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Magic Land Point Guard of Future in Elfrid Payton

The Orlando Magic landed their point guard of the future in Elfrid Payton, who has an extremely high ceiling.

Alex Kennedy

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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.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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