Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)
It’s not hard to see what makes Saleem Payne an exceptional basketball player because it’s the exact thing that makes him difficult to defend.
Payne’s speed sets him apart on the court, and it’s what stood out to John Harmatuk, Phelps School head coach, when he first saw him.
The senior realized his speed would be an asset early in his basketball journey. He picked the sport up at age 7, and it has been his primary athletic focus since fourth grade after he stopped playing football.
“I was playing football and basketball, and I was like one of the best fourth graders. And I'm like, yeah, no, I'm never playing football again,” Payne said. “I’ve played everywhere. It just never stopped since I was about nine years old. So it's just been a dream for me, honestly, since then.”
Phelps School 2023 guard Saleem Payne has seen his game grow during his time with the Lions. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Payne transferred to the Phelps School after his junior year at Cheltenham. He reclassified into the class of 2023, and in his final high school season, the fruits of his labors are ripening, with several colleges pursuing his talents.
But the on-court transition at the Phelps school wasn’t smooth at first.
“He dribbled the air out of the ball and didn't really run our offense well,” Harmatuk said.”That's a hard habit to break because he's actually good at that. But that's not how we want to play.”
“[At Cheltenham] I was averaging 20, 21 [points], taking any shot I want,” Payne said. “Now it's way different. My first year coming in, I had to learn a lot of stuff. … I had to just start doing different things, being more of a leader, and doing more of a point guard things.”
Now that he plays within the flow of the game. His off-ball skills are more noticeable. And defensively, he has the lateral quickness to stay in front of opposing players, not to mention the mentality to pick up full court if necessary.
“He's just tough as hell and competitive as hell. That's a huge part of it,” Harmatuk said about what makes Payne special. “He's everywhere, picks up full court when we change up our defense, he gets in our zone, he's off-ball, he's talking, he's flying all over the place. So what makes him good it’s his competitive nature.”
And that’s before getting into his ability to score jumpers off the bounce, especially in mid-range. But he’s shown that his range extends beyond the three-point line, which will be increasingly important as a 5’10 guard preparing for collegiate-level basketball.
In the game against Mercersburg on Friday, he finished with 18 points and knocked down two threes en route to a 98-96 win on the first day of the Westtown/Phelps Invitational.
He added a key 3-point play on Saturday with 59.7 seconds left to extend the Lions' lead to double digits in a 98-87 semifinal win over Hill School. He had eight points five rebounds and three assists.
If the high scores seem like a lot of points for a high school game, it’s because in most of the Great Atlantic Conference (GAC) they use college-like rules, a 30-second shot clock and two 20-minute halves resulting in more possessions, which is one of the pros for playing at the Phelps School.
Another is the level of talent on the teams that the Phelps School will compete against, considering perennial nationally ranked schools like Mt. Zion Prep and the Perkiomen School are in the GAC, and Payne will get to see how he measures up against them.
“We play in a great GAC league. We play seven-footers. I haven't been playing against seven-footers since AAU,” Payne said. “Like everybody's good, and I'm playing with a way better team. I had to adapt to that.”
All of this gives college coaches more film to look at, and as of right now, Payne is hearing from several schools, including West Chester, East Stroudsburg and Mansfield. Payne said he’s close to making a decision, and in the end, it will come down to fit and the opportunity to contribute.
“I just want to come in and play as soon as possible,” Payne said. “I want to go wherever the love is, you know, wherever they want to play me. I just want to come in and play, run, be quick and be myself. I don't want to look over my shoulder.”
Whatever school lands Payne, Harmatuk knows that they’re getting a gem late in the 2023 recruiting process.
“He's as good an unsigned guard as there is, so somebody's gonna get a good one,” Harmatuk said.