Magic Players Say They Expect it to Feel Weird Playing Against Elfrid Payton

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – Knowing point guard Elfrid Payton the way that they do, Orlando Magic teammates Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja are aware that they must prepare for a night of laughs, mixed emotions and intense competition come Saturday.

Payton, Orlando’s floppy-haired point guard for 3½ seasons, returns to the Amway Center on Saturday to face the Magic for the first time since the Feb. 8 trade that sent him to the Phoenix Suns. Both the Magic (21-51) and Suns (19-53 before Friday’s game) are in rebuilding mode, but the Payton return should breathe some intrigue and intensity into Saturday’s 7 p.m. game.

``It will probably be a little weird to go against him for the first time, but I’m sure he will come in fired up and ready to play,’’ Vucevic said of his Magic teammate from 2014-18. ``He played here for a few years and I’m sure he’ll try to come in and put up a big game. So, we’ll have to be ready for that.

``At the same time, we’ll get to see him and catch up with him,’’ Vucevic added. ``But, certainly, it will be weird playing against him after so many years of playing with him.’’

While Magic coach Frank Vogel is eager to see Payton, he is much more concerned about his team’s transition defense for the time being. Orlando got shredded on the fast break by the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday, fell behind by as much as 35 points and lost 118-98. Led by the speed of Payton, Phoenix plays at one of the NBA’s fastest paces and Vogel had his Magic work on stopping foes in transition on Friday.

``We know that (Payton) is going to be extra aggressive against us and we’ve got to make sure that we’re on alert to it,’’ Vogel said. ``Hopefully Philly prepared us for improving our transition defense. We were awful (Thursday) night, getting back on defense. The theme of (Friday) is that you can look at Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, (Robert) Covington, (J.J.) Redick and all of the shooting that they have and where they’re at (in the standings) and where they’re going (in the playoffs), but if we play like we play like we played (Thursday) against Phoenix, Brooklyn and Chicago, we’ll lose to them by 30, too.’’

Acquired by the Magic in a draft-night trade in 2014, Payton was the starter at point guard much of the past 3½ 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. Earlier this season, following a particularly disheartening loss in Chicago, Payton admitted that he sometimes struggled with all of the losing and allowed it to affect his psyche.

``It’s really frustrating,’’ Payton said back on Dec. 20. ``I’m not a loser! I’m not a loser!’’

Off the court, Payton was mostly quiet and regularly kind and giving to others. When Hezonja first joined the Magic in the summer of 2015, the native of Croatia didn’t have a vehicle or a driver’s license, but Payton was there to lend a helping hand each day, acting as ``my Uber,’’ Hezonja said with a laugh.

``We were living in the same building, but our families got along immediately, and we’d just hang out together and have lunches, and of course, he was my Uber,’’ Hezonja remembered of his close friendship with Payton. ``He’d take care of me, getting me to the airport and all that stuff. We were together through the bad and the good.’’

Payton’s best statistical season proved to be this one 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 his 44 games with the Magic. However, near the end of his time with the Magic, Orlando’s offensive and defensive splits were noticeably better with him off the floor than on it and President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond made the decision to move on from the point guard.

After surveying the marketplace for Payton and finding only marginal interest, Weltman and Hammond ultimately traded him to the Suns for the second-best of their three second-round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. At the time of the trade, Weltman admitted Payton’s struggles defensively and with consistently making perimeter shots weighted heavily in the trading of Payton, who also is set to become a restricted free agent in July.

``Certainly, as we grow the team, there are certain principles and cornerstones that we want to build with,’’ said Weltman in February, referring to the Magic’s need for more shooting and defense out of the point guard position. ``These (principles) all go into the mix of free agency, the draft and the timing of where we are as a team. Do we want to lock in financially to a team that struggled in recent years? These are all factors that figure in.’’

In 16 games prior to Friday with the Suns, Payton has averaged 12.9 points, 6.6 assists and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 45.1 percent from the floor and 22.7 percent from 3-point range.

As was often the case in Orlando, many of his best performances for the Suns have come in losses and, for whatever reason, late in season. All eight of his triple-doubles with the Magic happened in either March or April when the team had little to play for. With the Suns, Payton had triple-double performances on Feb. 14 (13 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds at Utah) and March 4 (11 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds at Atlanta) – but both games ended in losses, as did his 29-point effort on Feb. 12 in a 46-point defeat at Golden State.

Phoenix went into Friday’s game in Cleveland riding a nine-game losing streak and is 1-15 since acquiring Payton. The one victory came on Feb. 28 against the 19-win Memphis Grizzlies as Payton produced 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

Gordon, who first met Payton when the two played together on the USA Basketball Under-18 team, knows that Payton will be out to prove himself on Saturday against the Magic. He said that Payton’s lack of success at the NBA level belies who he is as a competitor and a winner. He also knows that the Magic had better be ready for a battle against the point guard with the floppy hair and the sly smile.

``I going to be a weird feeling, and I miss E.P.,’’ Gordon said. ``He’s going to come back and look to kill because that’s just who he is – he’s a killer, at heart. He’s definitely going to come back and try to win, so it’s going to be a fun game to play.’’

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