That Memphis head coach Josh Pastner missed on local prospect Cameron Payne isn’t an issue — at least, not in a vacuum.
Coaches miss on lowly recruited gems every recruiting cycle in general, and specifically, few outside of former Murray State head coach Steve Prohm saw the potential of a skinny point guard who would grow — literally and figuratively — into the NBA draft’s No. 14 pick.
Prohm told Seth Greenberg and Andy Katz on the ESPNU College Basketball Podcast, published June 15, that Payne came off the bench for his own AAU team. Seeing the potential in such a prospect takes particularly keen insight, and the ability to gamble on upside not often afforded top-tier programs.
But Memphis hasn’t been a top-tier program. Not since John Calipari left for Kentucky in 2009, anyway. That’s when Calipari, a proven winner with Final Four appearances now at three different programs, turned the reins over to the untested but energetic Pastner.
Calipari restored Memphis after more than a decade of languishing in mediocrity, attracting one NBA-bound prospect prospect after another, and reached the Final Four for the first time since 2008. The Tigers came some missed free throw, and a Mario Chalmers 3-pointer, away from winning the program’s first national championship.
Pastner’s had a high bar to meet, and has achieved nothing remotely approaching the success of his predecessor. After an initial hiccup in his first year, Pastner led Memphis to four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, albeit with a seed never better than six, and all ending in opening-weekend exits. His 30-win 2012-’13, far-and-away best of his tenure, bowed out of the Big Dance in a 22-point rout.
Coming off a disappointing 18-12 season with no postseason appearance, however, a local product like Payne who slipped past the Tigers en route to the NBA adds salt to the wound.
Pastner started the Memphis job with no head-coaching experience. At times, that’s been plainly evident, and especially so in his first few years. The dribble-drive motion offense Pastner studied under Calipari remains a fixture of Memphis basketball, but it functions with far less fluidity than it did under Calipari’s teams — largely because it’s not being run by future NBA players. Therein lies the problem with Pastner whiffing on the recruitment, or lack thereof of Payne.
Payne would have flourished in the Memphis offense, much as he did at Murray State. His uncanny court vision and tremendous ball-handling would have given the Tigers’ controlled chaos much more of the necessary control element.
Payne also would have been the first Tiger selected in the first round of the NBA draft in a half-decade.
Criticisms of Pastner’s in-game management can be and often are countered with touting of his recruiting bona fides. Pastner’s youthful exuberance translates into tireless efforts on the recruiting trail.
Yet, for all the accolades and some impressive team rankings most offseasons — Memphis is ranked No. 12 nationally in this most recent cycle — the end results simply aren’t there.
Memphis hasn’t just fallen off as a championship-caliber team, but it’s also not producing pros as would be expected, coming from a program with a much ballyhooed recruiter.
Will Barton was Memphis’ last pick, selected No. 40 in the 2012 draft. Elliot Williams, taken No. 22 in 2010, is the sole first-rounder of Pastner’s head-coaching tenure.
In a vacuum, Pastner missing on Cameron Payne out of Lausanne Collegiate School, right in Memphis’ backyard, is not an issue. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum.