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NBA PM: Don’t Sleep On Magic’s Elfrid Payton

Meet Orlando Magic rookie Elfrid Payton, the pest that opposing point guards hate to play against.

Alex Kennedy

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Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders and Brian Clark of CineSport discuss how the surging Hawks resemble the Spurs, and why Atlanta may continue to improve as the season continues.

Don’t Sleep On Magic’s Elfrid Payton

Dwight Howard may not know Elfrid Payton’s name, but he knows he’s damn good.

After the Houston Rockets’ Wednesday loss to the Magic – in which Payton had 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals while pushing the ball at a breakneck pace that led to Orlando scoring 120 points – Howard acknowledged that Payton was the Magic’s motor and played a huge role in the victory on both ends of the court.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Phoenix Suns“I just think it started with their point guard – the guy with the crazy hair,” Howard said. “He’s the one that started everything. He was all over us on the defensive end. On the offensive end, he pushed the pace and just made things happen. We couldn’t stop them from pushing the ball down the floor, and every time they did that they got easy buckets.”

Howard and the Rockets aren’t the first team to struggle against “the guy with the crazy hair.” Last Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers were beating up on the Magic late in the first quarter, and Payton had seen enough. The Magic couldn’t score (finishing with just 13 points in the opening quarter) or slow down the Blazers at all. Payton was upset, and he decided to take out his frustration on Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard.

The 20-year-old rookie started to fullcourt-press Lillard, disrupting the flow of Portland’s possessions. Then, on offense, he decided to push the pace and get Orlando some easy buckets in transition that gradually cut into the deficit. Before long, the Magic were back in the game and had a shot to win it near the end, only to lose by single digits.

Since that close loss to Portland, Orlando has continued to follow Payton’s lead – pressing and playing at a much faster pace. They have won consecutive games against the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, scoring 121 points and 120 points, respectively. This would be an impressive feat for any team considering those are two very good defenses, but it’s an even bigger deal for the Magic since they ranked second-to-last in points per 100 possessions prior to the two wins and had struggled offensively for much of the year. Just four games ago, they scored only 84 points in a loss to the struggling Los Angeles Lakers.

But now, things seem like they’re improving and the Magic players point to Payton for the turnaround and change in approach.

“Without a doubt, [Elfrid] is the key,” Magic power forward Channing Frye said. “You see him picking up guys fullcourt for 48 minutes. It’s unbelievable. I hope he stays consistent with that, because we need it. I think his defense is infectious. … In Portland, when he was picking up Lillard fullcourt, that got everyone hyped. I told him, ‘Hey, as fast as you want to run, I’m cool with that. I can run as fast as you want to run; I can do this all day.’ We started getting the ball out faster, getting down the court faster and you started to see guys getting easy lay-ups and easy shots.”

“I was just trying to change something,” Payton said of his adjustment. “We had been losing and you obviously can’t go into games doing the same thing and expecting different results. Picking up the ball and picking up the pace were some things that I thought could help us. All of the guys on the team thought it would be a good idea, and we’ve had some success. We have a lot of guys on this team with talent, who can put the ball in the hole. They just have to be put in the right position and if that’s by pushing the pace, that’s what we need to do.”

On offense, Payton is a traditional, pass-first point guard who sets up his teammates for easy opportunities. Until recently, Orlando was primarily running a halfcourt offense (ranking 22nd in the NBA in pace). But lately, Payton and his teammates decided to run more in order to play to the strength of their personnel. In transition, Payton throws some beautiful passes that are insanely accurate and lead to easy points. Some teammates have even said that Payton will realize they’re open before they do themselves. A big area of improvement for Payton recently has been limiting his turnovers, which has made the up-tempo approach more successful.

Running an up-tempo offense is tiring. Running an up-tempo offense and then fullcourt pressing is exhausting. But Payton seems to have a never-ending supply of energy, flying around the floor and making plays everywhere. It’s no surprise that opposing point guards hate playing against him.

Payton loves that reputation, as he takes pride in being one of the most annoying pests in the NBA. On defense, Payton will make the opposition work for everything by swarming the ball, denying the inbounds pass after makes and being extremely physical.

Playing intimidating defense is in his genes as his father Elfrid Payton, Sr. was a star defensive end in the Canadian Football League, playing from 1991 to 2004 and making seven All-Star appearances throughout his career. He was a two-time Grey Cup champion and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2010. Payton, like his father, relies on his toughness and physicality to wear opponents down throughout a game.

“I love it,” Payton said of harassing point guards. “It helps me get into my rhythm and I think it helps my teammates get into a defensive mindset. When I’m getting my hand on the ball, it makes things easier for them so that’s definitely something that I focus on. It’s one of those things that I can do that helps the whole team.”

Fellow guard Victor Oladipo, who also likes to pester on defense and push the ball, loves playing alongside Payton. Without any prompting, he singled out Payton as the main reason for the Magic’s recent success.

“I credit the young fella; I don’t know about anybody else, but I credit Elfrid,” Oladipo said. “He sets the tone. He’s pushing the ball and getting us going. It’s all him. He’s pressuring the ball and pushing the ball, and he makes me want to do it even more because you know I can’t let him get more steals than me (smiles). So then I go out and pressure too. He just makes everybody else play the same way, so credit him for setting the tone.”

Upon hearing Oladipo’s praise, an embarrassed Payton looked away and downplayed his individual involvement. While that’s just Payton being Payton, it’s clear that the team believes his leadership and play have been the source of this turnaround. It’s rare for a 20-year-old rookie to step into that kind of role and win over a locker room (especially one with experienced veterans), but that’s exactly what Payton has done.

“It makes me feel good to hear that, but I’m just a piece,” Payton said, deflecting the attention. “I’m just a piece and I’m just trying to go out there and do my job. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help the team, so if that means getting a steal and kicking it ahead to my teammates, that’s what I’m going to do.

“[Hearing them say that] does a lot for my confidence, though, because it shows that my teammates trust me and like to play with me. And that’s all I want, to make my teammates better and help them.”

In Payton and Oladipo, the Magic have one of the more intriguing up-and-coming backcourts in the league. The Golden State Warriors have the NBA’s best shooting backcourt in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Chicago Bulls arguably have the league’s most athletic guard duo with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. This Magic backcourt may develop into the league’s best defensive backcourt and certainly one of the most annoying for opposing guards. Payton seems confident that he and Oladipo will be an elite tandem once they realize their full potential in several years.

“We most definitely [want to be the NBA’s best defensive backcourt],” Payton said. “It starts with defense, but we feel like we can get there offensively too. We want to be the best backcourt, period. That’s the goal and that’s what we’re working for. Obviously that’s something for down the line, but that’s what we’re working for… I think this could be the start of something. Rome wasn’t built in a day so we’ve had our struggles – and I think we’ll have even more struggles – but I think if we continue to make progress each and every day, we will be in a good position when all is said and done.”

“I’m looking forward to growing with him,” Oladipo added. “There’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs, but we just have to keep lifting each other up, keep believing in each other and keep having each other’s back – on and off the court.”

Payton and Oladipo combined to put the dagger in the Rockets in the final minute of Wednesday’s win, when Payton got a steal and immediately flipped the ball down the court to Oladipo, who threw down a 360 dunk to seal the win.

They are often on the same page, and they believe part of the reason for this is because they spend a significant amount of time together off the court as well. They have developed a friendship, helped by the fact that they’re a little over a year apart in age and are going through many of the same things in life. They believe this bond has helped their chemistry and on-court production.

“We hang out a lot, talk a lot of basketball and watch a little bit of film [together],” Payton said of he and Oladipo. “We’re always talking and building that chemistry. When you like somebody, it’s easy to play with them. I think that’s important. Being friends off the court makes things so much easier on the court.”

It’s clear that Payton is getting more comfortable and confident with each game. He has appeared in all 42 of Orlando’s contests this season and has started in 23. Playing big minutes and being able to work through his mistakes has been excellent on-the-job training for him. On some teams, particularly a contender, Payton might have been buried on the depth chart. But that’s not the case in Orlando, where the team is currently 15-27 and seemingly focused on developing its young core.

“My confidence is coming from experience, just being out there, making mistakes and growing from them,” Payton said. “My confidence is definitely growing. I’m just staying humble though and trying to continue to do what I do for this team, which is trying to get guys easy shots and helping defensively.”

Despite being a top-10 pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft, Payton is far from a household name at this point. In fact, there are probably many people who have never seen him play since he gets little national exposure on the Magic, and he played collegiately at Louisiana-Lafayette in the Sun Belt Conference. He’s also not a self-promoter, which is another reason he tends to fly under the radar. He’s a quiet guy who rarely shows emotion on the floor. He doesn’t score many points or fill the highlight reel, so many casual fans likely have no idea what he does well. But take an evening to watch him play and witness the enormous impact he has on the game with his defense, playmaking, leadership, intensity and drives. Pay attention to all of the plays he affects (and try not to get distracted by his hair).

He runs the Magic like a veteran floor general at times, which isn’t a surprise since he has always been mature beyond his years. Growing up in Louisiana, he played football, basketball, baseball, soccer and ran track, and his father says he typically competed against children two years older than him for the challenge. Initially, Payton wanted to be a professional football player like his father (hence the physicality). He would watch a video of his father’s sack highlights and pick up pointers from his dad. However, he shifted his focus to basketball full time in seventh grade when Hurricane Katrina hit, disbanded his football team and forced the Payton family to relocate Dallas for several months.

A three-year run at Louisiana-Lafayette culminated in him averaging 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals while leading the program to the NCAA Tournament. He decided to enter the draft following that successful campaign, but immediately there were questions about whether he could fare as well against tougher competition.

He entered the NBA pre-draft process projected as an early second-round pick for this reason, but quickly erased any doubt that he’d struggle against NBA-caliber athletes. He dominated individual workouts, sometimes flat out embarrassing the other top point guard prospects he faced off against by locking them down and not letting them score. At 6’4 (with a 6’8 wingspan), a large frame and his impressive toughness, he was a nightmare match-up for many point guards.

He climbed draft boards and ultimately was selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers (because they knew how badly the Magic wanted him at No. 12). To land Payton, Orlando gave up the draft rights to Dario Saric, a 2015 second-round pick and allowed Philadelphia to take back the future first-round pick the 76ers had dealt to the Magic from the Dwight Howard blockbuster trade in August of 2012.

The Magic – who have been collecting high-energy, defensive-oriented prospects in recent years – fell in love with Payton during the pre-draft process and believed he could be their point guard of the future. They also liked the idea of pairing Payton with Aaron Gordon, their No. 4 overall selection, since the two had played together for Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Championship and reportedly dominated when put on the same team in a number of pre-draft workouts.

This season, Payton has rewarded Orlando’s faith in him by becoming one of the most productive rookies in this class. Injuries have really limited this year’s NBA freshman (with Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker, Los Angeles’ Julius Randle and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid among others sidelined), but Payton still deserves credit for shining among his peers. Despite the hype for Boston’s Marcus Smart, Utah’s Dante Exum and Miami’s Shabazz Napier entering the season, Payton has been the best first-year floor general of the group. He leads all rookies in assists per game (5.3), assist-to-turnover ratio (2.35), assist ratio (33.7 percent) and steals (59), while ranking fourth in double-doubles and eighth in scoring.

Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins seems like the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, with Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic deserving consideration as well, but Payton’s contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. He likely won’t get the credit he deserves from voters since he’s not scoring the ball (and defense is often overlooked with these awards), but it’s possible that Payton could emerge as one of the better players from this class down the road.

His chances of doing so will greatly improve if he can fix his shot, which is by far his biggest weakness. He’s not a capable shooter right now, so his scoring opportunities are limited to plays at the basket and teams can back off of him without worrying that he’ll knock down a jumper. He’s also a poor free throw shooter, hitting just 53.1 percent from the charity stripe.

However, he’s such a good defender and facilitator that he’s playing nearly 30 minutes a night despite these weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses have earned him comparisons to Dallas Mavericks point guard Rajon Rondo, whom he studies often. Keep in mind, Payton is still just 20 years old, so he’s nowhere near reaching his ceiling and he still has plenty of time to fix the holes in his game. He’s someone who has displayed an above-average work ethic, so it won’t be a surprise to see him report to Impact Basketball in Las Vegas (where he does his training) shortly after the season ends to continue his development.

Payton has all of the tools to be a very special player who could stick around the NBA for many years. It’s only a matter of time until the NBA’s elite are looking past his unique hair and describing him as “the guy with the crazy talent.”

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 Daily: Clippers Looking Forward to Teodosic Return

Clippers hanging on and looking forward to Teodosic return, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers have had a season of twists and turns. While the season is still young, they’ve dealt with setbacks, mostly in the form of a multitude of injures. In fact, the team’s misfortunes began almost immediately. On Oct 21 (the NBA season started earlier this year), Clippers guard Milos Teodosic went down with a plantar fascia injury. This stands as the first bump in the road for the Clippers, who have seen a number of key players go down.

Following the loss of Chris Paul this past offseason, the Clippers appeared to have salvaged their immediate future through a number of offseason transactions. Under the direction of the front office, which includes Lawrence Frank, VP of Basketball Operations, and Jerry West, a Clippers consultant, the Clippers traded Paul, which helped to remake the roster. West spoke of his approval of the Paul trade before the season started.

“The Clippers feel comfortable that we made out really well. We could have lost him for nothing,” West stated of the Paul trade. “I think it was kind of a win myself.”

The Paul trade brought in Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and helped to eventually bring in Danilo Gallinari. A big part of the offseason makeover was the acquisition of European star Teodosic. Losing Paul meant that the Clippers were going to be without a highly talented, pass-first point guard for the first time since Paul’s acquisition during the 2011-2012 season.

Part of the strategy called for replacing Paul with both Beverley, who could match Paul’s defensive tenacity, and Teodosic, who could match Paul’s vision and passing. While neither player could match Paul’s overall brilliance (and Paul has been brilliant this season for the Rockets), the team hoped to create a winning environment around these two players.

Unfortunately, Teodosic went down quickly. Then Beverley experienced issues with his knee, culminating with season-ending microfracture surgery on his knee in late November. Combine this with Gallinari missing nearly a month with injuries and Blake Griffin going down for the next few months with an MCL sprain of his left knee recently, and the Clippers have struggled to stay competitive with lineups that have often included only one of the team’s opening day starters (center DeAndre Jordan). The franchise shouldn’t be completely surprised by the rash of injuries, as their offseason plan banked on players with questionable injury histories such as Griffin and Gallinari.

To fill in, the Clippers have also made use of a number of young, inexperienced players (not at all common in the Doc Rivers era), including playing 2017 second round pick, guard Sindarius Thornwell. Thornwell has benefited from the opportunity as is averaging 16.2 minutes a game and has even started in seven games (of 24 played).  Thornwell confirmed the obvious regarding injuries.

“We’ve been playing without a lot of our core guys,” Thornwell stated.

Clippers head coach Doc Rivers also made it clear that injuries have affected the team.

“It’s not just Blake [Griffin]. If it was just Blake, we’d be OK,” Rivers stated recently. “But you miss [Danillo] `Gallo,’ Milos [Teodosic], Patrick Beverley.”

Currently, the team is well below .500 with a 9-15 record, good enough for 11th in the Western Conference. And while the team is ahead of a number of teams destined for the NBA lottery such as the Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings, they aren’t too far removed from the eighth seed, currently held by the Utah Jazz, who are below .500 (13-14 record). It’s not reasonable for a team that has already suffered a nine-game losing streak and is only 4-6 in the last 10 games to expect another playoff berth, and the team has not yet signaled they have given up on the season.

The Clippers have stayed afloat by being extremely reliant on the individual offensive output of guards Austin Rivers and Lou Williams. Give Williams credit, as he has been brilliant recently including a game winning shot against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 23.2 points on 62.7 true shooting percentage and 6.2 assists in 34.5 minutes per game, per nba.com. For reference, Williams has a career true shooting percentage average of 53.3 percent, per basketball-reference.com. However, this doesn’t scream long-term winning formula, nor should it — the team hasn’t recently had reliable offensive output outside of these guards who were originally expected to come off the bench for the Clippers.

Gallinari has since returned and played well in his second game back, an overtime win against the Wizards. Now the team has upgraded Teodosic’s condition to questionable and are hopeful that Teodosic makes his return Monday night against the Raptors.

“He’s ready. He’s close,” Rivers stated, speaking of Teodosic at a recent Clippers practice. “And that will help. In a big way.”

In addition to possibly helping their increasingly remote chances at making the playoffs, the Clippers have other goals. Teodosic is signed to a two-year deal, but the second-year is a player option allowing the European guard to leave after the season. Should Teodosic find that the Clippers are somehow not a good fit or a place where he can find success, he may opt out of the second year. If the team wants to ensure that the 30-year-old guard sees a bright future with the Clippers, they should hope that his return leads to the Clippers playing winning basketball.

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Q&A With Cavaliers Rookie Cedi Osman

Basketball Insiders caught up with Cavaliers rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Spencer Davies

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Monday afternoon, Basketball Insiders caught up with rookie Turkish swingman Cedi Osman to discuss a number of topics. 

Basketball Insiders: Your first experience in the NBA, making the transition from international play and Euroleague—has it been what you’ve expected?

Cedi Osman: I mean of course it’s different rules and stuff and a different type of basketball. In international, it’s like more slow, but here it’s like always up and down, a lot of fast breaks.

Actually that’s the kind of basketball that I like. When I was playing overseas, I was also running a lot, up and down. I was that guy who was bringing the energy, so it was not hard for me to adjust to this basketball.

BI: With Euros in this league, it’s a growing amount. What does that tell you about the talent pool over there?

Osman: There’s a lot of talented players overseas—like really, a lot. Like you said, when you look around the NBA there’s a lot of European players. Starting with Dirk Nowitzki, he’s a big legend. He was the one who chose to do Europe [to show] what he can do. I can give you the example of two Turkish basketball players—Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur, he won one championship. I mean, there’s a lot of European players.

BI: Definitely. So how well do you know Hedo and Mehmet?

Osman: With Mehmet Okur, I was talking a couple times. I saw him one time in summer league this year. I talk to Hedo also because he’s president of Turkish Basketball Federation, so I was talking to him also.

BI: You’ve gotten some crucial minutes with the bench in the last couple of games. The same thing can be said when you played in New York and against the Hawks, too. What’s allowed you and that group to click together?

Osman: I always try to think positive. When I’m getting there on the court with the second unit, I’m trying to bring the energy because I’m the youngest one with Big Z [Ante Zizic] together.

Whenever I get on the court I’m trying to bring the energy on both sides of the court—on defense and offense—and I’m trying to run the floor the fastest that I can. Trying to guard players that are really good. And that also just improves my basketball [skills] a lot. I’m really happy that I am a part of this team and it’s also really important for me that I’m getting these crucial minutes.

BI: In a recent interview, you said that you don’t have a reason to be scared. You’re “cold-blooded.” Why do you feel that way?

Osman: I was playing overseas professionally since I was 16 years old…actually, I started getting paid when I was 12. [I’ve been] playing professionally for a long time. I played with a lot of good players. I’ve played also [with] former NBA players like Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic who was on the same team.

I know, yeah this is the best league in the world, but I don’t have a reason why to be scared because I was working for this—to come here, to give my best and to be stable to stay for long, long years. That’s why I said I don’t have a reason to be scared, because I know that I can play here.

BI: When you’re on the floor, what do you expect out of yourself? You said you want to get up and down the floor and give it to both ends, but is there anything outside of that, maybe mentality wise?

Osman: Of course. Not just as a rookie, but every time I get on the court like I said, I want to be always that guy who brings the energy. Also like, when we’re going bad or when we have a bad game, I want to change the momentum of the game. That’s what I’m working for a lot. We have great players and I have a lot of things to learn from them.

That’s why I said I’m really happy to be a part of this team, because we’re one of the best teams in the world. I hope that we’re going to win a championship in my first year. That would be a big thing for me.

BI: What kind of things have the coaching staff tried to help you improve in practice?

Osman: There’s a couple defensive plays that’ll be different. There’s also defensive three seconds. That was a bit of adjusting for me because in Europe you can always stay in the paint no matter what. There’s no defensive three seconds. Here it’s different, so it was a little bit hard for me to adjust in the beginning, but now I don’t have any problems and coaches are really helping me a lot.

BI: This team isn’t fully healthy yet, obviously with Isaiah Thomas coming back, Tristan Thompson coming back and Iman Shumpert down the road. That might affect playing time for some. You’ve gone to the G-League and played with the Canton Charge once before. You had a lot of minutes in that one game and did a really good job there. Is that something that you’re prepared for? Would you mind playing there again if that’s the case for you?

Osman: I was the one who asked for Canton, to go there, because before Shump got injured I didn’t have a lot of playing time. I said that I want to play whenever we have an off day, whenever I can go to play there, to run a lot, to try to do my thing. See that I’m working here before practices. That’s why I asked to go there. I talked to [Cavaliers general manager] Koby [Altman] and he said he supported me about that and that would be good for me.

BI: You have your own hashtag—#TheFirstCedi—can you explain the inspiration behind that and what it means?

Osman: So I’m working with one agency in Turkey and they’re doing a really good job about myself, my profile, my brand (laughs). They’re doing a really good job. “The First Cedi” is because my first name is Cedi and a lot of people are calling me Jedi, so that’s from Star Wars. The First Cedi—because in Turkey, ‘C’ reads as a ‘J’ so Jedi. First Jedi, that’s why.

BI: That’s pretty funny. Are you a Star Wars fan?

Osman: Yeah. I watch. But because it’s like old movies and that kind of stuff, but now new movies are better.

BI: It’s a locker room full of veterans here in Cleveland. Do you feel comfortable with everyone?

Osman: Definitely. I feel really comfortable. We have—I don’t want to say veteran players—but they are so good and they are big, big professionals. I have a lot of fun with them—locker room, when we go on the road, team dinners and that kind of stuff. It’s pretty cool.

The thing is, like it’s my first appearance. Overseas I’m coming to America and I was thinking the adjustment would be a little bit hard for me, but it was actually the opposite. From the first day that I met those guys, they helped me a lot.

BI: Is there anyone that you’ve gotten especially close to? You mentioned Big Z earlier.

Osman: Me and Z are pretty close. We’re speaking the same language. We played in the same league in Turkey. But like, I’m close with everybody. With Channing [Frye], we are always talking about the games and that stuff.

BI: Playing with LeBron—can you put that into words?

Osman: Look, it’s…(pauses), it’s something crazy. Because I was playing a game—obviously 2K—before when I was younger, I was playing with him and that stuff. Of course, it was my dream to be an NBA player, to play in the NBA. But when you’re playing on the same team with [Derrick] Rose, LeBron James, [Dwyane] Wade, Kevin Love, [Isaiah Thomas], it’s crazy.

I didn’t imagine that I would play with those players. And then, I just realize when I’m playing with them, the only thing that I can do is just work a lot and learn from them.

BI: When you hear these guys talk about you in a good light and coach Lue gives you praise, how does that make you feel?

Osman: That’s something really incredible. I mean… from the first day, from the media day when LeBron was in a press conference, he talked about everybody. But he talked also about me and he knew about Euroleague and that kind of stuff, so I was really happy. I was really proud and I was really happy about it. From the first day, he was so close to me. Not just him, but everybody.

BI: What do you think people need to know about your personality? Is there anything that hasn’t been said?

Osman: Actually, nothing special (laughs). I’m the guy who always smiles and with a lot of energy, always being positive talking to everybody, making a lot of jokes, trying to be friendly with everyone and the most important—I’m trying to be a good character.

BI: Last one—based off of this conversation alone, you’ve picked up the English language so easily. Who’s helped you on that side of things?

Osman: I actually had a lot of American players overseas on my previous team—it was Jordan Farmar, Jamon Gordon, Derrick Brown, he also played here, there was Bryant Dunston, Jayson Granger. I played a lot with Dario Saric, too, Furkan Korkmaz. Those were guys that were always talking English.

Just talking to them all the time. When they talked, I would just listen to them. I wasn’t listening to what they talked [about], but just for what kind of words they were using and what kind of sentences, the way they were talking. That’s how I learned English.

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James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture

James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.

Michael Scotto

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James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.

Over the summer, Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with Miami, as first reported by Basketball Insiders. The deal included a fourth-year player option.

“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”

Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).

Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.

“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?

“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”

Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.

“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”

While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.

Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?

“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”

Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.

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