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Meteoric Rise: Elfrid Payton Climbing into Top 10?

Elfrid Payton keeps climbing draft boards as he works out for teams, and now the point guard may be a top-10 pick.

Alex Kennedy

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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.

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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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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