In recent drafts, Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan has selected players who are athletic, defensive-minded and team-oriented. This is why he brought in players like Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton with lottery picks. He loved each player’s attitude, motor and defense, and was willing to overlook some of their offensive issues that may have scared away other teams.
The Magic made a deal with the Philadelphia 76ers to land Payton with 10th overall pick in this year’s draft, and he lived up to the expectations that come with being such a high selection. Payton has been one of this draft’s most productive players this season, to the point that he has been mentioned in the conversation for the Rookie of the Year Award.
From day one, he was a pesky defender who would harass point guards the length of the court and cause a lot of problems on that end of the floor. This wasn’t a huge surprise, considering he was an excellent perimeter defender in college and won the Lefty Driesell Award, which is given to the country’s best defensive player. His ability to annoy opposing guards, create turnovers and play solid defense translated to the NBA.
But as the season progressed, Payton became more well-rounded and ultimately ended up being a nightly triple-double threat. In 26 games after the All-Star break, he averaged 11.1 points, 8.3 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals. That month, he had back-to-back triple-doubles and a number of games where he nearly achieved the feat. It was clear that his confidence and comfort running an NBA offense were increasing with every game he played, and his court vision and passing skills were on display each game.
“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “For me, being able to be out there and make mistakes early and play through those mistakes [was good]. You kind of figure it out. I’m picking my spots better, [realizing] when I have a shot available or when I kick it to my teammates. It’s a little different from the beginning of the season.
“Our chemistry has improved a whole lot and that’s just me getting experience with the guys – like knowing when guys are going to cut or knowing where guys want the ball and things like that. All of that was just coming along throughout the season.”
Perhaps the most important progress that Payton made throughout this season was with his shot. Entering the year, his jump shot and free throws were viewed as his biggest weaknesses. Early in the year, Payton would rarely shoot any jumpers (attempting a total of nine three-pointers in November and December).
However, he worked on his shot throughout the year and his confidence improved. In the last two months of the season, he wasn’t afraid to shoot from mid-range or three if the defense let him. In April, he shot 42.9 percent from long range and attempted nearly one three every game.
In his 22-point, 10-assist, 10-rebound, four-steal performance in a win against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 20, he hit a number of jumpers and finished 10-13 from the field. After the game, a number of Blazers admitted that his ability to hit those shots caught them off guard. His free throw percentage also improved throughout the year, topping out at 64.7 percent from the line in April. While Payton has made strides, he acknowledges that he still has a lot of work to do.
“It feels good, I’m hitting some threes now and hitting a few more free throws,” Payton said. “I’m just going to continue to put in work, continue to put up shots, and that will take care of itself.”
The Magic’s 2014-15 regular season didn’t go quite as planned. Over the summer, the team added veterans like Channing Frye, Luke Ridnour, Willie Green and Ben Gordon as well as the lottery picks Payton and Gordon to their already talented young core. Realistic or not, the Magic entered the campaign with playoff aspirations, but would finish the season 25-57 (just two more wins than they had the previous year).
Even though Orlando had the fifth-worst record in the NBA this year, there’s a lot to be optimistic about when it comes to this young squad, particularly in their backcourt. Payton, 21, and Oladipo, 22, improved a lot throughout the season and flashed glimpses of just how good they could be in the years to come.
Payton is a quiet, humble person so it’s very hard to get him to talk about his own success. He’ll talk about what he could do better and what he has learned, but when asked about his brilliant individual play, his answer usually comes back to praising his teammates and coaches.
“Having so many talented guys around me definitely helps and it makes my job easy,” Payton said. “When you have all these athletic guys, guys who can make shots, guys who can put the ball in the hole, it’s easy for me just to get the ball to them. They have the hard job (laughs). It’s great to watch all of us grow at the same time.”
When asked about the Rookie of the Year race, he makes it clear that he appreciates the recognition but also seems uncomfortable with the attention.
“Yeah, it’s nice, but I try not to get too caught up in all that,” Payton said. “But it is nice to hear that you’re getting a little recognition for the hard work you’ve been putting in.”
Payton may not like talking about his individual success, but his teammates could go on all day about their point guard. They have witnessed his growth throughout his rookie season and have been extremely impressed with the 21-year-old.
“He’s definitely grown tremendously and his confidence is up there now,” Tobias Harris said of Payton. “He played at an extremely high level night after night. He always brings it, he’s such a competitor. I love playing with him.”
“I knew he was going to be fine when he first came in – he has that toughness and that grit – and I’m proud to see his progression as a rookie this season,” Willie Green said. “[He’s had] tremendous growth, on and off the floor. When you’re looking at a young team, those are some of the things that you want to see, and I’ve seen them with Elfrid. I’m proud of him and his work ethic. He’s just going to continue to get better from here.”
“He’s gotten a lot better in different areas and he impacts the game on both sides of the floor,” Oladipo said of his backcourt partner. “He’s getting more comfortable out there, even with his jumper. I’m looking forward to growing with him, getting better and getting this thing to where it needs to be.”
One overlooked achievement of Payton’s rookie year is that he played in all 82 games, which is tough for a first-year player who’s used to the relatively short NCAA schedule rather than the NBA grind. Payton is the first Magic rookie to play all 82 games in a season since Dwight Howard in the 2004-05 campaign and just the 31st player (of any age) in franchise history to do so. Green, who just finished his 12th season, spoke highly of Payton’s durability.
“I’ve never done it,” Green said. “I think I played 81 games [in the 2008-09 season], I missed one game with a sprained ankle. I still remember that. For him to be that durable as a rookie, that’s big-time on his part. [It says a lot about] his preparation for the game.”
Payton isn’t someone who seeks out the limelight or craves recognition, but earning his teammates’ trust and respect was important to him. He has certainly earned it after his impressive rookie year, and the team knows that good things happen when Payton is on the floor.
“Anytime your teammates trust you and know that you are trying to make the right play or that you’re capable of making the right play, that is great,” Payton said. “It puts a whole lot less pressure on you out there. I think that has helped us as a team and [led to] the way we’ve been playing lately.”
This summer, Payton isn’t sure where he’ll be training, but he is determined to further expand his game.
“I’m just going to continue to work on my shot and continue to grow as a student of the game,” Payton said. “I also want to become even more of a leader to try and lead these guys.”
Entering the season, there were doubts that Payton and Oladipo could thrive together in the backcourt since neither player was known for his offensive contributions and the spacing was a concern. However, they each played well throughout this season and got significantly better as the campaign progressed. While the duo still has plenty to learn, the Payton-Oladipo experiment should be very intriguing to watch in the coming years.
“[I’ve grown] a lot,” Payton says, “and the crazy thing is I think I can still grow a lot more.”
Stevens, Rivers Named NBA Coaches of the Month
Earlier today, the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers were named the NBA Eastern and Western Conference Coaches of the Month, respectively, for games played in April.
Stevens led the Celtics to the East’s best record in April at 7-1. Boston recorded a 4-0 mark on the road, and closed the month with six consecutive victories — five of them against playoff teams. The Celtics enjoyed a +8.8 PPG differential, the fourth-highest in the NBA during April. Stevens’ Celtics will be the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs and open against the second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, with Game 1 set for Sunday, April 19 at 3 p.m. ET on ABC.
Rivers guided the Clippers to the league’s only undefeated record in April at 7-0. The Clippers recorded wins over two playoff teams – the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies. They scored 108.6 PPG and surrendered 97.4 PPG, accounting for the second-highest differential in the league during April at +11.2 PPG. Rivers’ Clippers open postseason play as the third seed in the Western Conference, and will host the sixth-seeded San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 on Sunday, April 19 at 10:30 p.m. ET on TNT.
Other nominees for Coach of the Month were Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins, Cleveland’s David Blatt, Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Indiana’s Frank Vogel, New Orleans’ Monty Williams and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.
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