Elfrid Payton Opening Eyes in Camp

Elfrid Payton

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By John Denton
Oct. 4, 2014

ORLANDO -- In the evolution of every elite basketball player – from junior high to high school, high school to college and college to the NBA – there is always a tiny seed of doubt of whether what has worked in the past will work at the next level.

For Orlando Magic rookie point guard Elfrid Payton, there was a brief time when he wondered deep down if he would still be able to blow by defenders and live in the lane the way he had always done at every level of the sport. Could he still cross over foes and get to the rim? Could he still use his rangy 6-foot-3 frame to create separation and pierce the heart of the defense? And basically, could he continue to go to what he’s used his entire basketball life to live out this dream of reaching the NBA?

Several dazzling summer league performances certainly helped put Payton’s mind somewhat at ease, but that was against mostly free-agent and minor league competition. How would he do in his first NBA training camp and while often facing a cat-quick contemporary in Victor Oladipo?

Well, to hear Magic coaches and players tell it after five days of training camp practices, Payton should have no problem doing what he does – and by that it means shaking defenders off the dribble and creating for teammates with his fearlessness while driving to the rim – at the NBA level. Bigger challenges certainly lie ahead against the likes of superstar point guards Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook, but so far Payton has proven himself to be the same aggressive and attacking point guard that the Magic thought they were getting when they traded for him on draft night.

The early training camp success has helped Payton, a humble, soft-spoken person, know that he very much belongs at the NBA level and that he still has the ability thrive with his quickness off the dribble.

``Yeah, definitely there was (doubt), but I can do it,’’ Payton said Saturday morning of his confidence in beating foes off the dribble. ``I’ve found out that I can do it. The games are still to come and we’ll see if I can do it there, but I’ve been able to do it so far in practice.’’

Payton has impressed his coaches and teammates throughout training camp with his all-out competitiveness, grit and, of course, his innate skills as a playmaking point guard. He’s gone at Oladipo – and vice versa – in drill work and fiery scrimmage sessions and neither has given an inch – much to the delight of a coaching staff that wanted to see competition in every position in this training camp. Oladipo, who starred as a rookie with his relentless hustle and attacking nature, has gone at the rookie hard so far and he’s come away quite impressed with the toughness shown.

``We’ve got to give each other different looks. He defends at a high level and so do I, so that’s been good for both of us,’’ Oladipo said. ``That competition is only going to make us better because the league isn’t going to take it light on us. We’re trying to make each other better and I’ve been impressed with E.’’

Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn, who knows a thing or two about the point guard position from his 12 years in the league as a player, has already fallen in love with Payton’s willingness to fight through every drill. And what has also been eye-opening to Vaughn is the fearlessness that Payton shows when splitting the defense and attacking the rim regardless of what 7-footer might be lurking to splatter him on the floor.

``He’s a very competitive individual and he wants to win. Whether it’s a one-on-one drill or a five-on-five scrimmage, his ability to compete and raise the level of competitiveness of his teammates with his passion, we’ve definitely been able to see that,’’ Vaughn said. ``Part of his aggressiveness is a mindset of putting the ball on the (floor) and wanting to get it into the defense and make plays. He has an ability to get into the paint. He has the size to do it. He has some natural instincts of what to do once he gets to the rim. So I’ve been very pleased with that.’’

Payton was just part of a big draft-night haul for the Magic last June. Orlando nabbed versatile forward Aaron Gordon with the fourth pick, made a bold move to trade for Payton, and scooped up Devyn Marble in the second round. Marble has shown an ability to guard multiple positions and knock down open threes in scrimmages so far, while Gordon has impressed Vaughn with his smarts and strength, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

One example of Gordon’s acumen and maturity, Vaughn said, was when the Magic recently ran a defensive drill where players had to rotate positions on the floor. Gordon not only knew the assignments of every player, but he also took the proper angles and was able to repeatedly get stops.

``If I break down levels of where a guy is supposed to be and I ranked them defensively, (Gordon) has been a pleasant surprise in terms of being in the right spot,’’ Vaughn gushed. ``He’s very strong and it allows him to be physical without fouling. That’s a key component in today’s defense – being physical without fouling. Aaron’s shown the capability to guard out on the perimeter, but also the resistance if the ball goes into the post because of his strength.’’

Unquestionably, a major strength of Payton’s game is his ability to create for others while driving the lane. He lived in the lane last season as a junior at Louisiana-Lafayette, shooting a whopping 302 free throws (second most in the nation) and handing out 5.9 assists a game.

Payton felt that it was important for him to show a willingness to attack the rim in his first NBA training camp. He plays with a fearlessness about him and he wants his new Magic teammates to know that he’s not going to back down regardless of what situation he’s put in this season.

``You definitely have to be fearless,’’ the point guard with the floppy hair said. ``Me being a point guard you have to be the leader. Guys have to know that you aren’t scared of anything and that you are ready to lead. It’s just part of the job.’’

Vaughn said the Magic are still contemplating just how much to put on the platter of a rookie like Payton, while making sure not to overload him right away. The Magic were extremely patient last season with Oladipo, using him both off the bench and as a starter. Vaughn said that Payton has a different temperament and different skills and that they will challenge him on a daily basis while also taking his youth into account.

``We have a different team this year, so Elfrid’s framework could be different than how we approached Vic’s opportunity,’’ Vaughn said. ``But we’ll continue to challenge him with opportunities and see how he deals with them. We’ll give him all that he can handle and see what he does.’’

Payton, a native of Gretna, La., won’t have to wait long to show off his prowess as a NBA guard to his family and fans back home as the Magic will open the regular season on Oct. 28 in New Orleans against the Pelicans. Payton couldn’t help but chuckle when the NBA schedule came out and he realized that his NBA debut would come just miles away from where he grew up. For a player who was lightly regarded coming out of high school and for much of his college career, it will be a chance to show that he’s used the same explosiveness quickness to reach basketball’s highest level.’’

``I was a little shocked when I saw that (schedule), but it’s exciting to go home and have a little homecoming to start the season off,’’ he said. ``I don’t know an exact number (of ticket requests), but it’s going to be a lot, though.’’

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