Pelicans optimistic about what Elfrid Payton can bring at both ends of floor

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Elfrid Payton entered the NBA in 2014 with a reputation as an excellent backcourt defender, one reason he was a rare lottery pick from a mid-major, having played his college ball in the Sun Belt Conference. During Media Day this week, however, the 24-year-old fielded several probing questions about his defensive performance in the league, at one point even responding, “I know people think that I lost it or something like that, but I’m excited to show that I still can defend at a high level, especially being around (teammates) who take defense very seriously.”

Payton probably would’ve benefited from having Jrue Holiday join him at the press-conference podium, because New Orleans’ NBA 2018-19 First-Team All-Defense shooting guard describes Payton as a formidable presence at that end of the floor. Holiday knows from first-hand experience, matching up with Payton often in past games vs. Orlando, as well as workouts this summer.

“He’s just hard to get by or go around,” Holiday said of the rangy 6-foot-4 New Orleans native, who had 83 steals and 22 blocks in 63 games last season. “He has great hands, is really quick and has long arms. He’s strong. You think that you might have him beat, but you never know. He might meet you at the rim or get a hand on the ball (while an offensive player is trying to drive). Off the ball, he gets steals and plays the passing lanes well.”

The Pelicans’ other First-Team All-Defense member, Anthony Davis, was equally optimistic about the new backcourt pairing of Payton and Holiday, who’s also 6-4.

“Elfrid brings a dynamic where, he and Jrue in the backcourt to me is probably the best backcourt in the league defensively,” Davis said. “I don’t see two other guys who can defend the way they do against any guard. So I’m excited about that.”

“I think we’re going to be a problem,” Holiday agreed. “Playing against EP in prior seasons and working out with him in the summer, I told him we’re going to be fighting if we go up against each other in practice. Because he’s physical, and he always has a hand on the ball.

“(Adding him) is a relief, really. Defensively, I know he can come out and make a huge impact, either guarding the ball, or off the ball. I’m not sure if people know how well he plays defense, but he’s a dog. Obviously I love playing defense, so to have that on my side, I’m really excited.”

Offensively, as a nominal replacement for Rajon Rondo at point guard, there likely will be common comparisons this winter between Payton and the 32-year-old veteran who preceded him in New Orleans. Rondo is one of this generation’s premier playmakers and distributors, but a trait Payton shares is a pass-first mentality while running an offense. Payton has averaged at least 6.2 assists in every season of his four-year NBA career, ranking 13th last season (Rondo was fourth). He also uses his above-average size for his position to effectively score at the rim, which led to him shooting 49.3 percent from the field in ’17-18, ranking fourth among all point guards (behind Ben Simmons, Stephen Curry and Darren Collison). Payton has been working on his three-point shot on a daily basis in New Orleans’ practice facility recently – he’s only a career 29.8 percent shooter from the arc – but isn’t restricted to dishing when he penetrates.

“(I saw) a stat that he was first or second in getting to the paint (among point guards),” Davis said. “By him doing that, it opens the floor for everybody. He can find shooters, finish, throw a lob, or whatever he decides to do. He’s a good playmaker who can read the floor well.”

“The way he gets to the basket so easily, playing against him previously, what he brings offensively is a different dynamic, where he can also make plays for other people,” Holiday said, before alluding to Payton’s apparent soft-spoken nature in interviews. “He talks a tremendous amount on the court, even though people probably don’t think he talks at all (off the court).”

“He’s really smart,” said Pelicans guard Frank Jackson, who faced Payton in voluntary workouts this offseason. “A true point guard. He makes the right reads, the right plays. I’ve watched him from a distance, but didn’t really know what he could do. His basketball IQ is really high. I think he’ll be great for our team this year.”

As a floor general who’s been focused on creating shots for others, Payton likewise believes New Orleans’ roster will be beneficial to him.

“The talent,” Payton said, when asked what stands out about the Pelicans since signing in July. “We’ve got a lot of shooters. We’ve got a lot of guys who are going to bang (in the paint)… We look really deep.”

Point guards tend to flourish in Alvin Gentry’s fast-paced attack, which is similar to what Mike D’Antoni has relied on at various NBA stops. Payton is looking forward to operating in an up-tempo offense, something he experienced briefly with Phoenix last season (averages of 11.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.2 assists in 19 starts).

“We’ve had conversations already,” Payton said of his new head coach. “I’m excited to be in this system, especially with the guys we have. We have a great group of talent, and I think with the way I pass the ball, I think I can help guys be better.”

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