Kent Bazemore of the Atlanta Hawks was recently a guest on the Basketball Insiders Podcast. Alex Kennedy and Michael Scotto interviewed Kent and the Q&A can be found below. To the listen to the podcast in its entirety, click the play button above.
Question: Kent, first off, thanks for joining us. It’s always good to talk with you. I just want to start by talking about this Atlanta Hawks team. Right now, you’re in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. When you look at the conference from top to bottom, there’s such a jumble that the number four and the 12 seed are only separated by three to four games at this point. What’s your take, so far, on the Eastern Conference as a whole and where you guys fit in right now?
Bazemore: “First of all, thanks for having me. The Eastern Conference is tough. It’s early on in the year and there are a lot of teams without an injury, a lot of teams have a new look and are still trying to figure it out. Positioning is still prime, if you can steal games here and there you still give yourself a good chance of being in the thick of things. We did our work early in the season, getting off to a 9-2 start, then we hit a little rough patch there. But we’re coming off winning three straight, [including] a big home win against San Antonio a few nights ago. Things are starting to pick back up for us. We’re a very, very, very talented group, there’s a high ceiling for us. That’s the beauty of the season, there’s so much that happens within a season, not only within the season but within the first few months. You’ve got to stay the course, keep your head down and keep working.”
Question: You mentioned the overtime win over San Antonio. You guys have had some quality wins lately, beating the Spurs, the Pistons, the Knicks, the Thunder, the Raptors, the Bucks. How much does that help your confidence and do you guys feel like you’re starting to gain some momentum?
Bazemore: “Yeah, we know we’re a good team. It’s just doing it consistently, doing it on a consistent basis. That’s what the great teams in the NBA do, they go in every night and they’re all about their business. We’ve had some setbacks and had some tough losses – we got swept by the Timberwolves, we got swept by the Lakers. It hasn’t been all of those good games we want, we’ve slipped up. That’s just facts, that’s everything thrown in your face. We can be a really, really good team or we can be just a middle-of-the-pack team, it’s totally up to us. Coach [Mike Budenholzer] has done a great job of helping us weather the storm. He’s been uber positive, he’s been super supportive of certain guys and whatever they’ve been going through on the court. Hindsight being 20/20, starting the way we did and to go through that little rough patch, it’s been great for us. We’ve seen the best and the worst, and now we’re starting to really figure it out again. It’s kind of rewarding, to go through that stuff and refocus and start winning some games.”
Question: To reach that ceiling of what you guys could ultimately be, who or what is the ‘x-factor’ for the Atlanta Hawks to make that happen and for you guys to click on all cylinders?
Bazemore: “Honestly, I don’t think it’s one person, it’s the collective group. Obviously, having Dwight Howard has been amazing for us. It’s giving us a chance every night. The fact that he can rebound and really change the game really impacts the game a certain way. I think Paul Millsap is starting to pick up steam. I think Dennis Schroder is starting to really find his groove. Kyle [Korver] is starting to make shots. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been playing well. We’ve got [talented] guys, Mike Muscala, Kris Humphries, I can go all the way down the roster, but we’ve got a ton of guys that can really bring it and that’s what makes our team unique. You never know who it’s going to be [that steps up]. You can’t really go into a game, game planning around one person. The ball’s starting to move, a few nights ago we had like 29 assists, and that’s really, really good. There’s only a few teams in the league that pass the ball that well and win games. You see the Warriors, they have so many games over 30 assists, they’re very successful that way and that’s the way we want to play. It’s not really one person you can pin it on because no one has had a ‘great’ year to date on our team – everyone’s been up and down. Whatever we’ve done, it’s been done collectively. It’s not really a person, it’s a team thing.”
Question: Any time you have new starters, there’s always an adjustment period. When Michael interviewed you earlier in the season, he talked about the chemistry and adjustment. Obviously, with Dennis stepping into the starting lineup and Dwight joining the team and getting acclimated, you guys had to learn how to play with each other. Now, 30 games into the season, how comfortable are you guys together and where is the chemistry level at?
Bazmore: “I think we’re getting comfortable, the chemistry is starting to get there. Earlier in the year, we turned the ball over too much and that was from having the right intentions but not quite knowing, not quite getting it, not quite having that chemistry and synergy. Now, you see Dennis and Dwight connect on lobs. You see Dennis finding Thabo Sefolosha on slashes. Tim Hardaway Jr. running the floor, him and Malcolm Delaney have a good connection on the second unit, and Kyle Korver as well. There are certain plays that you see that we’re making now that we weren’t three or four weeks ago. It’s all starting to come together for us and, defensively, we’re getting our confidence back on that end of the floor, really making it tough for opposing teams and making it hard for them. Our defense has always been our staple; we put so much pressure on ourselves, struggling to score offensively or taking bad shots or whatever. Now we’re ironing things out. The pie is starting to bake, and that good old smell of sweet potato pie is in the air. (Laughs)”
Question: When you talk about you guys having a little bit of pressure, how about you individual pressure? You’re now a $70 million man. With that type of money comes different responsibilities, different pressure, different perception around the league about you. Have you felt, at all, since putting pen to paper on that contract, any added pressure for yourself and a different perception of yourself around the league from other players to this point?
Bazmore: “I put an enormous amount of pressure on myself, unknowingly. Going into my fifth year, I’ve been around a little bit, I wanted to take the leap as a player. Regardless of what I got paid, I want to be great. Having a deep playoff run and playing in the playoffs the last three seasons, I feel like it’s time for me to take the leap. This year, these first 30 games, I’ve been pressing a ton and it’s all coming from a good place, but that’s the growth, for me as a player. I’m really taking my time and continuing to be who I am.
“I’ve said this when I went back and got my jersey retired at Old Dominion. I didn’t have the best career in Old Dominion history. I didn’t average 25 and wasn’t an All-American in college. I was a great teammate, I was a great student, I was just a great, well-rounded person. And that, I think, plays a lot into why I was paid so much. I’m a great teammate, I work hard, I play the game the right way. It’s just getting back to who I am and not trying to be something I’m not, and it’s coming. As a competitor, you want to prove the naysayers wrong and shut people up, but there’s a way of going about it and it’s not going out and trying to score every basket or get every assist. It’s just being who you are, staying true to who you are, especially when things get rough. [That’s when] your character really starts to show and if you can stay close to your roots and get through the storm, you really start to shine.”
Question: Now you mentioned ODU and getting your jersey retired. If I were to tell that Kent Bazemore, who was a senior back at the time, a guy that, you and I will laugh about this, but that was a guy who couldn’t shoot the rust off of a gym and now you can shoot a little bit better and you really found a niche. Being a $70 million player, would you have foreseen that for yourself at that time?
Bazmore: “No. I honestly didn’t know what the future held. I always knew I wanted to play basketball, and everyone wants to go to the NBA. The percentages are minimal, it’s such a finite, small window for guys that really get the opportunity. I think it’s been 4,100 guys that have ever worn NBA jerseys or something like that. It’s crazy. It’s small and I was never on any draft boards. I had a great, great profile pic on MaxPreps in high school (laughs), but I was never a guy that was jumping off people’s radar. I always knew it was a long shot, but I can honestly say that my agent, the people around me, really helped me gain a belief, and my head coach at the time, Blaine Taylor, from Old Dominion, always preached about my length and athleticism and always said I had NBA athleticism. My agent, Austin Walton, is a beast at getting me opportunities. They helped me get my foot in the door and I just kept climbing. The first Summer League I played in, I got the record for blocks in a game or something like that. It’s, like I said, just being who I am, being the long length kid that couldn’t shoot the rust off the gym, but just continuing to work. I can honestly say, even with all the faith and believing in myself 110 percent, this is far and beyond anything I could ever have imagined, for sure.”
Question: Kent, one thing I’ve noticed when talking to guys who are fringe NBA players, whether it’s at Summer League or around the draft when guys go undrafted, a lot of guys point to you and say, ‘Look what Kent Bazemore did, he was undrafted, now he’s got a big contract. I can do the same thing.’ What does it mean to you to be an inspiration to so many of those guys? I think before, those guys would point to Wes Matthews or Jeremy Lin or guys like that, but now you’re the guy everyone points to and says, ‘If he can do it, I can follow in his footsteps.’ How cool is it to be an inspiration for so many players?
Bazmore: “It means a lot. One of my greatest goals I could achieve in life, one of the things I want to do in life, is to inspire. Being undrafted, being a fringe guy, it’s a different motivation. And even before that, if you come from a mid-major school, you probably weren’t that highly touted. We all have something to climb to, we all have that fire that’s burning and, not to take anything away from the McDonald’s All-Americans or the Jordan Brand All-Americans, not to take anything away from those guys because they’re special athletes too. But, when you aren’t [one of those guys], when you’re always looking at them, always looking up at them, looking at where they are on the boards or how people look at them, you get this fire inside of you. Once you step foot in the NBA, all that stuff goes out the window. Everything you’ve gotten, [you battled for]. Is he going to dive for this loose ball because he’s a first-rounder and he got guaranteed money for the next three or four years? For me, my rookie year, I had a $90,000 guaranteed contract to the Ukraine, which I knew nothing about, so there’s this discrepancy and want and desire and I think those guys, if they can really tap into that, they can blow the doors off anything. You really don’t have any expectations as a fringe guy, you may be the 15th man. They may bring you in and see what you can do, but if you go in and really, really work and try to bug your coaches and learn and work and train, just do all the right things, be a great teammate, then the sky’s the limit. I was blessed to have some of the best veterans ever my rookie year: Richard Jefferson, Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry, David Lee, Steph Curry and all of those guys. They really got behind me and helped me navigate and I listened, I was coachable. I love the fact that I can inspire and I really hope that I’m opening doors for a lot of people.”
Question: You mentioned that there were no expectations, initially. What’s it like going from being a guy that people don’t really expect a lot from and you can sneak up on people, to now being someone that teams game-plan for because of your production? How different is that, now that everyone knows what you can do?
Bazemore: “It’s tough, it’s hard. That’s why you applaud guys like the Kobes, Durants, Stephs, LeBrons. You applaud those guys because every night, for 82 games, Kobe Bryant for 20 seasons, they knew he was coming and they designed defenses for him, but he still overcame it. It’s tough. It’s gratifying that you go from being the 15th man to being on someone’s scouting report, but, at the same time, teams guard you different. It’s a challenge. You figure it out slowly, you bring your game every night and you see if you can find that crease. You’re patient, you’re just like that panther that’s waiting to pounce on your opportunity. It teaches you a lot of patience because, once you get this deep into the season, you may make changes at the All-Star break to the playbook but, right now you’re pretty much running the same things and teams have such advanced scouting, they know every play that comes up. They probably know what you’re going to run after a timeout and your rotation, so you really have to play a game within a game and keep teams honest and really evolve your mind. Basketball is becoming a game of chess, for me, it’s setting up a move two moves from now. That’s the long story, but it’s fun. It’s real fun.”
Question: Kent, one of the ways you had to make a niche for yourself in a way to get time off the bench from when you first started your career was with defense. Going back to college, you were a two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year, you won a Lefty Driesell Award. Now that you’ve been in the league for awhile, from your perspective, who have been some of the toughest guys that you’ve had to guard?
Bazemore: “Manu Ginobili is tough. There’s constant movement, he never stops moving, and he’s left-handed. Night in and night out, I guard a ton of right-handed people. There’s two times a year where you’ve got a guy who rips the opposite direction and you think it would be easier, for me, guarding lefties, but he’s just so cerebral on the court and he passes it so well. He can shoot it, his pump fake [is great] and he has his game down pat and he plays it well to a T. Another guy would be DeMar DeRozan, who has excelled this year. He had a hot start and he’s been winning games for Toronto. James Harden, Russell Westbrook, those offensive juggernauts, the guys who are in the top 10 to 15 in scoring. They’re special. They’ve got guys that want to get them open, they’ve got coaches that run plays for them, and you’ve got to guard him and help your teammates, so it’s a tough task. Those are the guys that come to mind right now. Obviously, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, the list goes on. But it’s fun, it’s a challenge. I go to sleep every night with a smile on my face knowing I get to guard some of the best players in the world. It’s gratifying.”
Question: Are you ever a trash talker?
Bazemore: “Not really. Talk’s cheap, especially in this game. These guys are so savvy at using your aggression against you, so you’ve got to talk to yourself. These guys get to the free throw line at such a crazy clip, you out there trash talking, he’s talking to you, he pump fakes, you jump, gets you in the air, he’s shooting free throws and you’ve got two fouls in the first five minutes and you sit on the bench. I learned that the hard way, so, not really. I’m just more about empowering my teammates and channeling the trash talking into positivity for my team.”
Question: So, Kent, now that you’ve done the ‘Bazemoring’ off the bench, you’ve done the ‘Bazegaze,’ what’s next after that?
Bazemore: “(Laughs) I don’t know. All of this stuff, it’s just natural, it just happens. ‘Bazemoring’ was something, actually, Charles Jenkins had a hand in it. We were sitting at the end of the bench in Detroit my rookie year and Steph and Klay were just making it rain from three and we had a front row seat to see it and I just started doing all of this crazy stuff. It’s nothing that I planned to do, it just happens. The ‘Bazegaze’ was originated from my college best friend. We’d be talking and if he thought you were lying, he’d give you that look like, ‘Come on bro.’ So, that’s where that came from. So, who knows what’s next, the people love it in Atlanta, so I’ll just keep trying to think of something else.”
G-League Watch: 10-Day Contracts
David Yapkowitz looks at five potential G-League callups for 10-day contracts.
Since Jan. 10, NBA teams have been able to sign players from the G-League to ten-day contracts. A few have already been signed, such as DeAndre Liggins with the Milwaukee Bucks and Kyle Collinsworth with the Dallas Mavericks.
Once a ten-day contract expires, teams have the option of signing that player to another ten-day contract. After the second ten-day, teams must either sign the player for the remainder of the season or release that player.
Some players have used ten-day contracts to essentially jump-start their careers. Bruce Bowen was once a ten-day contract player before becoming a key piece of multiple championship teams in San Antonio. Famed New York Knicks enforcer Anthony Mason also got his first chance in the league off a ten-day contract.
With a few guys already being called up via ten-day as well as the NBA’s new two-way contracts, here’s a look at some of the remaining names who might be next in line.
1. Christian Wood
Christian Wood was once a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. He played two college seasons at UNLV before declaring for the NBA draft in 2015. Despite being projected to be drafted late in the first round or early second round, he did not hear his name called on draft night. He’s spent some time in the NBA since then, with the Philadelphia 76ers and Charlotte Hornets, but he currently plays for the Delaware 87ers, the Sixers G-League affiliate.
His 22.0 points per game are tied with James Young for top scorer on the team. He’s shooting 53.9 percent from the field, and he’s also displayed a nice outside touch for a big man at 35.2 percent from three-point range. He leads the team in rebounds at 9.6, as well as in blocked shots with 2.0. He’s very mobile and could certainly help a team as a stretch big man who can play defense and crash the glass.
2. Jameel Warney
Jameel Warney has been a candidate for an NBA call-up for quite some time. The former Stony Brook standout had a big summer with Team USA basketball. He was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA Americup and was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for 2017. He got as far as training camp/preseason with the Dallas Mavericks in 2016, and he’s currently playing for their G-League affiliate, the Texas Legends.
With the Legends, he’s fourth on the team in scoring with 19.4 points per game. He’s second on the team in rebounding with 10.4, and he’s tied with Johnathan Motley leading the team in blocked shots with 1.5. He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field. What could be hindering his NBA chances is his lack of an outside shot, especially with the way the game is being played today. Nonetheless, he’s still one of the G-League’s top players and he deserves a shot in the big leagues.
3. Melo Trimble
After a solid three years at the University of Maryland, Melo Trimble was one of the best players not selected in this past summer’s draft. He played well for the 76ers’ summer league team in Las Vegas, which in turn earned him an invite to training camp with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He ended up being one of their final cuts at the end of preseason, and he went on to join their G-League affiliate, the Iowa Wolves.
He’s third on the Wolves in scoring with 18.5 points per game. He’s shooting 44 percent from the field, and a decent 34 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also leading the team in assists per game with 5.7. He’s got the potential to be a decent backup point guard, and if he can get his shooting numbers, especially from three-point range, up a little bit, there’s no question he’s NBA caliber.
4. Joel Bolomboy
Joel Bolomboy is a name that should be familiar to Utah Jazz fans. He was drafted by the Jazz in 2016, and although relegated to mostly end of the bench duty, he showed a bit of potential and flash here and there. The Jazz cut him after a year, and he ended up in Milwaukee before they too cut him to make room for Sean Kilpatrick. He’s currently playing for the Wisconsin Herd, the Bucks G-League affiliate.
At the recent G-League Showcase that took place from Jan. 10-13, Bolomboy had one of the best performances of the event. In the two games played, he averaged 25.5 points per game on 73 percent shooting from the field and 13.0 rebounds. He was named to the All-Showcase First Team. He’s had eight double-doubles so far in the G-League this season. He’s already gotten his feet wet in the NBA, and if he continues putting up similar production, it won’t be long before he finds himself back on an NBA roster.
5. Jeremy Evans
Jeremy Evans is a name that should be somewhat familiar to NBA fans. He’s spent six years in the league with the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks. He also participated in two dunk contests in 2012 and 2013. Unfortunately for him, dunking was probably the one thing he was known for. It might be why he found himself out of the league after only six years.
With the Erie Bay Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks G-League affiliate, his 15.9 points per game are good enough for fourth on the team. His 62.3 percent shooting from the field is a team-high, as is his 10.3 rebounds per game, and 1.4 blocks. Not known as a shooter during his time in the NBA, he’s only shooting 25.6 percent from three-point range in the G-League. If he can get his outside shooting percentages up, he has a shot at getting an NBA call-up and keeping that spot permanently.
Although there’s no guarantee that any of these guys get NBA call-ups on ten-day contracts, they have some of the best shots out of anyone in the G-League. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, all of these guys finish it out on an NBA roster.
NBA Daily: Potential Trade Targets to Get the Sixers to the Playoffs
On the cusp of a playoff appearance for the first time in six years, the Philadelphia 76ers could cement their postseason status with a move at the trade deadline.
At times this season, the Philadelphia 76ers look like they’re capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best teams. With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at their disposal, along with capable three-point shooters, the Sixers have shown flashes of being a force to be reckoned with.
And at other times, well, they look like a discombobulated young team, with serious flaws in the construction of its roster.
Despite the lapses they display, the Sixers are still right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently, at 21-20, they hold a half-game advantage over the Detroit Pistons for the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference.
While they await the return of top overall pick Markelle Fultz, who has still yet to hit the court after being shut down earlier this season with a shoulder injury, the Sixers will continue to miss depth on the wing and a particular skill set that holds them back from winning games they seem to have locked up with double-digit leads. For all the greatness that is Embiid, and all of the promise that is Simmons, when the former isn’t on the court, the latter struggles to shoulder the scoring load due to his inability to shoot jump shots.
Initially, that’s what Fultz was drafted for. A player that head coach Brett Brown has said many times before, has the talent to tie everything together with the Sixers’ roster. What he means by that is Fultz represents a scorer from multiple levels of the court who forces the defense to lock in on, potentially leaving the teams’ shooters open on the wing.
Without Fultz, and when Embiid is on the bench, the team lacks a player who can put the ball on the floor, create and knock down jumpers. Although long-term success is still very much the attention for Philadelphia, that doesn’t discount the fact that a team that finished with 10 wins just two seasons ago is on the verge of making a playoff appearance for the first time since 2011-12 with a core of young, promising players.
Because of that possibility, and because of the clear holes in team’s makeup that could prevent this from happening, the Sixers could become an interesting player at the trade deadline — especially considering the names that appear available, according to reports.
It’s no secret that Sixers’ president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo wants to keep financial flexibility heading into this summer, that’s the main reason players like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson were signed to one-year deals last offseason. Before the team has to start signing their own players to big extensions, the Sixers are in a unique position where they not only have elite homegrown talent, but the money to complement those players the best they can. Because of that, any deal that would return a player with money on the books past this season seems unlikely.
That being said, it just so happens that two players potentially on the trading block right now fulfill the Sixers’ most crucial need, and also aren’t on the hook for money past this year. Marc Stein of The New York Times reported that Rodney Hood could be moved before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, and that multiple teams are expressing interest in his services.
Along with Hood, Stein also reported that Lou Williams, who’s been the center of many trade talks around the league given his career-year and impending free agent status, was involved in specific discussions that would send him to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
What should intrigue the Sixers about these two players is not only their ability on the court but also their flexibility off of it.
Let’s start with Hood. Before the rise of Donovan Mitchell this season, Hood looked to be in a position to assume the role as the dominant scorer on the Utah Jazz following Gordon Hayward’s departure. At just 25 years old and in the final year of his rookie contract, Hood may not be worth the price tag for Utah this summer considering their find with Mitchell.
Should the Jazz actually move on from Hood, it’s unclear what they would ask for in return at this point. Yes, Hood his an impending free agent, which could diminish his value. But the team trading for him would assume his Bird Rights, therefore giving them a better shot at retaining him this summer should they choose to do so.
The best part about his potential fit in Philadelphia is that he fits the timeline of the rebuild while also addressing a need in the present. Being just 25, Hood fits alongside the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington as a young player. If the Sixers were to miss out on whoever they were planning to target with their financial flexibility this summer, Hood would still be there to plug in for years with a contract extension.
Shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, and displaying the track record of being able to fill up the score sheet, Hood could become the go-to-scorer for Philadelphia when Embiid isn’t on the court, or late in games when they need to stop an opposing team’s run.
While he appears to at least be on the table as of now, Hood is certainly worth checking in on from the Sixers’ standpoint.
Now, onto Williams. Drafted by Philadelphia all the back in 2005 with the 45th overall pick, Williams is enjoying the best season of his career for the Los Angeles Clippers. At 31, he doesn’t represent the long-term upside that Hood does, but for this season alone, bringing Williams on to this current Sixers’ roster could be that extra jolt to get them cleanly into the postseason.
Averaging 23 points per game and shooting 41 percent from downtown, Williams fits the role as an iso-scorer better than any player on the Sixers’ current roster. Alongside Simmons and Embiid, Williams could assume the role Fultz was supposed to this season.
Another interesting ripple to the potential Williams fit is that he was on the last Sixers’ roster to make the playoffs. Adding him to this roster would bring his career full circle. This summer, Williams is most likely going to test the market and given his age and potential price tag he may not fit so well into the Sixers’ plans moving forward. But with his history with the club and city, getting him on board for another playoff run with an exciting young team could arguably help in the negotiation process this offseason.
Neither of these potential trades are slam dunks, and it remains to be seen if either player will even be moved. But for where the Sixers stand currently, coupled with their growing postseason expectations, checking in around the league on trade targets that can fulfill obvious needs should be at the forefront of Colangelo’s agenda for the next few weeks.
Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around
Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.
The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.
There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.
“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”
While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.
“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”
Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.
According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).
But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.
“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”
He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.
“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”
As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.
When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.
“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”
Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.
“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”
So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?
“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.
“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”
Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.
In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.
“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.
“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”
Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.
“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”
One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.
“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”