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By John DentonJuly 7, 2014
ORLANDO -- More so than the baby-faced looks and the wiry-strong build of his slender body, the first thing that most people recognize about Elfrid Payton is his floppy, high-rise hairdo.
And he has a pretty good idea what most people are thinking about him with the bushy mound of curly hair atop his head.
``A lot of people look at the hair and think I’m probably some kind of crazy (person), but I’m actually laid back,’’ Payton said with a chuckle. ``It’s like I’m totally opposite (of the wild hair), so I guess it gives me some balance.’’
Payton’s hair actually holds quite a bit of significance to him. His high school team in Gretna, La., made a vow not to cut their hair until they won the state championship back in 2011. However, those dreams ended when John Ehret High was beaten by Scotlandville in the state semifinals.
One of the worst nights of Payton’s basketball life actually served as notice that the steadily blossoming point guard would no longer fly under as a college prospect. He had 23 points in that state semifinal loss – a performance that led to University of Louisiana-Lafayette coaches to offer him a college scholarship soon after.
Now, three years later, Payton is a top-10 NBA draft pick and a rising star with the Orlando Magic. You notice the hair first because it’s different, but there’s so much more to Payton’s do-everything style of play that catches your eye. Those jaw-dropping skills were on display on Monday when he nearly compiled a triple-double – 12 points, nine assists and eight rebounds – as Orlando whipped Houston 87-69 in summer league action.
Maybe it was only natural for Payton to grow an eye-catching hairdo considering that for the longest time he wasn’t even considered the best guard on his own high school team, college recruiters mostly overlooked him and he wasn’t on the NBA’s radar before last summer’s Under-19 championships when he became a breakout star. To hear Payton tell it, he paid zero attention to the early doubts and indifference from scouts and is right where he always expected to be in the NBA.
``It happened because of my self confidence and me having a dream. You’re not supposed to stop chasing your dream and here it is for me,’’ Payton said.
Payton’s rise to the NBA is seemingly the stuff of some Hollywood playwright, but he has made it come true by believing in himself when few others did. Despite being the son of a former Grambling and Canadian Football League standout, Payton had little interest from college scouts as he averaged 12.8 points, 5.2 assists and an eye-popping 4.1 steals a game as a high school senior.
That changed after the state semifinal game and when Payton – who was nearly a year younger than his fellow classmates – finally hit a growth spurt that took him from 5-foot-10 to 6-foot-3.
Payton said another defining moment in his basketball evolution came in November of 2012 when he almost single-handedly led Louisiana-Lafayette to an upset win over Michigan State. Payton remarkably recorded seven steals to go with his 20 points and six rebounds as he outplayed the more heralded Keith Appling (four of 11 shooting, four turnovers). That moment opened Payton’s eyes to the possibilities that basketball presented to him.
``After that Michigan State game my sophomore year, we should have won that game, but I realized that I belonged,’’ Payton said.
Little did he know it at the time, but Payton’s performance against Michigan State – combined with a 23-point, seven-assist, four-steal effort against FIU – opened several more doors for him. His coach at ULL, Bob Marlin, sent those tapes to University of Florida coach Billy Donovan to get Payton a tryout for the Team USA’s Under-19 squad. Even though that team already featured Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart and Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon, Payton made the squad and became the standout starter at the point.
It was there, while playing for Team USA, that Payton teamed up with Aaron Gordon and the two formed a fast friendship and good chemistry on the court. Long before they would become teammates with the Magic, Gordon marveled at all the things that the unheralded point guard with the floppy hair could do.
``There was this guard and I’m like, `Who is this coming from Louisiana-Lafayette?’ There’s no way. He was just cooking and killing on both ends of the court,’’ Gordon recalled recently. ``I was like, `This guy is the real deal.’’’
Payton’s overriding memory from his Team USA time in Prague with Gordon? Talking about their dreams of playing in the NBA.
Said Payton: ``I always thought that I was going to be here (in the NBA). It’s funny because (Gordon) and I were talking about that. We always thought we’d be here (in the NBA) since we were small. I didn’t know (Gordon) when he was small, but he said that he always knew that he would be here in the league, too. It was just that we didn’t know when or where, but we knew one day that we’d be in this position to play in the NBA.’’
Payton showed on Monday in Orlando Pro Summer League action that he is right where he is supposed to be. He struggled in his NBA debut on Saturday with four turnovers and he opened Monday’s game with three quick miscues. But he steadied himself with two drive-and-dish alley-oop passes that resulted in Dewayne Dedmon dunks. Later, Payton finished at the rim with his left hand in traffic and he had a blow-by dunk to bring his Magic teammates out of their seats on the bench. For the game, Payton made all five of his shots, scored the 12 points, handed out nine assists and corralled eight rebounds.
``We want him to get as much exposure now as possible. I thought he played beautiful today,’’ Magic coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. ``He’s got to learn to control the tempo a little better when teams try to speed us up. But overall, he handled the pressure and got us organized and got decent looks.’’
Payton admitted that he will always play with a chip on the shoulder mentality because of his overlooked high school career and his small-school reputation in college. He said Damian Lillard’s endorsement of him as one of the best guards in the NBA Draft meant the world to him because Lillard understands the plight of someone trying to make it to the big time from a small college. A product of tiny Weber State, Lillard was the surprise sixth pick in 2013, won the Rookie of the Year award and become a playoff hero for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2014.
``Somebody (like Lillard) coming from a small school with the odds stacked against him, if you continue to work hard, it paid off for him,’’ Payton said. ``You can see now that he’s one of the best in the game right now and he’s doing well for himself.’’
Payton is doing quite well for himself as well as one of the Magic’s building-block pieces for the future. He no longer needs gimmicks to get noticed on the basketball court, but he has no plans of cutting his curly, high-rise hairdo anytime soon. He didn’t cut it after losing that high school game, he didn’t trim it in college and he has designs on continuing to grow it out in the NBA with the Magic.
``I kind of liked what (the hair) was doing,’’ Payton said with sheepish snicker. ``I just let it keep growing and growing. And in the years after high school, it got higher and higher and curlier and curlier. I like it.’’