It’s 8:30 a.m., more than two hours before practice is scheduled to begin, and the thud of the bass begins echoing throughout the Suns’ Verizon 5G Performance Center.
Jevon Carter gets the music bumping, already breaking a sweat as the first player to walk into the Suns’ practice facility every day. Receiving treatment, preparing with some stretches and hitting the hardwood early are all part of his morning routine that began back in college.
Within 20 minutes of Carter’s arrival, backcourt-mate Cameron Payne joins him. These early pre-practice workouts, as well as a hometown connection, have formed a bond between the two gym addicts since first teaming up back in July.
“He gets in the gym, I’m right behind him,” Payne said. “We’re on the table at the same time. We’re going against each other in the drills. He’s picking me up (full-court). I’m picking him up full.”
Added Carter: “This is my job, and I want to be as good as I can be at it.”
That relentless work ethic fits each player’s in-game style, and unique role when sharing the floor for this Suns team. While the sixth-man label is often applied to a player tasked with being the second unit’s go-to scorer, Carter and Payne became electric off the bench together during the Orlando seeding games due to their ferocious defensive effort — including their willingness to pick up opposing ballhandlers the full 94 feet of the court.
Suns coach Monty Williams acknowledges he did not necessarily plan for that to be the case when the Suns first signed Payne shortly before departing for Orlando. But Carter’s and Payne’s hustle became a critical element of Phoenix’s improbable 8-0 run in the Bubble, and will be needed when the Suns begin the regular season with the Fry’s Food Stores Tip-Off on Wednesday night against the Dallas Mavericks.
“There are times where those two get up and pressure and we really don’t scheme it as much as you would think,” Williams said. “We fell into it. We didn’t do a ton of that last year because I just didn’t feel like that second unit had the personnel to do it in the first 65 (games).
“When we got Cam Payne, he and Jevon just started causing havoc with ball pressure.”
Heading into the Bubble, Carter already understood Williams’ philosophy that if he didn’t play with that consistent fight on a nightly basis, he would not see the court. Payne, meanwhile, hoped this was his chance to revive his NBA career after spending the bulk of the season playing in China and the G League.
Carter and Payne quickly discovered they both hailed from Memphis and that their families knew each other, prompting them to “(get) along well right off the jump,” Carter said. So, the two took to those early morning practices.
As the primary ballhandlers at West Virginia and Murray State, respectively, Carter and Payne took from their past experiences and applied the one tactic that gets under any player’s skin: full-court pressure. The skill, endurance and ability to unleash that pressure night-in and night-out took time to develop. Carter credits their commitment to their craft, and the routine of practicing it every day.
That one-on-one gym time against each other prepared Carter and Payne to go from practice foes to game-time allies, hugging the opposition down the court, playing the passing lanes and challenging every movement.
During Carter's and Payne's 122 minutes on the court together in the Bubble, the Suns recorded a defensive rating of 86.5 points allowed per 100 possessions. Of the NBA's 242 different two-player combinations to record at least 100 minutes together during the seeding games, Carter and Payne’s defensive rating ranked in the 99th percentile, third-best overall.
“We know our roles and we know what we have to do,” Carter said. “We know how uncomfortable it is to get picked up 94 feet offensively. So, we just do what makes us uncomfortable.”
While defense may be an art that is nearly impossible to perfect, especially in the modern NBA, Carter’s mindset is just to “not give my man anything easy. If he scores, I’ll make sure it was hard. I’m gonna make sure he worked for it.” Payne, meanwhile, said the primary intention is to take time off the shot clock, making it more difficult for the opponent to run a play or create an open shot.
“If they give us a turnover, we’re gonna take it,” Payne said. “But our goal is just to change the pace of the game, pressure the ball and then whatever comes with it, comes with it. If they don’t turn the ball over, hey, we took time off the shot clock and we did our job."
It took a level of unselfishness, maturity and cohesiveness for Carter and Payne to rapidly build the trust required to play this way. While neither may have foreseen what would come when paired up in Orlando, the one-two punch that they provide for the Suns’ second unit has rejuvenated Payne’s career while boosting Carter’s to another level. The Suns recently reaffirmed their belief in both players by re-signing Carter to a multi-year contract last month, and by picking up the team option on Payne’s contract.
Williams has consistently preached that he wants his players to feel a sense of comfort and freedom while on the court. If a player’s confident with a type of shot, for instance, they have the green light to take it. That same philosophy applies to the defensive end of the floor, which Payne and Carter are fully embracing.
“I don’t want to get in their way with a lot of rules,” Williams said. “We just tell those guys to put pressure on the ball. If they see an opportunity to trap and get the ball out of somebody’s hands, we’ll take advantage of it. Those two guys are really important to our team and that aspect of our defense.”
Due to minor injuries and rest for Payne and starting point guard Chris Paul, Carter and Payne rarely shared the floor together during the preseason. But with the regular season nearing tip-off, the two guards are once again arriving at the gym early, and carrying over that constant hunger, aggression and willingness to do whatever it takes to assist their team.
Including guarding 94 feet.
“It’s crazy when you find that other guard to mesh with you,” Payne said. “He’s going to pick up full, and then I’m going to pick up full. To have that, it’s a blessing in disguise because he works just as hard as me.
“To have that alongside of you, you know that if you make a mistake, ‘Yo, I’ve got your back.’”