Pelicans guard Elfrid Payton in midst of rare triple-double streak

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

ORLANDO – As is the case for any self-respecting point guard with an old-school mindset, New Orleans’ Elfrid Payton doesn’t hesitate when you ask what’s been the most satisfying aspect of his five-game, triple-double streak. Instead of focusing on what the feat means to him individually, the fifth-year pro prefers to discuss the enjoyment he derives from seeing teammates make strides.

“For me, it’s guys playing at a high level,” Payton noted. “Seeing Julius (Randle) get his career high (in scoring). Seeing Frank (Jackson) string together a bunch of good games. Seeing Kenrich (Williams) maybe not even take a shot all first half, but then hit a three. Seeing Jahlil (Okafor) sit for so long, where he hadn’t played for a couple games, and then have to start, but just come in ready to play and score. That’s the most fun thing for me.”

By definition, triple-doubles are statistical proof of a player’s versatility and ability to be productive in three different categories, but as a pass-first floor general, Payton has always taken the most pride in setting up teammates for scores. Payton has been consistent across the board over the past five games – averaging 15.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 12.8 assists – but it’s the latter number that he most appreciates. In an NBA where scoring-minded point guards were once the exception, but are now the rule, Payton has maintained an unselfish mentality, something he tries to apply beyond basketball.

“That’s still my thing,” Payton said of his approach. “Honestly, on and off the court. It’s crazy, I say this all the time, but I really feel like I was put here to help people, just in life, period. So that’s always my biggest thing, on the court, too. Help people be the best version of themselves, just trying to help as much as I can.”

During what’s been a disappointing Pelicans campaign that also turned tumultuous at midseason, an array of inexperienced New Orleans players have benefited from Payton’s mentality. NBA rookies Jackson and Williams went from playing sparingly to moving into the starting lineup and contributing to eye-opening wins; Okafor and third-year big Cheick Diallo have generated numerous efficient performances, after neither was guaranteed even a minor role early in 2018-19.

“His basketball IQ is really high,” Jackson said of what’s behind Payton’s knack for piling up assists. “He’s a very good point guard. He knows where guys are going to be on the floor and makes passes before you even get to the spot. There have been a couple times where I come off a screen, a pindown or a curl and the ball is already there, unexpectedly and in a perfect place.”

Payton, who’s posted eight double-digit assist games in his last dozen outings, has been aided recently by an extended healthy stretch. In what’s been a brutal-luck season for him and his team, Payton only played in six of New Orleans’ first 37 games. Not long after returning from injury in late December, he had a near-month of DNPs that bridged the All-Star break.

“Guys are knocking down shots and playing well. That’s what the assists are about,” Payton said, before alluding to how vital it is to be on the court, in order to learn teammates’ tendencies. “It takes time. I don’t know how many games I’ve played, but I know it’s not many (33). Those kinds of things take time. You can do a little bit of (learning) in practice, but games are so different. Being able to be out there while the bullets are flying, seeing how guys react to certain things, it makes a world of difference.”

“I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to stay in games,” fourth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said of Payton’s recent impact on the Pelicans. “Obviously we haven’t always been able to finish (games), but he’s done a really good job of distributing the ball and finding guys like Frank, or Cheick running and getting easy baskets. All of that is very important.”

With a career average of 4.4 rebounds, from a pure mathematical standpoint, that category is the most difficult facet of compiling a triple-double for Payton. But the 6-foot-4, 185-pounder has used his size, quick hands and feet to track down caroms and help out New Orleans’ bigs in the paint, particularly this month. Of Payton’s seven double-digit rebounding games in ’18-19, six have occurred since Feb. 27 (the other was in the Oct. 17 opener at Houston).

“He’s always been a great rebounder,” Randle said, before joking, “other than him stealing a couple of my rebounds, he’s been great. He’s been aggressive.”

“To be a point guard and be able to come up with double-digit rebounds night after night, that is really tough to do,” Gentry said. “Any time they mention you in the same breath as (Russell) Westbrook, you have to feel really good about it. If they mention you in the same breath as Oscar Robertson, that is another whole area. He’s doing a good job not trying to force anything. He has really taken the rebounds that have come and making the plays that are there and the shots, also.”

After his 19-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist stat line led to Monday’s overtime victory over Dallas, Payton was most pleased to crack the win column, after the Pelicans had lost in each of his previous triple-doubles, including in excruciating fashion Saturday vs. Phoenix. Asked for his reaction to joining an exclusive quintet of players with five consecutive triple-doubles – a group that includes Westbrook, Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan – Payton somewhat downplayed the achievement, saying, “Personally, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m just trying to hoop and play at a high level. It felt good to get a win tonight, honestly.”

“To get even one is crazy impressive, but five in a row?” Jackson said of the run of triple-doubles. “Him being able to get all of those boards, but still dish out assists and still score is so impressive. It’s unreal.”

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