Damian Lillard Impressed With Elfrid Payton

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By John Denton
Aug. 12, 2014

ORLANDO -- Orlando Magic rookie Elfrid Payton has yet to play his first regular-season NBA game and therefore has proven very little at all, but he’s already made a believer out of all-star point guard Damian Lillard that he has a bright future.

In the days leading up to the NBA Draft, Lillard proclaimed Payton to be the best point guard prospect available – even though other highly touted point guards Marcus Smart and Dante Exum were ranked higher. Lillard, an all-star and a playoff hero for the Portland Trail Blazers, watched some of Payton’s games at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and witnessed some of his pre-draft workouts and he was sold on the talents of the wiry-strong 6-foot-3 point guard.

Just before the draft, Lillard had this to say in a Twitter post: ``Don’t sleep on Elfrid Payton … I watched a couple of his games. He can hoop.’’ Recently, during USA Basketball practices, Lillard had this to say about the Magic’s rookie point guard:

``In Elfrid I saw a player with great size and length and how he played the game. He defended and made plays and scored when he needed to,’’ Lillard said. ``When I sat back and watched him play, I just said to myself, `Wow, that’s a NBA player.’ A lot of times you can’t see that in college players. Some of them have all of the hype, but you just can’t see pro potential in them. But with Elfrid, I knew he would be good at the NBA level.’’

The Magic saw a lot of the same things and made a bold trade on draft night with the Philadelphia 76ers to secure the rights to Payton. He didn’t disappoint in the Orlando Pro Summer League, leading all rookies in assists and playing with the kind of fearlessness and awareness that have some believing that Payton could be the hidden gem that emerges from the 2014 draft class.

Similarly, that was the case with Lillard, who wasn’t picked until sixth in the 2012 NBA Draft, but went on to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. Lillard and Payton identify closely with one another because of their small-school backgrounds and the doubts that they would ever make it to the professional level.

Lillard hailed from tiny Weber State, but thrived in college as one of the nation’s top scorers while averaging 24.5 points per game as a senior. Payton had just two scholarship offers coming out of high school in tiny Gretna, La., but he ultimately morphed into a standout player at Louisiana-Lafayette. Payton outplayed higher-acclaimed players at Michigan State (when he had 20 points, seven steals and six rebounds) and starred on USA Basketball’s Under-18 team ahead of better-known players such as Oklahoma State’s Smart and Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon.

While in college at Louisiana-Lafayette, coach Bob Marlin would often show Payton video and news articles of Lillard. He told him stories of how Lillard went from being a small-school standout to a NBA star and told him the blossoming guard that he had the same potential. Marlin also used his vast contacts in the coaching profession to acquire some of the DVDs from Lillard’s pre-draft workouts so that Payton could study them.

``We had followed Damian’s career path and we were trying to help Elfrid because we thought he was really special, too,’’ Marlin said. ``We got the DVDs of Lillard’s workouts and Elfrid came in and watched them and got copies made of them. So he’s patterned a lot of his career after Lillard to this point.

``Now, will Elfrid shoot the ball as well as Lillard? Probably not, because he’s a different type of player than he is,’’ Marlin continued. ``But he’s a great person like Lillard. And I think that Elfrid can really help the Magic get to where they want to go in a hurry.’’

Payton took the Lillard inspiration to heart, improved greatly over his final two seasons in college and blazed his own trail to the NBA as a small-school star.

``Somebody (like Lillard) coming from a small school with the odds stacked against him, he showed that if you continue to work hard it paid off for him,’’ Payton said recently. ``You can see now that he’s one of the best in the game right now and he’s doing well for himself.’’

Lillard thinks that Payton and fellow guard Victor Oladipo will do quite well for themselves in the coming years – much to the benefit of the Magic. Oladipo was a lightly regarded player coming out of high school and he used the desire to prove himself to become a college standout and a solid rookie last season for the Magic.

Lillard said that in Payton’s case, he sees a player who is hungry to prove to others that he belongs at the professional level. Lillard was joyed to hear that Payton studied his path to the NBA while in college and considers him a role model for the future.

``I’m only two or three years older than him, so it’s flattering to hear that he looks up to me,’’ said Lillard, who averaged 20.7 points and 5.6 assists a game last season for the Trail Blazers. ``When you are coming from the small schools like he and I did, you don’t know for sure that you will ever get that shot at the NBA. But when I watched Payton’s game, I was a fan and I knew he’d play in the NBA. I’m a big fan of his. We came from similar situations in college and I appreciate that he respects what I have been able to do coming from a small school. I’m a fan of what he’s been able to do because I know what it takes to overcome those odds and succeed at this level.’’

Payton piled up numbers in Orlando’s summer league action, averaging 9.2 points, 7.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals a game. He had two near-triple-double performances and games where he scored 18 points, handed out 10 assists, grabbed as many as nine rebounds and swiped four steals.

Lillard watched some of the summer league action from afar and he said that Payton’s ability to get into the lane, his fearlessness at the rim and his desire to be great affirmed to him that the rookie has a bright future in the NBA.

``In college I could see it when he played against the big schools being that he was from a mid-major school. I remember how I felt playing those teams. He is out there playing with something to prove and with a chip on his shoulder,’’ Lillard said. ``Sometimes I actually think he could do a lot more than he does on the court because the game kind of comes easy to him. I can just see that with his talent and comfort level that he’s going to be a good one for a long time.’’