Playing basketball was just a hobby for Pharrel Payne during his sophomore season at Park High School in Cottage Grove in 2019-20. The 6-foot-6 forward’s casual approach was exposed when he played against Eastview’s 6-foot-10 senior Steven Crowl.

Park coach Mike Weah called a timeout during that game and emphasized for Payne to put a body on Crowl, who had signed a letter of intent with the Wisconsin Badgers that November.

“You have to push him around,” Weah recalled this week. It didn’t work out. “Crowl had a nice 40-point game against him; it was 40 right on the dot.”

With Weah’s encouragement, Payne progressively dedicated himself to the game and became one of the top 100 college basketball recruits in the nation in the class of 2022. Payne signed a letter of intent to be a Gopher on Wednesday. He is the highest-rated recruit in the Gophers' all-Minnesota class, which includes Joshua Ola-Joseph and Braeden Carrington.

New Gophers head coach Ben Johnson didn’t recruit any of the three players until after he was hired at his alma mater in March, and his first full class at Minnesota ranks 41st in the nation, according to 247sports.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

“It’s not going to be all Minnesota guys,” Johnson. “We got to recruit and spread our brand nationally, but to be able to get the three guys that were right was huge for us. It all starts with Braeden. Braeden was the first guy that committed me and our staff and our program. We don’t take that lightly. He got the ball rolling.”

Carrington, a 6-4 guard from Park Center, committed to Minnesota in early August. Payne and Ola-Joseph, a 6-foot-6 forward who has transferred from Osseo to Prolific Prep in Napa, Calif., pledged to Minnesota near the end of August.

During the recruiting process, Johnson felt it was important that Payne know about the Gophers’ legacy at Park. That meant a history lesson on former Gophers guard Sam Jacobson, who scored 1,709 points for the maroon and gold from 1995-98. They dug up a banner of Jacobson and showed Payne a YouTube video from the 1994 Minnesota high school all-star game and dunk contest.

“We made sure he knew,” Johnson said.

When Johnson was still an assistant at Xavier last season, Payne was starting to figure out his potential. Now 6-foot-8 and 225 pounds, he averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks per game last season at Park.

“During the season, we had talked to some (college) coaches, and some coaches were like, ‘We will take a look at him,’ and we didn’t really get much feedback,” Weah said.

Payne then had a breakout summer with his AAU team, Minnesota Select, which was coached by former Gopher Mitch Ohnstad. His recruitment really heated up at the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Association Showcase in Woodbury in June. “We were getting a lot of calls from a lot of coaches,” Weah said.

The Gophers and Loyola of Chicago offered first during the showcase. Texas A&M, Appalachian State, St. Louis and Drake offered within a week.

Payne visited Minnesota just before he committed in August. “They made it feel like home,” he said. “… I felt like I was really close with the coaches even though I felt like I had seen them a total of like five times.”

During the recruiting process, the Gophers learned that Payne’s parents, George and Emma, immigrated from Cameroon in 2000. They have an older son, Rodrick, a 6-foot-9 freshman center at Wisconsin-River Falls, and an 11-year old son Ethan in the fifth grade.

George and Emma are nurses — George at Regions Hospital in St. Paul and Emma at St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood.

“(Pharrel) is adventurous and very curious,” George Payne said. “When he sees something, he has a lot of questions about it.”

Like his parents, Pharrel is drawn to science, making himself integral to the team off the court, too. “If somebody on our team will be struggling in one of our science classes, Pharrel is our go-to guy,” Weah said.

Payne added: “Learning new things is fun for me, specifically about the human body. That’s the type of stuff that I’m attracted to.”

So it’s no surprise Johnson had to answer a lot of questions from Pharrel. “He did his due diligence,” Johnson said. “He is a thinker. He is a mature kid. All these guys are.”

Given Payne’s size and physical style of play — a drastic improvement from his matchup with Crowl two years ago — he might be the first in the 2022 class to see the court next season. On top of his physicality, Johnson said, Payne is versatile on the perimeter.

“Not to compare him to this guys that I’m about to say — I’m not saying that — but he’s more like Chris Webber than Daniel (Oturu),” Johnson said. “He’s got that body, that length. He’s going to come in, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the day we start official practice, and he’s (going to be a) legit, strong 240 (pounds). He’s got the big hands, long arms, just the strong lower body. He’s a little bit more powerful, but he has Daniel’s skill.”