Pelicans believe Elfrid Payton joining New Orleans roster will be mutually beneficial

by Jim Eichenhofer

While reeling off 24 wins over a 32-game stretch last season, punctuated by a stunning first-round sweep of Portland, it became impossible to ignore the obvious. The New Orleans Pelicans are at their most dangerous when playing at a head-spinning pace, led by a pass-first point guard who sees the floor and gets the ball to Anthony Davis and others in spots where they can do the most damage.

It would be asking a lot of any point guard to replace the historically-great distributing skills of Rajon Rondo (12.2 assists per game in 2018 playoffs), who left to sign as a free agent with the Lakers, but in Elfrid Payton, the Pelicans added a player with a similar approach to the position.

“Pass-first, system guy,” described New Orleans Director of Player Personnel David Booth. “We thought he’d be great coming in and playing next to Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore. His whole game fits with what we’re trying to do, as far as getting the right guys the ball at the right time. He also has the ability to score if need be, too.”

Orlando’s all-time franchise leader in career triple-doubles, Payton has averaged at least 6.2 assists in every season of his four-year career, despite playing on below-average offensive clubs that always placed in the middle of the pack in tempo. It’s uncertain exactly what Payton’s role in New Orleans will be – he indicated on a Lafayette sports radio show Monday that he hasn’t discussed with the team whether he’ll be a starter – but the opportunity is there for the Pelicans to blend his strengths with what they do best.

“In Payton’s situation, he played in Phoenix the last half of the season and everything he did – his numbers and everything – went up, because I think that’s what he’s best at, in an open-court offense where he can create,” Pelicans three-year head coach Alvin Gentry said, referencing a trade that sent Payton to the Suns in February. “He’s very good at getting the ball to the basket – he’s been that way since he walked into the league. It just gives him the opportunity to now play with an open floor. I think he’ll do a much better job even now at getting the ball to the basket.”

“We really liked his ability to playmake, his ballhandling,” Booth said. “His ability to get to the basket and finish is something that we really need (to work in conjunction) with our bigs – he’s a guy who has always had high finishing numbers in analytics. We feel like he’ll be complementary to our other guys.”

The 6-foot-4, 185-pound Payton also provides New Orleans with more size in a backcourt that already features 6-4 Holiday, who was named NBA First-Team All-Defense last season, along with 6-11 Davis. The Pelicans were a subpar defensive team during the first half of the campaign (23rd of 30 teams in efficiency through Jan. 31), but drastically improved after that (fourth from Feb. 1 through the end of the regular season).

“I think they’ll be great. It gives us an opportunity to be really good defensively,” Gentry said of the pairing of Payton with Holiday.

In addition to the signing of 23-year-old free agent Julius Randle from the Lakers, the Pelicans managed to get younger this summer by landing Payton, 24. New Orleans believes both lottery picks from the ’14 draft have gotten better early in their NBA careers and will continue to do so in the near future.

“We looked at (Payton) as a guy who has a ton of upside left,” Booth said. “Guys usually peak at say 26 or 28. We saw him getting better every year, and we just felt like that’s going to accelerate even more this upcoming season.

“(In Randle and Payton), we added guys who are continually improving. We have upside. We got younger, but they are also guys who’ve made an impact already in the NBA. Playing next to AD and Jrue, they’ll make (Randle and Payton) better, but we think Julius and Elfrid will make (Davis and Holiday) better as well.”


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