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NBA PM: Keep An Eye on Magic’s Elfrid Payton

Orlando Magic rookie point guard Elfrid Payton is already drawing the praise of an All-Star… Gal Mekel addresses rumors.

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Keep An Eye on Magic’s Elfrid Payton

Last week, during a preseason game between the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets, Elfrid Payton Sr. stood courtside cheering for his son. As the younger Elfrid Payton played physical defense and led Orlando’s offense, the proud father shouted his support: “Get ‘em son! That’s my boy!”

James Harden heard Payton Sr. – who had a Hall of Fame career as a defensive end in the Canadian Football League from 1991 to 2004 – and approached him during a stoppage in the game.

“Your boy is good,” Harden told Payton’s father. “Real good.”

“I appreciate that,” Payton Sr. told the All-Star shooting guard.

Harden is just the latest person to jump on the Elfrid Payton bandwagon, which is becoming increasingly crowded. Around this time last year, the guard was a relatively unknown player at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Now, he’s becoming a household name after being selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and emerging as Orlando’s point guard of the future.

“I didn’t know [James did] that,” Payton said following the game. “I didn’t know. Man, that’s cool. He told me, ‘Congratulations,’ but I didn’t know that. That’s cool.”

Payton looked excellent during preseason action. He’s an aggressive defender who drives opposing guards crazy, and he’s a very good floor general who can run an NBA offense. The 20-year-old has even been described by a number of experts as a sleeper in the Rookie of the Year race, since he’s expected play a ton of minutes for the Magic and have the ball in his hands quite a bit.

“I’m really excited, really looking forward to it,” Payton said about starting the regular season. “I can’t wait to get out there. I think we got into a good rhythm as a team and we’ve seen what it’s going to take for us to get wins. Now, it’s all about going out there and just doing it.”

Payton went from being an underdog who wasn’t getting much exposure to being one of the top players in this heavily hyped 2014 NBA draft class. Even though he’s getting more recognition and respect these days, he still has a chip on his shoulder.

“I think it is a little bit different, but you have to have the same approach,” Payton said. “I approach it the same. You have to approach it like you’re the underdog and you have something to prove every single night.”

Last year, Payton was given the Lefty Driesell Award, which is given to the top collegiate defender each season. He hopes to have a similar defensive impact in the NBA and believes lock-down defense is the key to being a successful team.

“We have to play defense at a high level,” Payton said. “There are going to be stretches in games where teams go on runs, but we have to stop it as quick as possible. The offense isn’t going to be there every night, but if we play defense then we’ll be in every game.”

With Magic guard Victor Oladipo expected to miss the first month of the season with a facial fracture, Payton will be counted on even more. Fortunately for Orlando, he feels comfortable running the offense alongside his new teammates.

“I think I’m getting a great feel for everybody,” Payton said. “I’m seeing where they like the ball, what they’re going to give me on defense, what they’re going to give me on offense and I think we’re going to be alright this year. … All of the veterans have helped me. All of them give me good advice about how the game goes, how long the season is and things like that. They’ve even helped with stuff off of the court. They’ve been great.”

With the veterans’ help, Payton has had a smooth transition from college to the NBA thus far. Payton says that the biggest change for him has actually been the free time. Rookies are usually shocked by the NBA schedule, because they aren’t used to basketball being their sole focus.

“The game is lot faster at each position, so when you make a play, you have to be precise and ready because it all happens really fast,” Payton said. “Adjusting to the speed is something I’ve had to do.

“But the biggest adjustment has just been my routine before games, it’s been a little bit different from college. We have so much free time before every game, so I’m just trying to pick up on things that I can do before each game to get myself ready and then trying to do it before every game. That’s been the biggest adjustment for me.”

Payton looked excellent during the preseason, recording more than five assists in seven of eight games and playing terrific defense that allowed him to create turnovers. Tonight, his NBA journey will begin in – of all places – his home state of Louisiana.

There are a lot of talented rookies in this year’s class, but be sure to keep a close eye on Payton. It seems that Orlando has found their point guard of the future, and he’s capable of making a huge impact on both ends of the floor.

Mekel Aware of Trade Rumors

Rumors have been surfacing that the Dallas Mavericks will try to sign recently-bought-out Minnesota Timberwolves point guard J.J. Barea when he clears waivers, but that could mean Gal Mekel’s days with Dallas are numbered.

He’s aware that the rumor mill suggests he may be traded by Wednesday afternoon to make room for Barea, but he’s trying not to focus on all of that with the season set to start tonight.

“It’s weird,” Mekel told The Dallas Morning News. “I hear everything. But I want to concentrate on this game. I had a great preseason and showed everybody that I can help this team. I got very good feedback from the coaching staff.

“I know it’s weird right now and there is a chance I will find myself in another place in two days. But as long as I am here, I’m going to help the team.”

The Mavericks currently have 15 guaranteed players on their roster, so they would need to move on from someone in order to sign Barea. Mekel, who is 26 years old, is in his second year in the NBA.

Dallas has already shown that they’re willing to get rid of a player who has a guaranteed deal if it improves the team, as they kept Charlie Villanueva’s non-guaranteed contract over Bernard James’ guaranteed contract during their recent wave of cuts.

“I hear all the stuff,” Mekel said. “I know what’s going on. All I know is we have a game today against the Spurs and we really want to win the opener.”

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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