Elfrid Payton Takes Pride In Improving As Season Goes Along

By John Denton
Dec. 29, 2017

ORLANDO – Depending on perspective, Elfrid Payton has either been a slow starter or a strong finisher in his three-plus seasons as the Orlando Magic’s point guard.

This season, however, necessity might have finally jarred Payton out of that puzzling pattern and to a point where he’s now playing some of the best basketball of his career.

Payton proved that once again on Thursday when he was at his do-everything best by stuffing the stat sheet with 19 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and a steal in 39 minutes. At the end of the night, there was only one statistic that Payton cared about: Magic 102, Pistons 89.

``Individually, it means nothing. Honestly, for real,’’ said Payton, ramming home his team-first focus with emphasis. ``I know people say that all the time, but it means nothing to me if we don’t win. (Thursday’s win) would be the proof for me.’’

Though he hates talking about himself and his individual contributions, Payton has been on quite a roll of late and he hopes to keep it up on Saturday when the Magic (12-24) face the rival Miami Heat at the Amway Center. The Magic beat the Heat in the season-opener in Orlando, while Miami got revenge earlier this week in South Florida. Payton, a fourth-year pro, knows full well that Orlando’s defeat of Detroit on Thursday will mean very little if it delivers a dud against Miami on Saturday.

``We definitely need to string wins together, but we’re taking wins wherever we can get them now,’’ said Payton, whose Magic will be trying to nab consecutive victories for the first time since Nov. 8 and 10 against New York and Phoenix. ``We did some good things (against Detroit) and we did some good things in the past Miami game (on Tuesday), but we just let them get hot in that fourth quarter. We need to win this game and we feel like it’s a big game for us, especially with it being at home.’’

With the Magic severely shorthanded with injuries much of December – Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon have been out while Nikola Vucevic (fractured left hand), Terrence Ross (knee sprain) and Jonathan Isaac (ankle soreness) are still inactive – Magic coach Frank Vogel went to Payton recently and asked for more production and aggressiveness. Payton responded with his best stretch of the season, averaging all-star-like numbers (19.2 points, 7.5 assists and 5.3 rebounds a game on 59.5 percent shooting) over the past six games. Included among those performances was Payton’s night in Washington when he was a one-man wrecking crew with a career-best 30 points, 10 assists while also grabbing five rebounds.

Vogel was most impressed with Thursday’s defeat of Detroit – a game where Payton saved his best basketball for when the game was on the line. With the Magic clinging to a 77-73 lead, Payton not only played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter, but he had a hand in 17 points with two baskets of his own, two free throws and four assists leading to three 3-pointers and a sealing dunk for Gordon. His play allowed Orlando to outscore Detroit 25-16 in the fourth and cruise to a much-needed victory.

``I’m very impressed because he’s been picking up the slack for us,’’ Vogel said. ``(Thursday) night he did it more with the pass than scoring and that’s what I think is needed most from him right now. … Last night, he had 20 adjusted assists with 11 of his passes that led to missed shots. So, he could have had a (Rajon) Rondo-esque night but we didn’t have the greatest finishing night. I thought he distributed the ball really well.’’

Vogel and the Magic are hoping that Payton’s strong play is the start of a stellar stretch that the point guard usually produces after the all-star break, for whatever reason. The 23-year-old Payton is well aware that he’s been a far more productive player post-all-star break throughout his career, but he’s never been able to exactly pinpoint the reason other than his strong desire to continue to get better daily.

In his three NBA seasons prior to this one, Payton’s impact on the Magic has always been more dynamic in February, March and April than it has been in October, November, December and January. Not only has all eight of his triple-doubles come in March and April, but his pre-all-star break numbers (10.8 ppg., 5.8 apg., 3.8 rpg. in 189 games) pale in comparison to his post-all-star break statistics (11.4 ppg., 8.1 apg., 5.2 rpg. in 75 games).

``The goal is always to get better as the season goes along and that’s something that I take a lot of pride in,’’ Payton said in searching for reasons as to why his finishes have always been better than his starts. ``I always try to work on my game and get better every day. If it feels like that’s happening a little bit earlier this year, then it’s (coming) earlier.’’

Payton’s start to this season was ruined somewhat when he strained his right hamstring in the Magic’s second game of the season. That injury knocked him out of the next eight games and nine games total, but he’s responded to give the Magic 12.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.33 steals a game while shooting an impressive 51.3 percent from the floor and an acceptable 37 percent when dared into taking 3-point shots.

What Vogel is most happy about is that Payton has taken more of an ownership of his defense, working harder to contain opposing point guards and being more vigorous in fighting over screens. Payton was tremendous on both ends of the floor over the final 24 games of last season (13.5 ppg., 8.4 apg., 7.0 rpg. and five triple-doubles) and Vogel joked that ``hopefully we’re into that phase’’ already this season.

``It’s good at times, not good at times – like most of our team – but it’s improved over where it was last year,’’ Vogel said of his point guard’s containment defensively. ``He’s been challenged incessantly since I’ve been here to improve, especially toward the second half of the year. The improvement toward the second half of last season was a reason for the uptick in his numbers. I think he’s picked up where he left off last year.’’

Gordon, often a recipient of Payton’s lobs for alley-oop dunks, prods his close friend regularly to use his wiry-strong 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame more against smallish point guards, stressing that he can play ``bully ball’’ to get the Magic baskets when the offense grows stagnant. Payton stressed that it’s a balancing act trying to look for his own points, while also setting up others for baskets.

This much, however, is for certain: When the Magic win, Payton is often a driving force. In the seven wins he’s played in, he’s averaged 13 points, 7.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.0 steals while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor. He knows he needs his team needs more out of him and he wants to keep this run going for as long as possible.

``Sometimes I forget (that he has a size advantage on most guards) and when I look in the past I realize that I could have gotten to the rim more,’’ Payton said. ``I’ve been trying to look for that a little bit more and it’s been successful. Now, I’ve just got to keep it up.’’

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