The 2014 draft is memorable for a few reasons. The Cleveland Cavaliers selected Andrew Wiggins first overall, and subsequently sent him to the Minnesota Timberwolves to build a new big three for LeBron James. Philadelphia watched an injured but talented Joel Embiid fall into their laps. And Bruno Caboclo was drafted even though he was two years away from being two years away.
New Orleans Roots
The first thing you notice about Payton is his hair. Seems easy enough. He isn’t a physical standout the way Embiid is. He doesn’t possess the athleticism that Wiggins or Aaron Gordon jump off of the screen with. There isn’t much about Payton that fans or those around the NBA can point to and say, “that’s what makes Elfrid Payton elite.” That might be the thing that makes Payton so divisive for everyone. There doesn’t seem to be much agreement on what makes him standout other than his hair.
After reading through a great article about Payton from Sam Tabachnik, it starts to become more clear that Payton’s playing style is more of a reflection of his personality, rather than a reflection of what skills he may or may not possess. Growing up in New Orleans, Payton excelled in math and getting his teammates better shots. Tabachnik also noted in his article that Elfrid Payton Sr. would even become frustrated with how often Jr. was looking to get another player a shot rather than taking his own.
College and Draft
Payton lacked major national attention coming out of high school. Again, this could possibly be the result of his natural instinct to incorporate others, rather than attempting to prove himself as a scoring threat at point guard. The only Division 1 offer Payton received was from The University of Louisiana Lafayette. At ULL, Payton took himself from a low priority recruit to a potential NBA lottery pick in three seasons. The message again coming out was that Payton would be a great distributer and would elevate the players around him.
Up to his time entering the NBA, there was rarely a scouting report that highlighted Payton’s shooting ability. He has almost always been known as a pass first point guard, that could potentially develop into a scorer. Magic fans should accept the possibility that this is and was his destiny.
Strengths From Last Season
Looking back on the 2016-2017 season isn’t a great experience for the Magic. There were few positives to take away other than managing to get Terrence Ross for the embarrassing mistake that was the Serge Ibaka trade. Looking at Elfrid Payton’s season nets few positives as well.
Reading through each of Payton’s +/- totals is like riding a rollercoaster. You’re going up, down, it’s all happening really fast, and you feel like throwing up a few times. The Magic lacked offensive consistency and Frank Vogel struggled to find a successful lineup given his glut of big men. Payton and the entire team suffered from this inconsistency. Payton did have the best run of the season during the last 20 or so games.
When the team’s lineup makes sense (doesn’t have Gordon attempting to play the 3), Payton is able to display his potentially elite playmaking ability. In a season where triple doubles were being tracked by the day, Payton was able to get five. This might not be an eye popping number when Russell Westbrook is in the 40’s, but it shows flashes of Payton’s potential.
Making Everyone Else Better
David Morrow highlighted that during the 2016-2017 season the Magic shot at a more efficient clip with Payton.
Elfrid Payton's numbers are pretty impressive, all in all. pic.twitter.com/W4puuOQvug
Elfrid Payton was drafted for his playmaking skills, not his ability to score. Payton is feeling so much pressure to become a more dominant scorer because he is facing an extreme lack of scoring talent around him. The Magic should try to build a core of scorers around Payton before pulling the plug on his time as the starting point guard.
Weaknesses From Last Season
When considering Payton’s biggest weaknesses from last season, it’s impossible to start anywhere other than shooting. Anyone that has seen a picture of Payton knows that his most distinguishing feature is his hair. If you watch videos of Payton shooting, you’ll probably ask yourself, “is the ball hitting his hair?” And you’d be right! SB Nation went so far as to watch all of Payton’s free throw misses in an attempt to definitely answer whether or not his hair impacts his shot. A second video in the article goes into detail about how Payton may actually sabotage his own shooting motion.
Even with excellent playmaking skills, Payton is still limited from his shooting ability. Defenders give him plenty of space at the three point line, limiting the amount of spacing he can create. Without the requisite scoring ability, defenders will often show, then go under, or even just go under every pick. Not only will this force Payton into an uncomfortable position, but it takes away what the Magic do have available, scoring from big men.
Even with the signing of Shelvin Mack, there shouldn’t be a competition for the starting point guard job going into the season. The Magic should use this year as a true test as to whether or not Payton is their point guard. Payton has been his best when he’s had a clearly defined role and when the team’s lineup has had a chance to settle into consistency.
The Magic desperately needed to add experience and locker room presence this offseason. They accomplished that goal by signing Jonathon Simmons and Marreese Speights. Those players will take care of the leadership roles in the locker room. It will be Payton’s responsibility to establish himself as the leader of the team on the court.
This year will define what the next five years look like for the team. Everyone knows the Magic are stuck in an awkward space between tanking and competing for an 8th seed. Josh Pavlicek wrote about the Magic being caught in the “NBA Wasteland.” The Magic are similarly in roster wasteland. Are Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton good enough to match big contracts once they hit Restricted Free Agency? Payton will need to considerably improve his stock this season to convince Orlando to match any offers he might receive. If Payton is able to improve his outside shot, help Jonathan Isaac develop, and consistently have a positive impact on games, then the Magic will need to extend his contract.
Adjust Your Expectations
Magic supporters need to adjust their expectations for Payton. Not lower them, adjust them. The NBA is in the middle of an era where point guards are either a constant three point threat or are asserting themselves on offense to the point where triple doubles are no longer special. Payton might simply be a casualty to his era. Or the reality might be that Payton just isn’t good enough to be a starting point guard in the NBA. I happen to believe that Payton has the talent, but has lacked the consistency necessary to be a point guard that might only be elite at playmaking.
With a contract year ahead of him, expect to see Payton dedicate himself to consistently making his presence known. And be on the lookout for Jonathan Isaac to be the recipient of some exciting pick and roll alley-oops. As long as their hair doesn’t get in the way too much.
LOS ANGELES, USA – JANUARY 08 :Elfrid Payton of Orlando Magic reacts during a NBA game between Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic at Staples Center in Los Angeles, USA on January 08, 2017. (Photo by Mintaha Neslihan Eroglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)