Jada Payne has the WNBA in sights for next season, but before that, she’s planning to etch her name into the school’s record books first.
Payne redshirted the 2012-13 season after leaving La Salle University following the 2011-12 campaign, despite earning Atlantic 10 Conference All-Rookie Team honors. As great as her collegiate playing career began, she wanted to be closer to home and began focusing on her long term goal: getting on the right path toward a professional career in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA).
“I wasn’t sure if that would be attainable and that was part of the reason why I came to ECU,” Payne said. “I felt like, here, they were going to shape me into the pro player that I wanted to become and I feel like it’s within my grasp now.”
Payne’s production reflects how she feels, too. In 2013-14, she broke the single-season program record for three-pointers made with 70, complementing her 18.4 points per game en route to receiving All-Conference USA First Team recognition.
East Carolina exited C-USA and joined the American Athletic Conference prior to the 2014-15 season, a new challenge for the Pirates and Payne alike. Included in that move was taking on a higher level of competition against teams like the reigning national champion UConn Huskies and other perennial powers across the women’s basketball landscape. Still, Payne got better.
Payne connected on 80 three-point baskets to top her previous season’s total, scored just six fewer points during her junior campaign and earned All-American Athletic Conference First Team honors. She also broke the program standard for free throw percentage, while her 150 threes made in two seasons are just 51 behind the ECU record. In three total seasons, she is now just 596 points away from 2,000 for her career – a number that will place her among the best scorers in NCAA Division I history.
“I think 2,000 points for anyone at any level is a milestone so exceeding that this year would be a huge accomplishment,” Payne said. “I always try to challenge myself by beating what I did the year before.”
The scary part is that not only is Payne one of the top scorers in the college game, but that she is still getting better. That’s not just the opinion of her coaches and friends, but also the analysis of well-respected people in professional basketball.
“I believe that she has the potential to make contributions to a WNBA team,” said Trudi Lacey, who was Head Coach and General Manager of the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting (2003-05) and Washington Mystics (2011-12). “She has the athleticism and basketball IQ, but most importantly, the ability to score in multiple facets from hitting three-point shots to finishing around the basket. She can guard multiple positions.”
Cathy Andruzzi has followed East Carolina Women’s Basketball for nearly four decades and was the head coach from 1978-84. She sees the immense potential in Payne’s game as well.
“At 6’2, she’s mobile and has great length on the perimeter,” Andruzzi said. “Her three-point presence stretches opponents beyond the arc which creates matchup problems for defenses. Her overall skill set, size and consistent play are valuable assets in getting to the next level. ”
The high praise is well-deserved and well-received by Payne, but she can add to that. She believes her intangibles off the court make her even more appealing to WNBA teams in need of her unique makeup.
“I really think I’m valuable because of my work ethic and passion for the game,” Payne said. “There has never been a day that I didn’t give it my all. I hope they see my leadership and positive attitude. I will be a spark of positive energy.”
Personal accolades, breaking records and other individual recognitions are not accomplishments that Payne soaks in. She is a pleaser. She wants to make her support system, comprising her family, friends coaches and the ECU community, happy. She tirelessly studies and pushes her body to its limit to continue taking forward steps.
Payne claims she does not model her game after one specific player, but how could she? She is as tall as a forward and scores like a shooting guard. There are so many players with unique crafts who just rebounds or just score, but she can both, so she picks from all of them to diversify her game. Her evolution as a prolific scorer began in the early stages of her playing career at ECU, observing one element of perhaps the greatest basketball player’s game.
“A couple years ago, Coach (Heather) Macy had me watch clips of Michael Jordan,” Payne said. “She made a very valid point that I have the tendency to dribble the ball higher than normal, just like him. He did it with full control of the ball and used it to score and attack in a number of a different ways.”
Jordan is still the king of highlight reels, memorable moments and the standard for every basketball legacy comparison, but taking just one thing from his game has made Payne the same type of scoring threat at her level that Jordan was at his. For Payne, the grind never stops until the day comes that she can’t get better at her craft. Any motivated athlete knows there is no deadline for that day.
“I’ve learned that you have to want it so bad that nothing can stop you,” Payne said. “The game of basketball is very physical and it comes with injuries and other things that can get in your way. There is no time for resting or other distractions that will keep you from getting to your ultimate goal. It’s all about effort.”
Photo Credit: DAVID CUCCHIARA | DAILY NEWS