Rookie Series: College Coach Praises Payton

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By John Denton
Aug. 19, 2014

ORLANDO -- Orlando Magic fans are understandably eager to witness the promising potential of point guard Elfrid Payton, especially after the way that the rookie point guard shot up draft boards in June and shined in the summer league in July.

Who better to give Magic fans some insight into Payton’s talents, work ethic and desire to great than Bob Marlin, the point guard’s coach at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette the past three seasons?

Over the next couple of weeks here at OrlandoMagic.com, we’re going to give fans a look at Magic rookies Aaron Gordon, Devyn Marble and Payton through the eyes of their college coaches at Arizona, Iowa and Louisiana-Lafayette, respectively.

Orlando drafted Gordon No. 4, boldly traded with Philadelphia for Payton (the No. 10 pick) and then snagged Marble in the second round of the draft. All three rookies played well in the summer, have spent large chunks of the offseason in Orlando working on their games and should push for spots in the rotation when training camp opens on Sept. 30.

Of all the memories that Payton provided while in college, one is a particular favorite of Marlin’s when it comes to the point guard with the floppy hair and the do-everything skills.

For some background, it was just after Thanksgiving in 2012 and Payton was a blossoming sophomore for Louisiana-Lafayette, who was in the midst of a difficult three-game roadtrip. From here, Marlin talks about the resolve and fight that Payton showed in helping ULL nearly pull off one of the biggest upset wins in school history against highly touted Michigan State.

``We had played at New Mexico State the Friday night after Thanksgiving, played terrible and got beat by like 25 points. Elfrid played bad and it was one of his worst games,’’ said Marlin, a college coaching veteran of 33 years. ``We left after the game and bussed to El Paso. We get up at 5 in the morning, fly to Chicago, layover there, fly to Grand Rapids and when we get there we don’t have a bus. We finally get to practice at 8 o’clock that night after travelling all day. It’s midnight by the time we’re back at the hotel and the game is at noon the next day.

``It was a really quick turnaround, but the bottom line is we play great,’’ Marlin continued. ``We should have won the game, but we lost by three. Elfrid was instrumental for us and he totally outplayed (Michigan State’s Keith) Appling. Elfrid said that the game really gave him the confidence that he could really play with the elite players in the country. We had the ball and down two with 30 seconds to play and we ran a pick-and-roll play and Elfrid gave the ball up and we thought our guy got fouled but they didn’t call it. That game and the way that Elfrid finished that season gave him such confidence.’’

Payton was a one-man wrecking crew that day in East Lansing, Mich. He scored 20 points, swiped seven steals, grabbed six rebounds and handed out two assists. His defense played a major role in the more-acclaimed Appling missing seven of his 11 shots and turning the ball over four times and Michigan State giving the ball away 20 times in the game.

That game, Marlin said, was just confirmation of what he and his coaches already knew: Payton was a truly gifted athlete and one capable of carrying a team with his unselfish and dominating skills. Few realized that early when Payton was a lightly recruited high school player – Xavier (La.) was the only other scholarship offer – but Marlin could tell from the start that Payton had the chance to be a difference maker for the Ragin’ Cajuns. And Payton’s desire to work, to study the game and to push himself only added to the total package, the veteran coach said.

``Elfrid wound up at the end of his first year starting in the conference tournament and he played super. … I tuned the keys over to Elfrid and he almost had a triple-double in the conference tournament against North Texas. And then he had a great offseason after his freshman year,’’ said Marlin of Payton, who led the Sun Belt Conference in steals and assists as a raw sophomore. ``The All-Conference teams came out and Elfrid wasn’t on the first three teams in the preseason and we knew he was the best player in the league. But no one else knew that. Of course, he wound up making it as a unanimous first-team all-conference pick after the season.’’

Marlin played a big role in helping Payton escape obscurity and become one of the fastest-rising prospects in all of college basketball over the past year. Last summer, the coach pushed hard for Payton to play for the Reach USA Cultural Exchange Tour, which took basketball players to China for an eight-game, 18-day trip. Coincidentally, it was the same trip that Magic guard Victor Oladipo took before his breakout junior season at Indiana University.

Marlin then put in a call to University of Florida coach Billy Donovan, who was guiding USA Basketball’s Under-19 squad in the summer of 2013. Marlin was trying to land Payton a tryout for the squad, but the point guard did a lot more than just audition. He ended up starting every game for Team USA while in Prague – ahead of more-acclaimed guards Marcus Smart and Rashad Suliman – and teamed with Gordon to lead the squad to the gold medal.

``I told Elfrid that Oladipo had gone on that same trip to China and it really helped him, so I used that when pitching it to Elfrid. That really helped him too. The same thing when he went to USA Basketball,’’ Marlin said. ``Elfrid was just on a mission when he went to Colorado Springs (for USA Basketball drills). He shot the ball so well and Billy (Donovan) told me he was impressed with how hard that he worked. He hasn’t backed off that one bit and he’s continued to rise. … Elfrid wound up being the perfect fit for that USA Basketball group. He started every game and made a big difference in the championship game. He really filled that point guard role that Billy was looking for.’’

In Payton, Marlin said the Magic are getting a humble and even-keeled player who understands the value of hard work. Marlin tells stories of Payton spending hours in ULL’s basketball offices watching game tapes and NBA TV because ``he just loves the history of the game.’’ The coach said that in many ways he feels like a proud father because of the way that Payton accepted coaching, worked on his flaws and improved dramatically each of the past three seasons.

And, of course, it didn’t hurt that Payton has the wingspan of a small forward, the quickness of a tailback and the cross-over dribble of a legend. Payton lived at the paint and at the foul line in college because defenders simply couldn’t stay in front of him, and Marlin figures that the point guard will do the same in the NBA with the Magic.

``I told all of the NBA guys that I had never coached in their league, but I’m a fan of the NBA and I watch. I told them that there are two things I know – Elfrid is really good defender and he can absolutely get to the paint against grown men in the NBA,’’ Marlin said. ``He’s shown it at every level. He has an (Allen) Iverson-like crossover and such a great pace about him. He can change gears and change speed and he has that confidence with the ball. And with his length, he can really get into the paint and do some things. He’ll do fine. I know some people knocked on his turnovers, but that’s just part of it where he handled the ball so much for us. He can value the ball and he’ll be great as a point guard in the NBA.’’

Marlin lauded the Magic for doing their homework on Payton by scouting several of his ULL games and sending a team of executives to Lafayette, La., prior to the draft to learn more about Payton’s work habits and off-court persona. He said that in time, Magic fans will discover that Payton is a humble person, a hard worker on the basketball court and a person of high morals.

Another of Marlin’s favorite stories speaks to Payton’s true character.

``After the draft and his trip to Orlando, Elfrid flew back to New Orleans and he called me and told me that he didn’t get a chance to do all of the media obligations locally and wanted to come back and thank everybody,’’ remembered Marlin, who will get to witness Payton’s NBA debut on Oct. 28 when the Magic open the 2014-15 season in New Orleans against the Pelicans. ``Elfrid asked me to set up a press conference, which was neat. Before the draft everybody wanted to talk to him and everybody wanted a piece of him and he couldn’t do it all. I thought that showed what kind of person that he was that he wanted to come back and thank his teammates, his coaches and his university and our president was there. All of that little stuff just shows you what kind of person that Elfrid really is.’’