John Raoux, AP Photo
If you don’t know who Elfrid Payton is, you’re not alone. Originally projected as a late first round/early second round pick when he declared for the draft, Payton’s stock began to rise at the NBA Draft Combine and then skyrocketed when he worked out for teams.
Ultimately, the Magic were the team that were impressed enough to trade for Payton on draft night in exchange for Dario Saric, a future first round pick, and a future second round pick. The general consensus is that the Magic gave up too much for Payton. The underlying question has been: is he good enough?
To help answer that question (and many others) is Tom Martin, a sports reporter at KATC in Lafayette, La. Tom covered Payton’s junior year at Louisiana-Lafayette.
What are Payton’s strengths?
He’s as versatile as point guards come — 6-foot-3, good wingspan, can guard three positions, rebounds well for a point guard, can be a patient game-manager, or go into full-fledged attack mode. He did everything the Ragin’ Cajuns asked him to do (ironically the one thing he wasn’t asked to do was shoot — more on that later), and he succeeded despite being THE perimeter focal point of opposing defenses.
The NBA talk revved up after his performance on the Team USA U-19 team (playing next to Aaron Gordon, to whom he threw a NASTY alley-oop in the gold medal game) and his numbers really had nothing to do with it. I think he surprised people with his tenacity on defense and his ability to push the ball in transition and finish around the rim — it’s possible that scouts noticed it last year, but this was the first time they had seen him do it against elevated competition — there just wasn’t a drop-off. It surprised us down here how much he really fit in on the bigger stage without missing a beat.
There are two major strengths of Payton’s that I believe will translate right away: Driving ability in the lane and then, of course, his defense. I’m a big Rockets fan and I remember a younger Kyle Lowry earning his minutes (back when his jumper was horrible) because he drove at will, drew fouls, and got opposing bigs in foul trouble. That’s something I expect Payton will do from day one — he’s coordinated and hungry enough to live in the lane, and he proved it in college.
What are Payton’s weaknesses?
His shooting percentages from 3-point range and from the free-throw line aren’t good. He can also be turnover-prone, but I think that was a result of being the only playmaking ballhandler on the team (the Cajuns have another forward, Shawn Long, who could be a dark horse lottery pick next year, but he never handled the ball). The perceived weakness is that he’s “transitioning from a small school to the NBA,” but he’s proven himself against the best competition in this draft class and I’m sure his workouts convinced the Magic that his transition will be like anyone else’s from a bigger conference.
Payton’s athleticism isn’t elite, either — it’s good enough to allow him to fully take advantage of openings in the defense, but we’ll have to wait and see how slippery he will be in one-on-one’s against better defenders.
Now, about the shooting: He quite literally did. not. have. to. shoot. while playing in the Sun Belt. He was too effective slashing into the lane for him to even need to shoot. The Cajuns never asked him to shoot — he was a drive-and-kick machine and it’s what got them through the Sun Belt Tournament to the NCAA’s. At times, his 3-point shot looked awkward and forced, but I think it’s just a product of never having to use it — it was rusty. You put him in a gym for an hour and he won’t miss many 3s. It may take some time for him to translate his practice shot to the game, but I have a lot of faith that come a year or two from now, he can be a solid catch-and-shooter from deep. The free-throws are a legitimate concern — you know he’ll work on them, though.
What is Payton’s personality like?
He’s really quiet with the media, but he’s also very honest. His answers were never TV-friendly, but there is always good substance there. He’s a high-character guy, never had any problems that we knew of with teammates — his teammates legitimately enjoyed playing with him. I think it’s a byproduct of his journey from being a zero-star high school recruit — he was never handed anything, and his ego has stayed grounded because of it. Obviously he has come a long way, so you know his focus and work ethic aren’t a problem whatsoever. He wants to win every game, and you can tell that losses don’t sit well with him. After a big win over Western Kentucky in conference play, he sternly said, “It HAD to be done. We had to win this game.” It was like he had succeeded in a successful military operation — he takes winning very seriously.
How do you see Payton fitting on the Magic’s roster?
I initially thought the best fit for Elfrid (as a rookie) would be with a second unit full of shooters — he’s the slasher every good shooting unit needs. But I think the Magic are going to be really fun in transition and on the run, and that fits Elfrid’s game perfectly. Pairing him with Gordon is also a great move — they’re of the exact same mentality on the court, and they have played well together in the past because of it.
You don’t need me to tell you that the Magic eventually need some shooters, but everything Hennigan has done from a personnel standpoint fits right in with Elfrid’s game. The question is if they’ve got TOO many similar players on this roster. Don’t see how you can start Payton next to Oladipo and Harris — I like all three but there needs to be a shooter there. In fairness, this is a team far from its final product, so for now, I think he’s an excellent fit.
What is Payton’s ceiling as a player?
I’m going to stick with Kyle Lowry as a possible ceiling for him — not quite an All-Star, but in that third tier of really good point guards. They aren’t the same player by any means, but a lot of what each does well bleeds over. I think Elfrid can be an all-league defender and a weapon offensively, but not necessarily the first or second weapon. It would be really optimistic of me to assume he will fix his shot and fix his free throws and put up his college numbers in his first few seasons, but you won’t find a rookie who has answered more questions than Elfrid. He’s more NBA-ready than anyone will give him credit for — if he can fix the non-NBA-ready glitches in his game, watch out.