Two and a half months ago, Elfrid Payton was unsure if he should enter the 2014 NBA Draft. The 20-year-old was coming off of an impressive season at Louisiana-Lafayette in which he led the Ragin’ Cajuns to the NCAA Tournament while averaging 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals.
However, he wasn’t sure if he was going to be a top-30 pick, as most mock drafts had him as a fringe first-round selection. He submitted an application to the NBA Advisory Committee, which informed him that his projected range was between No. 20 to No. 40.
Payton admits that he considered returning to ULL for his senior season, in an effort to solidify himself as a first-round pick and try to win another Sun Belt title.
Well, it turns out Payton made the right decision when he declared for the draft, as no player has improved their draft stock more than the 6’4 point guard in recent weeks. He has been the big winner of the pre-draft process, and the thought of Payton being available in the second round is ludicrous now. He is receiving serious interest from multiple teams in the top 10 (including the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings) and it seems like his floor is the Orlando Magic at No. 12.
Payton’s meteoric rise is the result of dominant workouts. Each time he has worked out for a team, executives have come away raving about his game. Sure, Payton’s impressive play isn’t anything new, as his talent was on display at Louisiana-Lafayette. But it’s one thing to look unstoppable in the Sun Belt Conference, it’s another to be the best player in the gym among other projected lottery picks.
So why has he been able to surprise teams in this workout environment? Payton believes it his improved jump shot that has impressed teams the most. Entering this process, everyone knew that he could defend, pass and handle the ball, while also possessing a 6’8 wingspan, 8’2.5 standing reach and explosive first step. But it was his jumper than worried some executives, since last season he shot just 25.9 percent from three-point range and 59 percent from free-throw line. However, he spent a lot of time tweaking his shot and it has been falling lately, which understandably has teams excited.
“I think I’ve been shooting it better than they thought I would,” Payton said. “I’ve been working on [my jump shot] a lot, along with other parts of my game, and I think it has really shown in these workouts. I just think teams like my defense, my ability to get into the paint and my ability to make plays for others as well as myself too. I think that has impressed teams.”
Payton admits that his ascent to a likely lottery pick is surreal. Several weeks ago, he was relatively unknown, had less than 1,000 Twitter followers and his father Elfrid Payton Sr. was frustrated because he felt that his son was being overlooked. Now, he’s making headlines every day and is becoming a household name among NBA fans.
“It’s exciting and it just shows that anything is possible,” Payton said. “Now, people tweet me that they want their favorite team to draft me. It’s crazy, man. Just a couple of weeks ago, nobody really knew who I was. It’s different now. A few more people know me now. I think a these GMs have a different impression of me. I think those are the biggest differences.”
Every day, Payton’s name is ending up higher and higher on mock drafts, but he’s not looking.
“I try to ignore them, but some stuff just kind of finds you,” Payton said of mock drafts. “I’ve seen some of the stuff from ESPN and things like that, but that’s about it. I try not to focus on them.”
Payton is a quiet individual, with a demeanor similar to that of San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard. He expresses himself in as few words as possible and is incredibly humble.
But he also has a desire for greatness and a quiet confidence. Entering the pre-draft process, he predicted that he would thrive in this workout setting just as he did last year at the Team USA trials, when he earned a starting spot for Team USA on the FIBA U19 World Championship and helped the squad win a gold medal. He’s respectful and polite, but has no problem unleashing his killer mentality when he steps onto the court.
To get an idea of Payton’s confidence, he doesn’t hesitate when asked if he’s the best point guard in the draft. He doesn’t give a wordy response or provide an explanation, but he does state that he feels he’s better than Dante Exum and Marcus Smart among others.
“Yeah, I do,” Payton said when asked if he’s the draft’s top point guard. “I do think that I can be the best one.”
Like Exum and Smart, Payton is now being mentioned as someone who could be selected in the single digits.
“My agent says that I’m receiving a lot of interest at No. 7, No. 8 and No. 9,” Payton said. “The teams have been giving me good feedback. They’ve said that I did well and that they were really impressed. Those are the things that I’ve been hearing, that I’ve been doing good.
“It’s been pretty fun, going to visit all of these different teams and showing what you can do and letting them see your skill set. It’s been fun. I’m enjoying it.”
The fact that Payton received a green room invite from the NBA seems to validate his claim that he could go top-10. When Payton received that email, he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm.
“Ah man, it was so cool to get that [green room invite],” Payton said with a smile. “When I got that message, that email, it was crazy. I was so excited and hugging my family and stuff like that. I’m usually a really even-keeled type of guy, but that my first time throughout this whole process where I really got excited.
“[When I hear my name], oh man. I can’t even explain it. It’s just going to be a great feeling. I really just can’t wait.”
The kid who first fell in love with basketball by watching Allen Iverson highlights, and playing up two age groups as a 10-year-old is on the verge of realizing his NBA dream. With just two days until the draft, the wait is almost over and Payton’s NBA journey is about to begin.