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NBA PM: Get to Know Rising Star Cam Payne

After constantly being overlooked, Cameron Payne is finally in the spotlight and seems poised to be a lottery pick.

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As former Murray State point guard Cameron Payne goes through his morning pre-draft workout at the IMG Academy in Florida, a number of insults are shouted at him.

“Nobody even knows who you are! You’re too small! You aren’t good enough to play in the NBA! No top programs recruited you out of high school! You can’t compete with the elite point guards!”

CamPayneInside1No, these aren’t haters or hecklers who are criticizing Payne. These are his IMG pre-draft coaches, yelling these things because the 2015 NBA Draft prospect loves to be taunted as he goes through his various drills and shooting exercises. The coaches also do this to see how he responds to the ribbing.

Rather than getting frustrated or distracted, the barrage of put-downs motivates him and he elevates his game. He clenches his teeth, and proceeds to hit shot after shot. With each make, he’s gaining confidence and yelling back.

“Keep talking!” Payne shouts. “I won’t miss if you keep talking. What else do you got?”

He loves following up each insult with a swish. After a little while, he steps far behind the NBA three-point line and continues to knock down jumpers with ease. Soon, he’s firing up shots with a lightning quick release and turning around to talk trash before the ball even goes in – Stephen Curry style.

As the verbal jabs keep coming and the shots keep falling, he’s no longer clenching his teeth or sporting a death stare. Now, he’s grinning and exuding swagger. He loves the reminders that he has been doubted his whole life, that nobody thought he’d be in this position. Yet here he is, several weeks away from turning his NBA dream into reality.

“It definitely fuels my fire,” Payne said with a smile when asked about this trash talking with his trainers. “I’m the underdog. I’ve been overlooked. When people say these things, it’s nothing new. I’ve heard it all before. I’m just here to do my Cam Payne thing.”

“I think it definitely motivates him and, look, he’s never been stopped,” said IMG Academy’s Head Skills Trainer Dan Barto. “His whole life he’s been told little things about his game, but he’s always found a way to succeed. Some of our coaches, who are former players themselves, have tried to get under his skin to see how high he can notch up [his game]. That’s something that a lot of the best players can do – the guys like Chauncey Billups, who I trained when I first started here, and Iman Shumpert, who I train every summer. Those guys have that same mode where as soon as you start talking trash, they’re like, ‘Okay, keep going. I’m going to show you. You’re going to end up looking bad.’ Cam is the same way.”

The insults directed at Payne seem laughable these days, since he was outstanding during his sophomore season at Murray State and he’s been equally impressive during the pre-draft process. Lately, he has been generating a lot of buzz and impressing NBA executives. He’s improving his stock and climbing draft boards rapidly, to the point that league sources believe he has a promise from a team picking in the lottery – perhaps even in the top 10. It seems inevitable that he’ll be selected very early on the night of June 25.

But it wasn’t long ago that some of those criticisms that were shouted were actually used to describe Payne and discredit his game, and that’s something he’ll never forget. He was a three-star recruit coming out of high school at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, and he wasn’t even ranked nationally by some recruiting services. He was told that he didn’t have the size or talent to be a star in college, and bigger schools didn’t recruit him.

As a freshman at Murray State, he exceeded expectations and averaged 16.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals. Out of curiosity, he wondered if his first-year success had put him on any future NBA mock drafts. He was still projected to go undrafted on some mocks and ranked extremely low on others. While he wasn’t surprised by this, he did see something that infuriated him while looking at the projections: A number of players whom he had destroyed on the court were ranked significantly ahead of him. Even though he believed making it to the NBA was a long shot given the questions about his game and his lack of exposure at a mid-major school, he was determined to showcase his talent and prove he was better than those players.

He did just that in his sophomore season with the Racers. He averaged 20.2 points, 6.0 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals while limiting his turnovers to 2.5 per game and improving his shooting percentages to 45.6 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from three-point range. He was named the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year and, most importantly, led Murray State to 29 wins and a top-25 ranking at one point during the season. With the team winning and his numbers jumping off the page, it was impossible for Payne to be overlooked any longer.

“The second half of this last NCAA season at Murray State is when I realized [I might make it to the NBA],” Payne said. “We were getting noticed and that’s one of the main things about getting to that level: you’ve got to get noticed. We were winning games. If we didn’t win games, Cameron Payne would still be at Murray State. But we won games and everything worked out. Like our coach always said, the more team accolades we get, the more individual accolades you get, and that’s what happened. A lot of players on our team were getting that exposure just because what we did as a team. That was all that really mattered – what we did as a team – and that got me great exposure.”

He carried the Racers all season, leading them in points, assists, steals, field goals and three-pointers. He also received more exposure because he had a number of monster performances that turned heads throughout the course of his second season.

On December 13, Payne had 32 points (on 10-19 shooting, including 4-7 from three), eight assists, five rebounds and two steals in a win over Evansville. On January 22, he posted 33 points (on 12-20 shooting, including 3-5 from three), five rebounds and four assists in a win over Eastern Illinois. One week later, he filled the stat sheet in a win over Eastern Kentucky, contributing 21 points (on 8-16 shooting), 10 rebounds, five assists and six steals. On February 28, he had 31 points (on 12-24 shooting, including 4-9 from three), eight rebounds, six assists and two steals in a win over Tennessee Martin.

He says he never thought playing in the NBA was a realistic possibility for him until several months ago. It was always something he dreamed about, but he never got his hopes up. Now, there’s no doubt he’ll be in the league next season. The only question is, how high will he be selected on draft night?

Payne admits that this last month and a half has been very strange for him. Executives (including some basketball legends) are praising his game, NBA players are treating him like a peer and fans are analyzing every tweet or video he posts for clues as to where he may land. For example, several fans tweeted their excitement to see Payne wearing Indiana Pacers shorts in a Vine of one of his daily IMG workouts (even though it’s common for prospects to keep the shorts that teams give them and continue to wear them during training). After years of being underrated, Payne is finally getting the attention he deserves and he’s still adjusting to that.

“I approach everything the same way, but I can tell you right now, it’s a big time difference,” Payne said of this last month. “It’s a big time difference going from, ‘Yeah, maybe he could get on the team,’ to, ‘Ah man, we’ve got to get him!’ For me to be [projected to go] in the lottery, it’s just a blessing. I cannot thank anybody else but God. He put me in that position. I didn’t see it coming and now that I’m here and in this position, I just want to work and keep getting better.”

He’s certainly buying into the process at the IMG Academy, where nearly every waking hour is dedicated to making him a better player and preparing him for the NBA. He was one of the first prospects to start his pre-draft training, arriving on the IMG campus in March, and he has been working extremely hard and making considerable progress ever since.

Each morning, he starts his day doing various drills and conditioning exercises on IMG’s football field. Then, he’s in the weight room for an hour (which he says is the most important part of his training schedule since he wants to bulk up). He then heads to the gym, where he goes through his first basketball workout of the day, which consists of a lot of shooting and head-to-head drills against other draft prospects. After a three-hour break, he’s back in the gym for his second on-court workout of the day, which is usually a five-on-five pickup game that features the other draft prospects as well as current NBA players (such as Utah’s Rodney Hood and Orlando’s Maurice Harkless among others). After that, he winds down by watching the playoffs, looking at game film or playing NBA 2K.

Also, IMG’s staff has him on a customized nutrition plan, so all of his meals are designed to ensure that he’s consuming the right foods. There are also off-court activities designed to improve his hand-eye coordination and media skills among other things.

Payne is enjoying the pre-draft grind and realizes that the work he’s doing will not only help him improve right now, but also potentially extend his playing career since he’s taking excellent care of his body.

“I’m definitely focused on my strength and nutrition,” Payne said. “Those are the two main things. In college, you don’t eat like you should, so I’m definitely here to work on improving the things that I put in my body. Like people always say, you can’t put 87 in a Porsche – you’ve got to put the right fuel in there. That’s what I’m doing here, finding out the certain foods that will keep my body going so I’ll be able to play all the way into my 40s. And I’ve got to get stronger because that will help every aspect of my game; my defense, that’s the main thing I need to work on, and I believe it comes along with strength. My focus is definitely the weight room and my nutrition.”

Barto and the rest of the IMG staff have been extremely impressed with Payne and the work he has been doing on and off the court.

“The first thing that stands out is that he’s the ultimate competitor,” Barto said. “You don’t move up as quickly as he has – from a mid-major player to a dominant college star to an NBA draft prospect – and dominate as many point guard categories as he did analytically without having something special about you. I just don’t see the kid not succeeding, and I see him being part of a championship run after a couple years in the NBA.

“His body continues to improve and so does his understanding of the nutrition it’s going to take to be an 82-game guy – or hopefully even more games – as a rookie. I think also there’s the small things [he’s improving] like little things about his shooting mechanics, how he finishes around the basket and his ability to change speeds. Some people, I think, question his quickness or his first step, but when he really focuses on changing speeds, none of that matters. He moves like a lot of the elite point guards in the NBA, where they find ways to get to open space.”

One aspect of Payne’s game that has exceeded expectations at IMG is his playmaking ability. The coaches rave about his court vision and passing, which weren’t always on display in college since he was often asked to score the ball at Murray State. Sure, there were times where he got others involved and made good passes. But he has taken his facilitating to another level now. When he’s in pick-up games with other NBA-caliber players, he’s playing like a traditional point guard and racking up assists.

“I think his ability to pass the ball is underrated,” Barto said. “Here, he’s been able to play with a lot of NBA players and players who’ve had success in the D-League, so he doesn’t need to score every time like he did at Murray State. I’ve seen enough of him in high-level pick-up games in this type of environment to see that with the extra space, the side pick-and-rolls and the high ball screens, he gives the ball up before the weak-side shot blocker gets there or he gives the ball up early when teams try to trap him. And that’s in just three weeks of work. When I visualize where he could be after a full year or two years of work and with how highly competitive he is, his ceiling is really tough to determine. It’s just so high.”

Advanced analytics support that Payne can be an excellent facilitator. Last season, he had the highest assist percentage of all the prospects ranked in Draft Express’ top 100, and he averaged 7.3 assists per 40 minutes despite the fact that he wasn’t surrounded by top-tier teammates like some of the other draft prospects who went to larger schools. It’s becoming clear that Payne is a well-rounded point guard who can fit with just about any team since he can thrive in a number of different roles.

“[The team that drafts me] is going to get an all-around great point guard, a point guard who can do anything that the team needs,” Payne said. “I’ll do whatever the coach asks. In college, Coach [Steve] Prohm told me, ‘I need you to score a little more,’ and that’s what I did. When I get into the NBA, if I’m to sit in the corner and shoot threes, that is what I’m going to do. If I’m needed to be a lock down a defender, I’m going to work on my defense and do that. Anything the coaches need, that’s what Cameron Payne is going to do.”

If Payne’s journey sounds familiar, it’s because his ascent is very similar to that of fellow mid-major point guards Damian Lillard and Elfrid Payton. Like Payne, Lillard and Payton were being projected as second-round picks before thriving in their final collegiate season and in draft workouts, which allowed them to climb draft boards and eventually be selected No. 6 and No. 10, respectively. When asked who can be this year’s Lillard or Payton, Payne doesn’t hesitate.

“I believe it’s definitely me,” Payne said. “The reason [I wasn’t noticed] is because we are a mid-major program so we don’t get put on T.V. every day and people don’t talk about you every day. Now, we go into these meetings and all they want to know is, ‘Cameron Payne, who are you? Tell me something about you.’ Now, there’s so many good things that [are mentioned with] my name and people say, ‘I mean, how could you not like that guy?’ In this process, your personality comes out and shows because the people get to know you. That changes their whole perception about you and then when they get to know you, they start to watch more games. Then they say, ‘Okay, this guy can ball and he has a great personality. He’s this, he’s that.’

“That’s how I feel those players [like Lillard and Payton] move up. It’s also because they worked hard for everything they got. I haven’t been in that spotlight before and now that I am, I’m not going to take that spotlight for granted. I’m going to be the one who takes advantage of this, because that’s what I did going into college – I took advantage of my opportunity and did the best I could. Now I’m on this stage and I’m going to do the same.”

Payne has studied Lillard’s game and he may work out with Payton at some point in the next few weeks, since the Orlando Magic point guard is planning to spend some time training at IMG with his teammate Harkless.

Payne spends a significant amount of time watching NBA games and breaking down film, and Lillard is just one of many elite point guards he studies.

“I definitely study Chris Paul,” Payne said. “He has some high-flyers on his team and he knows how to keep them involved. I’ve talked to a lot of NBA general managers and they say they really count on paint touches, and Chris Paul gets into the paint almost every possession. I definitely watch him a lot and I try to see how he comes off ball screens and things like that, because he’s one of the best point guards in the league right now along with Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard – I’m not trying to leave anybody out. But Chris Paul has been there and done it [for years]. He’s played at a high level and [makes his teammates perform] at a high level. He gets everybody involved and he makes his team better. Like when he was with the New Orleans Hornets, he took them to the playoffs in the Western Conference. He definitely does his job and I feel like that’s the type of player I am.”

Soon, Payne hopes to hear his name mentioned in the same sentence as those superstar point guards. He’s an extremely confident player and he has very high expectations for himself, so one of his goals is to be an elite floor general in the league.

“I just want to be one of the best point guards in the NBA; that’s my goal,” Payne said. “Down the road, if God blesses me to, I definitely want to be an All-Star. All of that’s going to come with hard work and lot of humbleness, and I’m down for it. I’ve been doing it my whole life, so I’m just going to keep grinding.”

Doubt him at your own risk.

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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