Elfrid Payton May Benefit Most From Small-Ball Lineup

By John Denton
March 4, 2017

ORLANDO – Quite possibly, no one on the Orlando Magic’s roster stands to benefit from the team’s shift to a small-ball, up-tempo style of play more than point guard Elfrid Payton.

Consider the possibilities that such a style presents for Payton, a point guard who is at his best when he’s in the open court and can attack defenders off the dribble. Screaming down each side of him on the break are Aaron Gordon and Terrence Ross, high flyers who were once dunk contest standouts. Then, there’s the multi-talented Evan Fournier, who can spot up from 3-point range or drive to the hoop. And if none of those options are available center Nikola Vucevic has always served as something of a security blanket for Payton what with his pick-and-pop skills and post-up game.

All those possibilities bounce around Payton’s head much the same way that his floppy hair does when he streaks up the court.

``I think it fits me well because it opens up the floor and I can get into the paint with more space,’’ Payton said following Orlando’s whipping of Miami on Friday night, a victory fueled by the point guard’s aggressive play. ``I’m able to get the ball to shooters and attack the rim when the defense isn’t there.’’

Payton and the new-look Magic (23-39) will be put to the test on Sunday afternoon (5 p.m. tipoff) by the Washington Wizards (36-24) and all-star point guard John Wall. Long a Magic killer with his ability to push the pace and attack off high picks, Wall ranks second in the NBA in assists (10.8 apg.) while also contributing 22.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals a game.

Orlando and Washington split a pair of games in November – a Magic win when Wall was out and a Wizards’ victory when Wall played. The last time the Magic saw Washington was on Dec. 6 when the Magic marched into D.C. and thumped the Wizards 124-116 despite 52 points and five 3-pointers from Wall.

At that time, Orlando was 10-12 and wrapping up a stellar five-game road trip with four victories, while Washington was trying to stay afloat following a 7-13 start. From the Magic’s victory in Washington – their first there in nearly five years – the Wizards ripped off 17 consecutive victories at home. Washington, losers on Friday to Toronto after beating the Raptors in Canada two days earlier, are up to third in the East and beat the NBA-leading Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.

``We beat them last time, right?’’ Gordon asked playfully, referring to the rival Wizards. ``We’ll see how it goes.’’

Things have gone well of late for the most part with Payton pushing the pace and players such as Gordon, Fournier and Ross filling the lanes with him on the break. The Magic had a season-best 27 fast break points in last Saturday’s rout of the Atlanta Hawks and they had another 20 points off the fast break in Friday’s whipping of Miami. Not coincidentally, Payton neared triple-double dominance in both games – he had 15 points, nine rebounds and nine assists against the Hawks and 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists on Friday versus the Heat.

In between, the results weren’t so pretty when Payton wasn’t on the floor to attack. He got into early foul trouble trying to guard Derrick Rose on Wednesday and never got into rhythm (two points, four rebounds and four assists in 21 minutes) in the Magic’s ugly loss to New York.

Magic coach Frank Vogel knows that Payton can be a driving force in the team’s new running game if they are getting stops on the defensive end of the floor. Also, flooding the floor with shooters opens driving lanes for the point guard and gives him more room to exercise his creativity as a playmaker.

``Space helps everyone and it definitely helps him,’’ Vogel said. ``He’s a great open-court player and when you’re running – not with a big running down the lane and clogging things up – but with (more wing players), we’re running with space now. He has more room to attack in the open court where he’s the most dangerous and it definitely helps him.’’

Payton’s passing saved the Magic from what could have been an epic collapse on Friday night. Once up 95-79, Orlando saw its lead on the Heat shrink to 97-91 when Vogel turned to Payton to come back into the game with four minutes remaining. Some 15 seconds later, Payton drove hard to the foul line to attract the attention of the defense, freeing up Gordon to come along the baseline for a spectacular alley-oop dunk that sent the Magic on their way to the victory.

Raved Vogel: ``Elfrid Payton played one of his better games of the year. He didn’t score a ton of points, but he had great control and played with great confidence and he worked to defend. You see the plus-27 on the box score and he was a big part of the win.’’

Now, the challenge is try and win again against Wall and the Wizards. Pushing the pace against a speedster like Wall could be inviting danger, but Payton said that’s the way the Magic have to play to have success and to fully take advantage of all the athletic weapons around him.

``It’s a little bit easier for me now with these guys running the floor and us playing at a faster pace,’’ said Payton, who is averaging 12.3 points, 5.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals a game. ``This style fits me more. It fits everybody in (the Magic locker room). It gives Evan space to operate, it gives Terrence space to operate and A.G, going against (power forwards), he’s going to be faster and if they go small, he’s going to get on the glass like he did (on Friday). So it just fits everybody.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.