Elfrid Payton knew that something wasn’t right. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had just announced that he had been drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, but 20 minutes had gone by since the selection and the team had yet to contact him. They hadn’t even worked him out during the pre-draft process, and a point guard seemed to be the last thing they needed with reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams on the roster. Payton was confused, but he was also thrilled that his NBA dream had become reality. He pulled the 76ers hat over his full head of hair and smiled for the cameras. He was whisked away to the interview room, where he answered questions about the fit in Philadelphia and what he thought about playing with fellow 76ers draft pick Joel Embiid.
Then, halfway through the press conference, Basketball Insiders informed Payton that he had been traded to the Orlando Magic for Dario Saric and two future draft picks. Upon hearing this information, Payton smiled. Suddenly, it all made sense. He had worked out for Orlando, and the Magic had fallen in love with him during the pre-draft process. They needed a starting point guard, and liked the idea of having a dominant defensive backcourt of Payton and Victor Oladipo. Philadelphia was a head-scratcher for Payton, but Orlando was a perfect landing spot and he couldn’t have been more excited.
“It was a dream come true,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I was just happy to have all my hard work pay off. I thought I was going to Philly and then I got traded. Once I found out I was going to Orlando, I was pretty excited. I was in the middle of my press conference and people were asking me questions like, ‘How’s it feel to be with Joel Embiid?’ I was saying some nice things, complimenting his game and stuff like that and then a reporter out of nowhere was like, ‘Well, you’re going to be playing with another good big man in Aaron Gordon. You got traded to Orlando.’ Then, they took me out of the media room and put me in this back room and I just waited for maybe an hour for everything to get done.”
The Magic finally have their point guard of the future – a 6’4, 20-year-old with a 6’8 wingspan, who averaged 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals last season while leading Louisiana-Lafayette to the NCAA Tournament. They also managed to land one of the draft’s best athletes in Gordon with the fourth pick. The fact that Orlando landed both Gordon and Payton is no coincidence, as the two players actually go way back.
When Payton and Gordon take the floor for their Magic debut next season, it won’t be the first time that the rookies have teamed up together. Long before Orlando selected the duo in the lottery, Payton and Gordon were teammates. Last year, Payton and Gordon were both starters on Team USA in the FIBA Under-19 Championships in Prague. The two met during the Team USA tryouts and quickly hit it off, in large part due to their shared love of defense and their relentless motors.
Payton and Gordon both played well for Team USA during the tournament, leading the squad to a 9-0 record and emerging as difference makers for the team. They made their presence felt on both ends of the floor, dominating in the pick-and-roll together on offense and then harassing the opposition on defense. Team USA won the gold medal; Gordon was named MVP and Payton was a key contributor.
The point guard and power forward went their separate ways after the tournament, each turning in terrific college basketball seasons and deciding to enter the 2014 NBA Draft after the year. That’s when they were teamed up again. In a number of draft workouts, Payton and Gordon were put on the same two-on-two team and were simply unstoppable. They shut down the opposition on the defensive end and were in sync on offense, throwing alley-oops to each other and running circles around the randomly assigned tandems who had never played together before.
Gordon was on a conference call with reporters when he learned that the Magic had acquired Payton, and he couldn’t hide his excitement.
“Elfrid is on our team?!” Gordon asked. “Oh my goodness, that’s absolutely incredible.”
Payton was just as thrilled to team up with his old friend.
“My dude Aaron Gordon had just got picked number four there, and me and Aaron had some chemistry going back to U-19 team and we had worked out for some teams together,” Payton said. “I just was happy to be with my boy. Playing with Aaron is fun. He’s a real competitor, all about winning, unselfish and has a high motor. Orlando did their homework [on our chemistry], which is pretty cool.”
The Magic have the potential to be a very scary defensive team next year, with Payton, Oladipo, Gordon and Maurice Harkless among others all regarded as talented defenders. Payton can’t wait to play alongside Oladipo and start harassing opposing guards, just as he did at Louisiana-Lafayette to earn the Lefty Driesell Award (which is given to the nation’s top defensive player).
“I think we could be real good,” Payton said of him and Oladipo. “We’re both athletic and long. I think we both take pride in our defense and that’s one thing that will go a long way.”
As a kid, Payton fell in love with Allen Iverson’s toughness and watched him a lot. Now, the floor generals he studies are Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul as he tries to perfect his craft. Payton is setting lofty goals for himself as he enters the NBA. Not only does he want to dominate as a rookie and emerge as this class’ best point guard, he wants to be one of the best players in the NBA.
“I feel like I can be one of the best in the league,” Payton said when asked about his ceiling. “It’s all going to come down to how hard I work and how it works out. I feel like I can be one of the best along with my teammates help. … My goals are just making the All-Rookie team and maybe being the Rookie of the Year, but most importantly trying to win games and trying to make the playoffs.”
Payton flew to Orlando the day after the draft and met with head coach Jacque Vaughn and general manager Rob Hennigan. While it seems likely that he’ll be the team’s starting point guard – especially with veteran Jameer Nelson recently being released – he hasn’t discussed what his specific role will be with Vaughn and he’s not worried about it.
“I’m not really going to get into that; I’m going to go in there and work hard and that will be up to Coach Vaughn how much I play,” Payton said. “What I do know is when I do get in, I am going to do whatever it takes to help my team, whether it be on defense or offense or getting somebody the ball or if we need scoring. I’ll do whatever the team needs to help us win. They just told me how happy they were to have me there and I let them know how happy I am to be there. They just talked about the workouts and what really made them want me. We just kind of got familiar with each other even more.”
Last season, the Magic won just 23 games, but they made huge strides throughout the year and their young players gained valuable experience. In the final few months of the season, they were much more competitive and even rattled off some wins against playoffs teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Bobcats and Brooklyn Nets among others. Payton looks at the team and believes they can continue their growth next season and make some noise.
“I think we have a young group – a young group that is solid,” Payton said. “I think we could do some damage. I’ve got a lot of players around me that can make plays. I think [being surrounded by NBA-caliber players will really help me]. I think it was apparent in the tryouts when I was playing for the U-19 team, I had a lot of good guys around me and they made me look good. I’m looking forward to working with my teammates and helping us have success. … [Magic fans] are embracing me right now, and I appreciate it. They’re happy to have me and I’m happy to be here.”
Payton’s Magic teammates can’t wait to play alongside him and watch his development.
“I was excited when I saw the pick; I know Rob and management does their research on the draft prospects so I know they picked the best guy to fit in with the team,” Tobias Harris said. “When I look at at Payton, I see a player who plays with a lot of will and passion. He can slash and get to the rim pretty easily and he has some great defensive instincts. He’s going to be a guy who picks up our energy as a team and just plays with intensity. He’s going to be fun to play with.”
“I like Payton,” Maurice Harkless said. “He’s a lockdown defender and I think with him and Vic, we can have one of the best defensive backcourts around the league.”
In college, it was obvious that Payton could defend, attack the basket and run an offense, but there were concerns about his shooting ability. He hit a respectable 50.9 percent from the field, but his jump shooting was an issue. He hit just 25.9 percent of his college threes and shot 60.9 percent from the free throw line.
However, Payton insists that he spent a lot of time working on his shot during the pre-draft process and was shooting the ball much better in workouts with teams, which is one reason why he was able to climb into the top 10 after originally being projected as a late-first round selection.
“I think my shot has improved a lot,” Payton said. “I think that was what helped me rise up the draft boards. I was shooting it well in workouts. But I’m continuing to work on my shot, continuing to work on my defense and continuing to work on my strength. I want to be as ready as I can be for the start of the season.”
Payton can’t wait to get on the court for the Magic and start his NBA career. He’s excited to learn from Coach Vaughn, who was a point guard in the NBA for 12 seasons prior to becoming Orlando’s head coach.
“I’m pretty sure he has got a lot to offer to me,” Payton said of Vaughn. “I know he played a lot of seasons in the NBA and he played with the Spurs for a long time, so I know he has a lot to give.”
Payton has said on a number of occasions that he believes he’s the best point guard in this draft class, even though he was drafted after Dante Exum (No. 5 to the Utah Jazz) and Marcus Smart (No. 6 to the Boston Celtics). He adds that he’s used to being overlooked after getting little attention out of high school and playing for a mid-major college. He says the chip on his shoulder will just continue to get bigger as more people doubt him.
“I mean, I’m already motivated,” Payton says, “but that definitely adds to the fire a little bit.”
Fortunately for Payton, he has landed in an excellent situation, where he can make a contribution from day one and showcase his skill set. Draft night was chaotic for the point guard, but he ended up in the right place.
NBA Daily: Checking In With Terrance Ferguson
Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Terrance Ferguson talks to Basketball Insiders about learning from his teammates, earning minutes and being mentally tough.
Before he reached the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson was once often referred to as a man of mystery. After changing course on two different programs in a two-month span, Ferguson ditched the typical one-and-done collegiate season for an adventure on the other side of the planet. But even after the Thunder selected Ferguson with the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft — the questions still lingered. How would a teenager with one season overseas adjust to the world’s most physical basketball league?
Not many rookies can contribute to a 40-plus win squad out in the cutthroat Western Conference so quickly — but down the stretch, here Ferguson is doing just that. With the Thunder locked in a tight playoff battle with six others teams, the 19-year-old’s hard-working personality has fit alongside the roster’s three perennial All-Stars — Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. And although his rookie season has come with some growing pains, Ferguson is earning meaningful minutes and making the most of them.
“I think it’s my work ethic, I come in every day with the same mentality,” Ferguson said. “I work my butt off — inside the game, being physical. Even though I’m a skinny guy, as everyone can see, I’m still everywhere on the floor being physical. I think [the coaching staff] really likes that, especially on the defensive end.”
Skinny or not, Ferguson is one of the league’s youngest players, so the 6-foot-7 guard has plenty of room to grow — literally. But for now, he’s playing an integral role on an Oklahoma City team looking to protect its high postseason seed. Late January brought the unfortunate season-ending injury to Andre Roberson — an All-Defensive Second Team honoree in 2016-17 — so the Thunder have needed both new and old players to step up in bigger roles.
While those candidates included the three-point shooting Alex Abrines, veteran Raymond Felton and the newly-acquired Corey Brewer, Ferguson’s recent rise in the rotation has arguably been the most interesting development. Since the calendar flipped to January, Ferguson has featured in almost all of the Thunder’s games, tallying just two DNP-CDs and one missed contest following a concussion. This steady diet of opportunity comes as a stark contrast to the 15 games in which he received no playing time, spanning from the season’s opening tip to the new year.
Of course, playing time is not always indicative of success, but Ferguson himself isn’t surprised that he’s carved out a crucial role ahead of the playoffs.
“Not really, it’s all up to coach’s decision,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just here playing my part, staying ready at all times and some minutes came, so I’mma take them and play to the best of my ability.”
Back in October, Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham spoke to Ferguson about his unconventional path to NBA and the choice to spend a year grinding with the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian outfit. In the land down under, Ferguson averaged just 15 minutes a night, considerably less than he would’ve likely received as a highly-recruited prospect here in America. Some five months later, Ferguson’s early-season stance on the move still stands out.
“I’m living the dream now, right? I must have done the right thing,” Ferguson said.
Today, it’s hard to disagree with Ferguson’s decisions considering that they’re currently paying off. In 2009, Brandon Jennings became the first to skip college and play in Europe before being drafted, with Emmanuel Mudiay most notably following in his footsteps six years later. While those two point guards both were selected in the top ten of their draft classes — at No. 10 and No. 7, respectively — it still remains the road far less traveled.
Considered raw by most pre-draft evaluations, an early expectation was that Ferguson would spend much of the season with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate. Instead, Ferguson has played in only three games with the Blue, where he has averaged a commendable 14.7 points, four rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
But as of late, the Thunder have found somebody that’ll always work hard, learn from others and do the little things that don’t show up in the box score.
“I’ve learned a lot more from when I first started,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I got great teammates — I got Nick Collison, I got Russ, PG, Melo, so just picking their brains. I got Corey now, so just the work ethic they put in, just picking their brains each and every day about what I can do better, watching game film, it’s a lot of things.”
When he was drafted, Ferguson had a reputation as a skyscraping leaper with the athleticism to become an elite perimeter defender. Although his current averages with the Thunder understate his innate potential, Ferguson knows he can contribute without scoring — even noting that he can make up for it “on the other side of the court.” Playing defense and competing hard every night, he has slowly made a name for himself.
And while Ferguson has tallied far more single-digit scoring outings than his 24-point breakout performance in early January, he’s earned the trust of head coach Billy Donovan and his veteran teammates, which is something the rookie will never take for granted.
“Coach believes in me and that means a lot to me,” Ferguson said. “But my teammates believe in me, so I’m not gonna let them down. I’m gonna go out every day and play my hardest, compete and try to get the win each and every night.”
One might assume that his year abroad in Australia helped to mentally mold him into the high-flying, hard-nosed rookie we see today. Ferguson, however, contends that he’s had that edge from the very beginning.
“I’ve been mentally tough, it wasn’t overseas that did that,” Ferguson told Basketball Insiders. “I had to be mentally tough just to go over there — so I’ve always had that mentality, the [desire] to just dominate, play to the best of my ability and compete.”
And now he’s doing just that in the NBA.
Is Kyrie Irving’s Second Opinion a Cause for Concern?
Shane Rhodes breaks down the tough situation the Celtics are in with Kyrie Irving.
The Boston Celtics are in one awful predicament.
With a third of the roster out due to injury, Brad Stevens has been forced into the impossible task of maintaining Boston’s championship aspirations with some subpar talent; while they have performed admirably, the likes of Abdel Nader and Semi Ojeleye wouldn’t see the same run they are currently on with most contenders. Gordon Hayward has missed the entire season, save a few minutes on opening night. Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are all currently out, some for the year and others not. Key contributors Al Horford, Marcus Morris and others have missed time as well.
It couldn’t get worse, could it?
Well, it may just have. Reports surfaced Tuesday that Irving, who had missed time this season — including the last four games — with left knee soreness, is seeking a second opinion after a lack of progress in his recovery.
My understanding is that Kyrie Irving is getting a 2nd opinion on his left knee, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Bottom line: he needs the screws out. Knee is flaring up. He will either play thru it going forward or … he will get thee screws out and won’t play at all. Stay tuned.
— Tony Massarotti (@TonyMassarotti) March 20, 2018
With lack of progress on his ailing left knee, Celtics All-Star Kyrie Irving plans to travel for a second opinion later this week, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 20, 2018
In the wake of the Isaiah Thomas fiasco and his ailing hip last Summer, an injury that lingered deep into this season, the Celtics will likely be more than cautious with Irving, whom they gave up a haul (the rights to the 2018 Brooklyn Nets first round pick, most notably), to acquire. But one can only wonder if these persistent issues — Irving’s left knee was surgically repaired after he sustained a fractured kneecap in 2015, and he reportedly threatened the Cleveland Cavaliers with surgery this offseason before his trade to Boston — are a cause for concern for general manager Danny Ainge and the Celtics.
The situation presents the Celtics with a quandary, to say the least.
Knee injuries aren’t exactly a death-knell, but fans need not look far for to see the devastating effect they can have on NBA players (e.g. Derrick Rose). They can snowball and, over time, even the best players will break down. Regardless of the severity, Irving’s knee issue presents problems both now and in the future.
The problems now are obvious: the Celtics, already down Gordon Hayward, cannot afford to lose Irving if they are at all interested in making a Finals run this season. Boston struggles mightily on the offensive end when Irving and his 24.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists aren’t on the court. In a playoff atmosphere, especially, the team would sorely miss his scoring prowess.
Looking ahead, if Irving is dealing with these problems at the age of 25, what could the future hold for the All-Star guard? Knee issues, most lower body issues in general, are often of the chronic variety, and constant maintenance can wear on people, both mentally and physically.
Just a season separated from a likely super-max payday, will the Celtics want to commit big-money long-term to potentially damaged goods?
If there is a silver lining in it all, it is the fact that 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum must now shoulder the scoring load, something that should go a long way in building on the potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick last June. And, should Irving miss the remainder of this season, exposure to the fires of the playoffs should only temper the Celtics’ young roster. In the event that Irving’s absence isn’t prolonged, time like this could only serve to strengthen the roster around him.
Still, Ainge brought Irving to Boston for a reason: he was meant to lead the Celtics into battle, alongside Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, in their quest for a title. Obviously, he can’t do that from the bench. Without Irving at 100 percent, the Celtics are not a championship caliber squad, healthy Gordon Hayward or not. That fact alone will make Irving’s situation one to monitor going forward and for the foreseeable future.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.