson at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Gators sophomore forward Omar Payne has entered the transfer portal in search of “a new opportunity” to continue his college career, he announced Tuesday via social media.

Payne was a consensus top-50 recruit in the high school class of 2019, and part of a heralded Florida recruiting class that also included top-10 recruit Scottie Lewis and top-25 recruit Tre Mann. And while his athleticism, length, and instincts as a shot-blocker stood out early in his Florida career, his offensive game’s limitations were clear early and often — even on his rare explosive nights, as in a 19-point performance on nine-for-nine shooting against Auburn in January 2020, Payne did nearly all of his damage within feet of the basket.

That made him a highly efficient offensive player — Payne made an astonishing 75 percent of his shots as a sophomore — but one who did not earn a volume of touches or shots. That gaudy shooting percentage came on 52 shots, just more than two per game; Payne never took more than six shots in a game as a sophomore.

And his promise as a defender largely fizzled, as well. Payne was pipped as Florida’s premier shot-blocker by Michigan transfer Colin Castleton, and his struggles as an individual defender — which played a large role in Florida’s Senior Day collapse against Kentucky last spring — did not abate in a sophomore season in which he actually fouled more often than as a freshman. Payne picked up three or more fouls 11 times in Florida’s first 15 games in 2020-21, then saw his minutes somewhat reduced over the Gators’ final nine games.

(On Sunday, Castleton announced that he would explore the pre-Draft process while not hiring an agent, thus preserving his collegiate eligibility. Castleton is not seen as an NBA prospect at this time, and is widely expected to return to Florida.)

The thing most will remember best about Payne’s time in a Florida uniform is also ugly: His elbow swing that caught and floored Tennessee’s John Fulkerson in the 2021 SEC Tournament led to his ejection from that game, widespread condemnation from college basketball observers, and an unannounced suspension for Florida’s NCAA Tournament victory over Virginia Tech.

And yet Payne’s decision to transfer comes as a minor surprise to some — which it arguably shouldn’t. While a writeup on Florida’s official site from last week indicated that Payne “informed the coaches (he) wanted to come back,” he was not included in a separate group of players that Florida was said to “know” “would be back,” but instead in a pack of players with “a decision to make” — an implication that Payne’s wishes to return may not have coincided with Florida coaches’ honest advice to him.

Payne telling coaches that he wanted to return is also different from telling coaches he would return — a subtle, easy-to-miss distinction that nevertheless matters in a world in which semantics often do.

Given that Mike White’s comments about Payne throughout two years of coaching him — and especially after Payne’s elbow to Fulkerson — often seemed to carry a subtext of “He’s a good person, but can be difficult to coach,” it would be only minimally surprising to me if Florida is taking a calculated risk by cutting bait on Payne and hoping to replace his production — which, in 2020-21, amounted to 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game — with a player plucked from the transfer portal.

Payne is the fourth player to announce plans to transfer from Florida since the end of the Gators’ season, joining Noah Locke, Ques Glover, and Osayi Osifo, and the fifth player overall to depart the program, counting NBA Draft entrant Mann.