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NBA PM: Elfrid Payton Belongs in ROY Race

Elfrid Payton is proving he belongs in the Rookie of the Year discussion … The Washington Wizards’ second half struggles continue

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Elfrid Payton Proving He Belongs in Rookie of the Year Race

Coming from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which is in a mid-major conference, Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton still hasn’t been completely acclimated to the media attention in the NBA. Instead, Payton lets his performances on the court speak for him.

That explains why the rookie remained relatively quiet on Friday night after a game in which he became just the seventh rookie in NBA history to record back-to-back triple-doubles and the first to do so since Antoine Walker in 1997.

Payton recorded 15 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds last Wednesday in the Magic’s first nationally-televised game of the season in Dallas. He then turned in a 22-point, 10-assist and 10-rebound performance on Friday against the Portland Trail Blazers. Payton mostly downplayed any significance of his rare feat with reporters, but his play on the court has put the rest of the league on notice with what he can accomplish on any given night.

But his road to the Magic didn’t seem all that likely this time last year.

In the weeks leading up to the draft, the idea of the Magic selecting a point guard with their second lottery pick seemed highly unlikely. According to virtually every mock draft on the internet, the Magic were projected to take Australian point guard Dante Exum with the fourth pick and then another player, such as Nik Stauskas, Gary Harris or James Young with their second lottery pick at No. 12.

But when the Magic threw the first wrench in the draft by taking Aaron Gordon out of Arizona at No. 4, it became more likely that they’d look at a point guard with their second lottery pick. Knowing the Magic had been targeting Payton, the Philadelphia 76ers opted to take Payton at number 10 in order to use him as trade leverage.

In order to acquire Payton from the 76ers, the Magic traded a conditional first-round draft pick in 2017 (the same one that they received from the 76ers two years prior in the blockbuster trade involving Dwight Howard), a second-round draft pick in this year’s draft and the rights to Dario Saric, the No. 12 pick. One Philadelphia newspaper called the deal “robbery,” but it’s certainly clear the Magic would have likely never seen that first-round pick due to the protections that were placed on it.

Heading into the season, Payton was listed as having 25-1 odds of winning the Rookie of the Year Award, which was good for 12th-best in the league and far behind the odds that Gordon was given (fourth-highest). However, those odds were set back in June when Payton had no experience in the NBA. Now, Payton has nearly a full season of experience under his belt and is quickly playing himself into the discussion for ROY.

It’s extremely likely that this season’s ROY award will go to No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and rightfully so. The award recognizes the player that performed the best over the course of the entire year. For all of the hype placed upon Wiggins entering the season, he’s performed about as well as expected and his 15.8 points per game is first among all rookies. While Wiggins may have out-performed Payton all season, Payton finally began to show his ROY potential once the calendar flipped to 2015 and he is beginning to make some of his best decisions on the court all season.

“I think he sets the tone for us and he knows that,” Magic interim head coach James Borrego said. “He understands that now. His energy, his spirit, his competitive nature really sets the tone for us on both ends of the floor. When he’s aggressive defensively, when he’s active, our defense is active. When he’s engaged on the weak side, we’re all engaged. Then offensively the ball is in his hands a ton so he sets the table for a lot of us. He puts a tremendous amount of pressure on defenses. He gets downhill, he’s making great decisions right now; probably the best he’s made all year. His ability to finish right now in the paint is at a high level. He’s comfortable getting to the free throw line. He’s okay with that. You add all of that to the mix, it makes us a very competitive team and it really starts with him.”

Since January 1, Payton is sixth among rookies in points per game (10.5), first in assists (7.1), sixth in rebounds (5) and tied for first in steals (1.9). Payton is second among rookies with eight double-doubles and is the only rookie to have recorded a triple-double, let alone two of them. His back-to-back triple-doubles were the first time that was accomplished in Magic franchise history – by any player, rookie or veteran.

There seemed to be a period of the season in February where he was hitting the so-called “rookie wall.” After posting 10.7 points, 6.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game in January, Payton’s averages for the month of February dropped down to 7.8 points, 6.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game. He’s put to rest any thought of hitting a wall in the month of March, though, as he’s scoring 12.7 points, 8.1 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game, which is easily his best month of basketball during his rookie campaign.

“He knows what he’s coming into,” said teammate Victor Oladipo on Payton continuing to play with confidence. “He knows he’s going to come in. He knows he’s going to play. He knows me and him have to do a great job of leading us. He knows the amount of minutes he’s going to get. When you know that, you just got to go out there and hoop. He’s doing a good job of mixing it up and getting people involved. When we hit shots for him it’s easier. Credit him, he’s working hard and getting better.”

Payton’s strong performances over the last month or so likely came far too late to have a legitimate chance at winning the award, but he’s surely proving that he deserves to be in the same conversation as those at the top of the rookie class.

Wizards’ Second Half Struggles Continue

The struggles that have plagued the Washington Wizards in the second half of the season were magnified last night after suffering a 107-76 loss to the Golden State Warriors.

The Wizards trailed by just three points at halftime, but came out of the locker room and scored just eight points in the third quarter. The team began the period by shooting just 1-of-15 from floor and didn’t hit their first field goal of the quarter until just over a minute remained. They’d finish the disastrous quarter by shooting 1-of-18.

“It’s a troubling trend that we’ve had for the last 20-25 games,” Wizards head coach Randy Wittman told Monumental Network. “You play one good half and just an exact opposite awful one half or the other where we’ve scored 64 and then the next half 30. It’s happened too much and it begins to make you [question], ‘Are we committed to play a full game?’ That’s what I asked our guys, ‘Are we committed?’ It’s hard to win games in the NBA; it’s not easy. If it was easy everybody would win. It’s hard. You have to have commitment for 48 minutes and do the things that you have to do. We did it for 24.”

The loss to the Warriors concluded a four-game road trip to the west coast, which included a win in Utah and then losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and the Sacramento Kings. Prior to the road trip, the team had won five in a row, including big wins over the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers. Since the Wizards beat the Los Angeles Lakers on January 27 to improve to 31-15, they’ve gone just 9-16.

“[Early in the season] we struggled offensively and won games because of our defense,” Wizards point guard John Wall said. “Now I think our concentration goes out the window. Even if we’re playing well offensively we lose a lack of effort on the defensive end and that’s something that you can never lose in this league if you want to win. In the playoffs, you’re not going to shoot well every night. In a seven-game series you have to grind it out and win those games. Until we get back to having that mindset and being that team, we’re going to keep getting our tail whooped.”

The Wizards are locked in to make the playoffs, but it’s clear they haven’t been playing their best basketball as of late. While they’ve yet to officially clinch a playoff berth, it seems as though they’ll finish as the fifth seed as they hold a comfortable 5.5 game lead over the sixth-placed Milwaukee Bucks.

If the playoffs started today, the Wizards would have a first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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