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.