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Cameron Payne Getting the Respect he Deserves

Cameron Payne looks like the next mid-major star to take the NBA by storm.

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The Murray State Racers were penciled in as the Ohio Valley Conference representative for the 2015 NCAA Tournament basically since the start of the season. A 16-0 run through the regular season had projectors writing them in with permanent marker, but an off-balanced, game-winning three-pointer from Belmont at the end of the conference tournament relegated them to the NIT – and cost the monster audience that watches the tournament a chance to see Cameron Payne, the Racers star sophomore guard.

It was a bitter pill for Payne to swallow. He helped lead the program to a CIT championship as a freshman and wanted to get the long-awaited national recognition that he deserved by leading them to back to the big dance for the first time since 2012 as a sophomore. Despite his 20-point, six-assist campaign, he was just as spectator as D’Angelo Russell and Tyus Jones played under the spotlight he yearned.

But now with the NBA pre-draft process upon us, Payne is no longer handcuffed by the status of the program he plays for or the NCAA selection committee. He’s on the same level as all the other top point guards jockeying for position in the first round, and is out to make it clear that not only he belongs – but that he’s even better than those who have seen him think.

When asked specifically by an NBA executive who shouldn’t be ranked ahead of him, Payne was honest.

“Tyus Jones,” Payne said. “Just because he played on a great team. He had a lot of exposure through that team. He didn’t have to carry his team like I did, so I just felt I went through a lot of adversity and he had one of the best big men playing college basketball around him. He wasn’t a focal point.”

Although lacking the tournament success and Most Outstanding Player award that Jones’ resume boasts, Payne’s body of work is nothing to bat an eye at. He went 52-17 at Murray State and improved across the board as a sophomore, which is especially impressive considering the high bar he set for himself as a freshman while playing less minutes per game (albeit not much less). The biggest difference between the two is that Jones’ feats made headline news, while Payne’s dominance flew much more under the radar.

“It definitely put me in that underdog position, I play with a chip on my shoulder just because I played for a mid-major and got overlooked,” Payne said. “I’m definitely going to come and try to do the best I can and show that I belong.”

When Payne’s Racers were left disappointed on Selection Sunday, his program caught a lot of ill-advised criticism over how they didn’t play a tough enough schedule. What they don’t know is that high-majors weren’t lining up to schedule the Racers. Few upper-tier programs are willing to take the risk of playing a mid-major that could potentially beat them. And, those who are, will only do so on their terms, like refusing to play at Murray State no matter how many times they travel to their place. It’s extremely difficult for a rising mid-major like Murray State to schedule elite competition; they’re going through a similar situation as Gonzaga did during their rise. Unfortunately for Payne, that situation affected him significantly and really limited how much he could improve his stock. He’s aware that he’s unproven against elite competition, but is just as confident that he belongs on the same court as them.

“It’s definitely going to be a big time change but I’m all for it,” Payne said. “It’s going to be different in talent, but I put myself in those shoes to go against my talent, do my best and go hard. It’s definitely going to be the change of pace. I’ve been getting ready for the draft, getting in the weight room and trying to get bigger.

“I feel I can bring great leadership. I’ve been winning all my life, so I’m definitely going to bring my competitive nature and I’m going to bring the swagger back. I’m going to get people involved, be a leader and keep my teammates happy.”

Like all players from mid-major programs, guards, forward and centers alike, great motivation is drawn from reigning MVP Stephen Curry. Curry failed the high-major eye test out of high school, and ended up at Davidson as a result. As you know, the rest is history. He’s now regarded as one of the best players in the NBA and he’s given fellow mid-major prospects a blueprint to follow.

Payne, an explosive scorer and capable playmaker much like Curry was out of Davidson, is facing similar critiques over the level of competition he went up against and his lack of athleticism.

“People think I’m not athletic,” Payne acknowledged. “I don’t feel you have to dunk every position. That’s not my game. I’m very crafty. You don’t have to show your athleticism every play. But if I get the opportunity to go on a fast break and dunk, I’ll definitely give you a little flash.”

The draft is still over a month away, but in the short time since the end of his season Payne has already upped his stock. He may be in the minority right now ranking himself ahead of Jones, but don’t be shocked if on draft night NBA teams agree. Because the more familiar everyone becomes with his talent and body of work, the more it’s undeniable that he’s been overlooked and under-ranked for far too long.

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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