ORLANDO – Elfrid Payton’s world was rocked so much so on Feb. 6 when his 69-year-old grandfather, Willis ``Meatball’’ Clofer, died that he said he was almost emotionally indifferent to the fact that he was traded by the Orlando Magic two days later.
Only now, as Payton returned to Orlando and the Amway Center for the first time since the Magic shipped him to the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 8, is he starting to fully process the life-altering events that took place six weeks ago.
``Honestly, my grandfather had just passed, so if it makes any sense at all, (getting traded) was like an afterthought for me,’’ said Payton, Orlando’s starting point guard for 3 ½ seasons from 2014-18. ``Actually, it’s kind of just starting to soak in to me that, `Wow, I don’t play here for Orlando anymore.’ It was still a little bit of shock (getting traded), but I really didn’t get a chance to embrace it because I was dealing with something else.’’
Acquired by the Magic in a draft-night trade in 2014, Payton was the starter at point guard much of the past 3 ½ seasons. He enjoyed the highs of eight triple-doubles – a Magic franchise record – and many big individual nights, but also the lows of three-plus years of losing and being unable to have a major impact because of his defensive and shooting struggles. In Orlando, Payton played on teams that won just 25, 35 and 29 games and the Magic were a disappointing 17-36 when he was traded to Phoenix.
Payton’s best statistical season proved to be his last one in Orlando as he averaged 13 points, 6.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 37.3 percent from 3-point range in 44 games. In 17 games with Phoenix since the trade, Payton has averaged 12.8 points, 6.3 assists and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 44 percent from the floor and 22.7 percent from 3-point range. He came into Saturday with two triple-double performances for the Suns and a 29-point scoring night against the Golden State Warriors.
Payton said prior to tipoff that playing against his former teammates would somewhat stir his emotions, especially with the Magic planning to play a memory-filled tribute video for him during the game.
``I think it will be a little emotional, but I’m not really the sentimental type,’’ Payton said. ``But I’m definitely grateful for this city and the organization here.’’
MARIO’S MOMENT: In the nine games prior to the break for the NBA All-Star Game, Mario Hezonja played easily the best basketball of his two-plus-year Magic career.
The Magic were without key pieces such as Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon during that stretch and Hezonja stepped up and took advantage of the opportunity provided to him. In that nine-game stretch, Hezonja had four efforts with at least 20 points and he averaged 16.9 points and 5.7 rebounds in 29.6 minutes on the floor. Even more impressively, Hezonja shot a solid 50 percent from the floor and drilled 21 of his 47 3-point shots (44.6 percent).
For a variety of reasons, Hezonja hasn’t played nearly as well since returning from the break for the NBA All-Star Game. First, the return of Gordon and Vucevic put Hezonja back into a reserve role. And with Gordon back playing big minutes, it meant that Hezonja was used more at small forward than his preferred power forward position.
In the 15 games after the break, Hezonja’s numbers have taken a noticeable nosedive. He’s still playing 24.1 minutes a night, but he’s averaging just 9.7 points and 3.4 rebounds while making only 38.6 percent of his field goal attempts and just 26.3 percent of his tries from 3-point range.
``It’s different now because I’m more at the (small forward position),’’ said Hezonja, who was back in the starting lineup on Saturday. ``When (head coach) Frank (Vogel) puts me with the second unit, I’m more in my rhythm, more plays are for me and I can have a better defensive impact. In the first group, I’m kind of in what I like to call an Andre Roberson role (all defense and little shooting), where you’re doing the job, but you are having quiet nights all the time and you are doing stuff that isn’t on the stat sheet. It’s a little different because I want to do it all. It’s not frustrating, but weird to learn to do stuff that is impacting us and isn’t showing up on the stat sheet.’’
RESERVES RECALLED: With the Magic being extremely short-handed because of injuries to Evan Fournier (knee sprain), Jonathan Isaac (foot strain), Jonathan Simmons (thumb contusion) and Terrence Ross (knee sprain), the Magic recalled rookies Khem Birch and Rodney Purvis and transferred two-way player Jamel Artis back to Orlando.
Those three players factored heavily into the Lakeland Magic’s 123-109 defeat of Delaware on Friday night. Lakeland entered Saturday’s final game of the G League season most likely needing to win to reach the playoffs in the franchise’s first year of existence. While the Magic would have liked to have left the three players down at the G League level to help Lakeland’s chances of getting into the postseason the decision was made to recall the players to keep the Magic from potentially coming up short-handed in its game against the Suns.
Purvis, who is in on his second 10-day contract at the NBA level, scored a team-high 19 points on Thursday by making eight of 12 shots and three of five 3-pointers. A night later, he pumped in 18 points in Lakeland’s G League victory.
Purvis’ second 10-day contract expires on Tuesday and the Magic must decide whether they intend to sign the guard for the rest of the season or release him. Thus far, Vogel has been impressed with the guard’s shooting stroke.
``Obviously, we’ve got to see what (President of Basketball Operations) Jeff (Weltman) and (GM) John (Hammond) decide after his 10-day is up and what the rest of the season is going to look like, but he’s shown me a lot,’’ Vogel said. ``He was brought up to us on a 10-day contract because of the good year that he’s had in the G League and he’s shown me that he can do it at this level. It’s been impressive.’’
UP NEXT: In the midst of their longest home stand of the season – seven games over 17 days – the Magic will now have three nights off before playing again.
The Magic don’t play again until Wednesday when they host the rebuilding Brooklyn Nets. Orlando beat the Nets 125-121 at the Amway Center on Oct. 24 but lost twice to Brooklyn on its home floor.
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