The “father figure” of the Knicks’ Kentucky contingent may not be going anywhere after all.
Assistant coach Kenny Payne was reportedly a strong candidate to be hired as DePaul’s next head coach, but instead he will be staying with the Knicks, a league source confirmed.
Payne made the jump from Kentucky to the Knicks to join Tom Thibodeau’s staff this season, and while he was courted to return to the college ranks — meeting with DePaul’s leadership Friday night in Milwaukee, the student newspaper The DePaulia reported — it appears he will be sticking in the NBA, at least for now.
“He puts the players first,” rookie point guard Immanuel Quickley, who had Payne as an assistant at Kentucky, said Saturday before the Knicks took on the Bucks. “He’ll be there early in the morning, late at night, he’ll take you to lunch, help you with your homework. He’s almost like a father figure. He would be great wherever he’s at, but we are glad and blessed to have him here.”
Thibodeau had said earlier in the week he would not keep his assistants from interviewing for jobs that would advance their careers. But it looks like he may have avoided two departures. Associate head coach Johnnie Bryant also recently withdrew his name from the University of Utah job, according to KSL Sports.
Payne has been credited for playing a key role in Julius Randle’s breakout season, in which the Kentucky product has shouldered the load for the Knicks. Payne also lobbied for the Knicks to draft Quickley, The Post’s Marc Berman previously reported, and the former Wildcat has blossomed this season after being the No. 25-overall pick.
“He’s just been another guy that’s been in my life and he’s helped me on and off the court, basketball, late nights in the gym, we watch film together,” Quickley said. “I’ve gotten to know him since I was in high school. For me to have him since high school, college and pros has been an unbelievable experience and I hope I can continue to keep working with him.”
Payne had connections to DePaul because athletic director DeWayne Peevy was a former deputy director of athletics at Kentucky. But the 54-year-old Payne, who helped recruit Quickley for Kentucky, will continue working with his Wildcats-turned-Knicks.
“He’s exactly the same person,” Quickley said. “Sometimes he forgets we have a game the next day and still tries to go just as hard as when we were in college and played on a Tuesday/Saturday. But that’s why you love him, because you know he’s gonna work just as hard as you. As much as you want the success, he’s going to push you to go get that, so that’s why we respect him.”
— Additional reporting by Peter Botte