Cameron Payne is not the biggest, but continues to defy critics

“I was always the little guy, but I had a lot of heart and always could compete.”

By Sam Smith

Cameron Payne is small, though he’s also not Tiny.

No one expects the Bulls’ new point guard to be the next Tiny Archibald, the southpaw bantamweight Hall of Famer who is the only player ever to lead the NBA in points and assists in the same season. Though if Payne delivers the hurt a bit like his NBA favorite, the Bulls will be feeling good about last week’s trade.

“I like Nick Van Exel, a savvy left hand guy,” said Payne. “I watch a lot of tape on him. I play with a chip on my shoulder. Being looked over like I’ve been it makes you go hard every day. It still does to this day because I still feel I don’t get much credit for what I do. I always had a chip on my shoulder to try to outplay the next guy.”

It’s a trait that has served Payne well, going from a Lilliputian 5-5 high school freshman at a small private school in Memphis and backup guard on his AAU team to little Murray State and then zooming up the board to be a 2015 lottery pick at No. 14 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Playing behind the mesmerizing Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, which was like being on Lake Shore Drive in a snowstorm during rush hour, the only place Payne was going was the occasional D-league excursion.

“It was difficult,” Payne concedes. “But I took it as a learning experience for my first couple of years, learn as much as I could because I was playing behind one of the best guys in the NBA. So I felt it was a good situation for me; helped my defense playing Russ every day (in practice). He never stops.”

Now, Payne is ready to get started, and it began for him Saturday in the Bulls 117-99 victory in Cleveland. Payne played 12 minutes, all in the second quarter, shooting the ball well with two of three on three pointers for six points, a bit careless with the ball having two turnovers, and, most importantly, starting to find a role on an NBA team other than pregame dancing.

Yes, that’s just about all Payne has been known for, a rhythmic pre-game routine with Westbrook. Payne was asked about it repeatedly in coming to the Bulls, and it was clear while being polite he wanted to most talk about moving forward in basketball.

“I’m someone who likes to have fun playing basketball,” says Payne. “But I’m just here to play basketball. Just getting out and playing, to contribute to the team is the best thing for me now.”

It’s yet another uphill battle for Payne as one among perhaps five point guards on the Bulls roster. Coach Fred Hoiberg worked in Payne Saturday between Jerian Grant and Rajon Rondo, which seems a likely introductory role moving forward.

It’s also a chance for the Bulls to move forward as they go for a season best fifth straight win Tuesday at home against the Denver Nuggets before Thursday’s anticipated annual visit by the Golden State Warriors on national TNT. Then it’s the Clippers Saturday in the United Center as the Bulls try to begin a March to the playoffs.

Payne also says he’s ready. He’s been in these positions before, like third string point guard when he arrived at Murray State to being freshman player of the year and by the end of his sophomore season the conference player of the year.

“My dad was always my coach, and when I first started playing he always told me to keep my head up,” said Payne.

It’s become something of an inspiration. Cameron has continued to look up when no one bothered to look down and he’s defied the critics throughout. Now, the Bulls hope he’ll develop into a valuable point guard for the team after the trade of Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City. The Bulls also got Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow in the transaction.

“Watching him on film, he has great instincts in that point position, is a guy who plays well in pick and roll,” said Hoiberg. “Talking to people at Oklahoma City and his college coach (now coaching at Iowa State), they talked about his ability to get into the paint and make plays; has good length, good anticipation on the defensive end. I’m excited to get him out there and see what he can do.

“Because of his feel (for the game), he’s a pure point and there’s not a lot of those guys around, a guy who can organize you offensively, defensively; those guys are important. It (also) sounds like he’s not afraid of the moment and willing to step up and take and make shots. He was a guy who really climbed up the ranks at draft time."

Fred Hoiberg

That’s been the story for Payne, who measured just under 6-2 with shoes at the 2015 NBA draft combine. He’s about the same size as Indiana’s Jeff Teague.

Payne weighs in at about 180 pounds now, and that’s with weight work. He’s a left hander with a long wingspan. He’s considered good with the dribble and a creative passer who pushes the ball, though not a great finisher. He was about a 35 percent three-point shooter in college, but showed a nice stroke with the Bulls Saturday playing off Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade. He’s not considered a dynamic athlete, but is said to have a good court sense and is a bold competitor.

Probably because no one ever imagined he could be.

“I was small, a little guy, didn’t weigh anything. My parents wanted to send me to private school; they were more focused on academics than basketball. I wasn’t very tall. The bigger schools didn’t want to give me no love. I was always the little guy, but I had a lot of heart and always could compete. I went to Murray and it made me a better player."

Payne recalling about not being much recruited out of Lausanne School in Memphis

Payne’s brother played small college ball and his dad, Tony, now an athletic director at a church school, was a top recreation player. Payne made Penny Hardaway’s Memphis AAU team, but as a backup. Still, he just liked to play.

“Every day it was just school and basketball,” Payne recalls. “My dad was a point guard; he was like 5-9. I didn’t grow, so that was the only position I could play.

“My dad coached me forever and the main thing he taught me was keep your team involved,” recalled Payne. “’You have the ball, you can get your shot when you want. The biggest thing is keep your team as involved as you can.’ Everything was always about winning.”

He had sniffs from places like the College of Charleston and Jacksonville after leading his high school team to a state title, but decided on Kentucky’s Murray State because they’d recruited him early. Their star guard, Isaiah Canaan, was leaving, though Payne was hardly considered the replacement. Canaan now is a Bulls teammate.

When Cameron arrived, the starting point guard tore his ACL and the projected backup was ineligible as a transfer until midseason. So Payne stepped in and, as he always seemed to do, shocked the world. He was first team all-conference and then as a sophomore led the team to an undefeated conference season before an NIT loss. He declared for the draft and in workouts shot up to third rated point guard after D’Angelo Russell and Emanuel Mudiay.

Payne spent his rookie season with the Thunder back and forth to the D-league. He did have 17 points and seven assists getting some regular time against the Spurs to finish the season and led the Orlando summer league in scoring. He had surgery for a foot fracture after the season and then had another in camp with the Thunder before this season. He’s healthy now. Earlier this month, he had 15 points in a win over Cleveland and two weeks later was traded to the Bulls.

Another Mike Conley or Brandon Jennings? He’s working on Cameron Payne for now.

“I got better, I got stronger,” Payne said about his college experience. “I lifted more weights and it was my team; they gave me the key to the car and I feel I did a good job with it. Now I’m happy to be here and want to make the most of it.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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