ECU women's basketball player Jada Payne
(Photography by Cliff Hollis)


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Armed with her degree, Jada Payne sets sights on a pro career

By Doug Boyd
ECU News Services

Now in her final season with the East Carolina University women’s basketball team, Jada Payne could have her own media guide. It would read something like this:
  • All-American Athletic Conference first team
  • AAC 2014-2015 honor roll member
  • ECU Female Athlete of the Year
  • Most three-pointers in a season
  • Best free-throw percentage
  • On pace to score 2,000 points
  • Potential WNBA draft pick

What was that last one? Yes, it’s true: If she does what her coaches think she can do, Payne could become the first Pirate to play in the women’s professional basketball league.

“Jada’s going to break ground and show kids what a gold mine it is at East Carolina,” said head coach Heather Macy. “We’re looking for big things from Jada and some really exciting stuff.”

Payne doesn’t talk much about the prospect of playing professionally. She just sticks to what has gotten her to this point.

“Knowing what your goals are and working toward that every day is something I intend to do,” she says.

Determination pays dividends

It’s July, and Payne is in the women’s practice gym and talking about getting ready for her final year at ECU. Boys attending a basketball camp dribble and shoot on the other end of the court. Payne remembers the days when she was the skinny kid looking up to the college players.

“Not too long ago, we were all in that same position,” she says. She recalls attending a girls basketball camp at the University of Tennessee and one of the Volunteer players taking time to write her a personal note. That meant a lot.

Now, she’s the one inspiring young players at camp and teammates at practice and in games.

How did she reach this point? Dedication, determination and desire.

“It’s always something I had to work for,” she says of her success on the court. “A lot of times I was overlooked, especially in high school. I completely committed myself and devoted myself to getting better.”

Macy calls Payne “the blueprint” for what makes a successful team.

“Jada’s the example,” Macy says. “When every single day one of your best players is one of the hardest workers, that makes a difference.

“She wants to make sure she has no flaws in her game.”

Such characteristics are why senior forward DeVaughn Gray says Payne is the model player and teammate.

“She sets the standard for everyone, and that’s the level of intensity everyone has tried to reach up to,” Gray says.

And the 6-foot-2 redshirt senior also leads in the classroom. She’s already graduated with a communication degree and is enrolled in graduate school at ECU. When freshmen players ask her why she doesn’t have to go to study hall, she has some advice. And it’s the same as on the court.

“Well, that’s because I worked hard and I worked my way out of it,” she says.

Proving her potential

Growing up in Hickory, Payne played basketball from a young age—younger than the rules allowed. “I was the smallest,” she recalls. “My mom begged them to let me play at 4.

“Basketball was always a constant. I never stopped playing.”
Her mother, Amanda Forney-Freeman, was a college basketball player at Lees-McRae and West Virginia Tech and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at WVU Tech in 2011.

“She’s everything a parent would want in a child,” says Forney-Freeman. “And she always keeps God first. I know that’s where all her success has come from.”

During her senior year of high school, Payne grew about 3 inches and led her Hickory High School team to a 28-3 record and the state finals in 2010-2011. She was a McDonald’s All-America nominee. Even though she showed potential, she was slender and hadn’t played enough at the AAU level to draw the eyes of many college coaches. She liked the staff at La Salle University in Philadelphia, so she headed north. There, she made the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team and was named the team’s rookie of the year.

Her mom had encouraged Payne, who had never been far from home, to broaden her horizons, but Philadelphia might have been a little too far too fast. After her freshman year, she decided to transfer.

“ECU was one of the schools I kept in the back of my mind,” she says. Macy offered her a chance to play for the Pirates, and Payne took it.

After redshirting her first season at ECU, she started all 31 games and led the Pirates in scoring in 2013-2014 at 18.4 points per game. She earned All-Conference USA First Team honors and was a member of the Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll and the ECU Athletics Director’s Honor Roll.

Last season, she started 32 of 33 games, scored in double-digits in 31, led the Pirates in scoring in 23 games and scored 20 or more points 11 times.

She finished last season ranked 17th on the Pirates’ all-time scoring list with 1,132. By the end of the season, she had made 80 three-pointers, breaking her own school record. She also broke her own school record in free-throw percentage with a mark of .865, which also topped the conference.

“She did what it takes people a career to do,” Macy says. “She basically did it in a year-and-a-half. Jada’s breaking Jada’s own records.”

During the season, she averaged a team-best 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds. In the Women’s NIT, she scored a total of 41 points in two games.

She also was selected to the All-American Athletic Conference First Team. She twice received player-of-the-week accolades and made the conference weekly honor roll five times. ECU named her its Female Athlete of the Year. She also made the 2014-2015 American Athletic Conference All-Academic Team.

She’s also added about 25 pounds of muscle to her frame, a tangible sign of the effort she puts into getting better.

It’s part of the game plan for Payne.

“Anywhere you go requires a lot of hard work and dedication,” she says.

Pro prospects

The 2016 draft will be held Sept. 24, and Payne ranked 38th among eligible players before the season started. For now, that puts her just outside the 12-team, three-round draft—but very much in the draft conversation.

“Her versatility and athleticism, her ability to guard multiple positions and her accuracy behind the 3-point line would mean WNBA teams should look at her in the draft,” says Trudi Lacey, a former college basketball player at N.C. State and coach and general manager in the WNBA.

And if she is drafted, the benefits from ECU would be significant.

“For the overall program, it speaks to ECU women’s basketball’s commitment to excellence and total player development,” Lacey says.

Payne’s success in the classroom could also play in her favor.

“As long as she can carry those smarts over to the basketball court, she’ll be fine,” Lacey says.

For now, Payne is focused on this season. She wants to be more aggressive, get in even better shape and hit even more big shots.

“I want to be the best I can be for this team,” she says. “I want to give every last bit of effort and energy I have for this team.”

  ECU women's basketball coach Heather Macy
High expectations

After three straight 20-win seasons that included postseason play in the Women’s NIT, ECU women’s basketball coach Heather Macy is clear about her expectations this season: a run in the NCAA Tournament.

“I really feel like it’s going to be a breakout year for our program,” she said at the Oct. 6 women’s basketball media day.

“We’re expecting to be in the Sweet 16,” said senior forward I’Tiana Taylor. “That’s what we’re saying in practice and that’s what we hold ourselves to in practice.”

The Pirates opened their season Nov. 13 against Texas-Rio Grand Valley in the Islanders Classic in Corpus Christi, Texas. The 18-game conference slate begins Dec. 30. Several games will be broadcast on the CBS Sports Network, ESPNU and other networks. The full schedule, including game times, is available at

2015-2016 schedule

Nov. 13 vs. UTRGV in Corpus Christi, Texas

Nov. 14 at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

Nov. 17 vs. Alcorn State

Nov. 20 vs. Presbyterian

Nov. 22 at Delaware

Nov. 26 vs. Creighton in Austin, Texas

Nov. 27 vs. Eastern Washington in Austin, Texas

Nov. 28 vs. Northwestern in Austin, Texas

Dec. 5 at Auburn

Dec. 18 vs. Chattanooga in Wilmington, N.C.

Dec. 19 vs. Ohio in Wilmington, N.C.

Dec. 20 vs. South Carolina in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Dec. 30 at Tulsa

Jan. 2 vs. USF

Jan. 5 vs. Tulane

Jan. 7 at UCF

Jan. 14 vs. Houston

Jan. 17 at USF

Jan 20 vs. Cincinnati

Jan. 23 at Tulane

Jan. 30 vs. Temple

Feb. 3 vs. Tulsa

Feb. 6 at UConn

Feb. 9 at SMU

Feb. 13 vs. Memphis

Feb. 17 at Houston

Feb. 20 vs. UConn

Feb. 24 at Cincinnati

Feb. 27 at Memphis

Feb. 29 vs. SMU

American Conference Championship

Home games are shown in bold.