Most NBA drafts have one, it seems: the small college or mid-major point guard unknown to most of the nation but who catches the eye of scouts and winds up a first-round selection.
Last year, it was Elfrid Payton out of Louisiana-Lafayette, who went to Orlando with the 10th pick. Two years ago it was C.J. McCollum out of Lehigh, who went to Portland with the 10th pick. Three years ago it was Damian Lillard out of Weber State, who went to Portland with the sixth pick.
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This year, perhaps, it's Cameron Payne, who left Murray State after his sophomore season. That decision has been endorsed by his rising stock in the early mock drafts, which project him as a first-round pick – perhaps even a late lottery pick.
Payne was one of six players working out for the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Monday. He likely will be available to them with the 11th pick in the draft, assuming lightning doesn't strike at Tuesday's lottery draw and launch them up to one of the top three picks. But he probably won't last long after the 11th pick, having been rated as one of the top point guards in the draft.
Payne is grabbing the attention of NBA scouts and media members for his skill set and crafty style of play, but also for his polite, innocent demeanor and unique appearance. The 20-year-old left-hander's aura practically screams, "Cute kid!”"
"My whole saying is, 'Don't wake up!'" Payne said following Monday's workout. "This is my dream."
Payne was reminded of that when Pacers president Larry Bird paused to tap Payne on the shoulder and wish him luck while returning to his office. Payne, who was in the midst of answering a question, was so startled he lost his train of thought.
"Hold on, could you repeat that?" he asked.
Payne was born in 1994, two years after Bird retired from playing in the NBA, but has heard and seen enough, and is impressionable enough, to be in awe of any Hall of Famer. His coach at Murray State, Steve Prohm, made a point of showing clips of Bird to him, including the one in which he hit a shot from behind the backboard in a preseason game.
"It's inspiring to be in the gym with a Hall of Famer," Payne said. "And right now he's not criticizing you, he's not going in on you at all, he's there encouraging. It's a blessing to be here and a blessing to see him in the stands. It's things you dream of."
Payne isn't just living in a dreamworld, though. He's putting in the time, having grown accustomed to having to prove himself along the way. He was not highly recruited out of high school, partially because he came off the bench for his powerful AAU team and partially because he just didn't look like a major college recruit.
"In 12th grade, I looked like I was 13 years old," he said, smiling. "I didn't pass the eye test. Just looking at me, you automatically say 'I don't think he's big enough or has the athletic ability.' Once I got playing, everything changed."
Payne's scholarship offers came from the likes of Jacksonville, Wichita State and College of Charleston. Memphis, his hometown school, came in with a late high-major offer after he had verbally committed to Murray State, but he stayed loyal to the program that had recruited him all along.
That's another quality that impresses NBA teams.
He was the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year, and then the Player of the Year last season, when he led the OVC in scoring (20.2) and assists (6). Murray State won 25 straight games and went 16-0 in conference play, but lost on a last-second shot in the final game of the conference tournament and failed to make the NCAA tournament, where he would have received more exposure.
Still, he had his moments against higher levels of competition. He finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists against Xavier, and went up against a 6-8 defender whose primary assignment was to contain him and had 14 points, 10 assists and one turnover against UTEP.
Bird, in comments to the Indianapolis Star, described Payne as "nice little player" who "didn't play against top schools but that doesn't mean he can't play." Bird would know, having come out of Indiana State.
Payne began gearing up for a possible entry into the NBA draft midway through his sophomore season at Murray State. He and a former Murray State player, Aubrey Reese, began working together at 6 a.m., working on his shooting and other skills.
"I really changed my habits the second half of the season," he said. "It's crazy, it was actually showing. So hard work does pay off."
Payne decided to enter the draft with just a couple of games left in the season. He asked Prohm what he would advise him to do if he were his son. Prohm said he looked like a first-round draft pick, and should go. Payne enrolled in the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. after the season to train, and was a limited participant in the NBA's pre-draft camp in Chicago. He was among those players who participated in drills and met with NBA personnel for interviews, but did not play in five-on-five scrimmages.
He's regarded as a bit undersized for the NBA, having measured in Chicago at 6-0 ¾ and 183 pounds (think Jeff Teague) but has a long wingspan (6-7) and a 35-inch vertical jump. He's a solid shooter, hitting 38 percent of his 3-pointers and 79 percent of his foul shots last season, but his greatest attribute is his passing and intangibles. He has a genuine knack for finding open teammates and is a natural leader who wants to coach after his playing days end.
"I do a lot of the little things," he said. "I like to get my teammates involved."
He says he'd like to do those things for the Pacers. It seems a natural fit in some ways. He would go from playing for the Racers to the Pacers and keep the blue and gold uniform colors. They need point guards, too. Bird has already said he doesn't plan to re-sign backup point guard C.J. Watson, and No. 3 point guard Donald Sloan also is a free agent.
"I think I'm a great fit," Payne said. "I think I can help the team out a lot, be a great teammate, help them try to win a championship."
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