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.
“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.”
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