LOS ANGELES — Cameron Payne jumped in front of Alex Caruso to knock the ball out of his grasp, then joined the mad scramble near midcourt. Payne then quickly dashed over to swarm Anthony Davis with the double-team near the left wing, briefly dislodged the ball again and forced Davis to call timeout while hugged against the sideline.
Payne took the long route along the courtside seats and under the basket to the Suns’ huddle, throwing his arms in the air and yelling to energize an already-boisterous crowd.
Those six seconds of game action exemplified the jolt Payne has given the Suns all season, becoming a fan favorite and flipping the narrative of his NBA career.
He consistently harasses on defense. He uses his herky-jerky ballhandling to explode to the basket, and his unconventional lefty stroke to bury open 3-pointers. His 19 points and seven assists — including a deep game-tying 3-pointer in the fourth quarter — during Tuesday’s Game 2 in Phoenix’s first-round playoff series against the Lakers sparked the Suns’ rally, and he remained on the floor during crunch time of the down-to-the-wire 109-102 loss.
Payne plays with a fiery passion that somehow looks both free and furious, prompting some to compare him to the “haboob” dust storms that disrupt the Valley air during the summer monsoon season. It’s a fitting style for Payne, a former lottery draft pick who had his NBA career stripped away in early 2019 and is now savoring his shot on a Suns team with championship aspirations.
His role is even more critical as this series moves to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4, with All-Star point guard Chris Paul available but clearly bothered by a shoulder injury sustained during Game 1.
“It’s just thinking your job can be gone,” Payne said of his mentality. “It hit me in the face already. I got hit with that reality check, and I don’t want to not be in the league.
“I just work really hard every day to stay here. Just don’t (ever) want to be out.”
After the Suns’ May 13 victory over Portland to close out the regular season, Payne was asked what he was doing on that date exactly one year prior. He acknowledged he embraced the stay-at-home stage of the pandemic, that the rounds of playing the Call of Duty video game back home in Memphis were a welcome mental break.
Payne had spent the previous calendar year in Toronto Raptors training camp, then across the world in China, then in the G League, trying to prove he deserved another NBA opportunity after fizzling out with Oklahoma City, Chicago and Cleveland.
“I’d really been playing nonstop,” Payne said. “ … It was the best rest I’d had in a long time.”
But that rest only came after three workouts per day with his brother, Tony. One session focused on his shot, knowing that would stretch the defense and complement his ability to put the ball on the floor. Another focused on lifting weights, knowing he needed to improve his physicality and footwork to defend and become quicker with the ball in his hands. The third focused on skills such as dribbling and playing in the pick and roll and other game-like situations.
“It’s almost like COVID really was a blessing to us,” Tony said by phone from Los Angeles Thursday. “It shut us down to where it only gave us the option to get in the gym. We didn’t have any time to do anything else.”
Payne’s deeper understanding of the level of work required to stick in the NBA was crucial for Suns coach Monty Williams, who first coached Payne when they were both with the Thunder. Williams has always regarded Payne as a good person who was receptive to direct, heart-to-heart chats, including one during Payne’s 2015-16 rookie season about the importance of arriving to the facility early.
Yet Payne acknowledges today that, while he listened back then, he did not always fully absorb and apply the message.
“As a rookie, I probably said, ‘I know what’s going on. You can’t tell me,’” Payne said.
Abruptly falling out of the league humbled Payne. During an interview with ESPN’s Zach Lowe, Payne recalled dragging his luggage down the streets of China, then being unable to fit them into his hotel room. So when Williams unexpectedly called last summer to ask if he wanted to join the Suns for their Orlando Bubble run, Payne “jumped out of the pool so fast.”
“He was like, ‘How bad do you want this?’” Payne said. “ … I told him I wanted it bad.”
Though nothing was guaranteed to Payne when he met the Suns at Disney World, he quickly seized the backup point guard job. He and Jevon Carter teamed up to fluster opposing ballhandlers by guarding 94 feet. He flashed a dynamic burst while driving to the basket, and hit 51.7 percent of his 3-pointers during Phoenix’s stunning 8-0 run to turn long playoff odds into a narrow postseason miss.
That performance prompted the Suns to pick up Payne’s team option for 2020-21. After spending the offseason training in Phoenix, Mikal Bridges said before training camp began that Payne was a teammate to watch because “how his body looks, it’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s not playing around.’” Payne and Carter, who is known for his “treadmill-mentality” work ethic, were often the first to step through the facility’s doors each day. “The one thing that young guys figure out, like, soreness is just a part of your life,” Williams said. “The more you work, the less sore you are, then you just get used to it. I don’t think most young guys understand this level of work.“It takes you sometimes a few months, sometimes a few years, and that’s how I’ve seen (Payne) mature.”
Also propelling Payne’s development this season: Learning from Paul.
While watching film, Payne now pays more attention to situations such as two-for-one opportunities at the end of quarters because “I know I have to worry about that if this Hall of (Famer), No. 3, is going crazy about every little detail.” At Paul’s suggestion to Williams, he and Payne began sharing the court more during the regular season’s final weeks, comparing it to when Paul and Jarrett Jack played together when they and Williams were all together in New Orleans.“Cam is just as special as any of them,” said Paul, referencing Dennis Schroder, Darren Collison and Eric Bledsoe as other backup point guards he has played with throughout his career. “Because you’ve got somebody who works harder than anybody and (is) just trying to find little ways to get better.“I love the combination of us playing off of each other, because we play differently and I think it keeps defenses on their heels.”
Before each game, Payne fires up his teammates with elaborate handshakes created throughout the season. He averaged 8.4 points and 3.6 assists in 18 minutes per game during the regular season, while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor, 44 percent from 3-point range and 89.3 percent from the free-throw line.
Though staying poised and taking care of the ball are important, Payne also strives to play aggressively and “live with the results.”
That relentless effort regularly pays off. During the final seconds of the third quarter of a May 7 game against New York, for example, Payne followed a wild transition put-back from Torrey Craig with stealing the inbound pass, making the shot right before the buzzer and sending the crowd and his bench into a frenzy.
A few days later — in his last visit to Staples Center before Thursday’s Game 3 — Payne scored a career-high 24 points on 9-of-10 shooting (including 4-of-5 from 3-point range) to spearhead a comeback attempt against the Lakers.
“Try my best to get my energy up here — like, past the screen,” Payne said while stretching his arm out of frame on his postgame Zoom availability that night. “Get my energy up there. That’s my job.”
Payne’s initial return to the playoffs — he went to the Western Conference Finals with the Thunder in 2016 and was on the Bulls’ 2017 roster that lost in the first round — ended prematurely.
He was ejected for the first time in his career after tossing the ball Caruso, one portion of a broader scuffle that ended with multiple technical fouls. Payne was upset that no foul was called when Caruso made contact with him near midcourt on a previous possession, but conceded he should not have retaliated after the whistle. He apologized to every teammate and Williams in the postgame locker room.
“They were all on my side,” Payne said. “They said they had my back and they know I always have good intentions on the court. … I just want to win. That’s my only goal. I have no vendettas with no players, not trying to get nobody. I’m just a competitor, to be honest.”
Payne did not waste his Game 2 opportunity, an outing the Suns needed to close a 15-point deficit to take the lead in the final minutes. The day before the game, Payne said he would “be the biggest listener out there” if he got extended time because of Paul’s injury, a reminder of the more mature player Payne has become with the Suns.
“Just holding the fort down until (Paul is) ready,” Payne said. “I try to keep that same mentality going forward.”
Tony Payne said it was an “unexplainable feeling” being inside Phoenix Suns Arena Tuesday night, watching his brother go off in a game with such high stakes. The closest comparison he can make is the jubilation of Cameron’s draft night, which is appropriate considering Cameron said he has viewed this time as a second rookie season.
After a rocky early NBA career, Tony deeply appreciates how the Suns’ organization and fan base have embraced Cameron. And Cameron is grateful to celebrate it all with those who have been with him through the adversity and triumphs.
“They always sit back and say, ‘Man, we’ve been waiting on this time,’” Payne said. “ … They pushed me the hardest, so sometimes it’s always good to see other people reap the benefits, as well — to (see them) be happy for me and for me to feel their happiness, because it goes a long way with confidence.“I’m just appreciative that they’re still in my corner, still cheering me on and giving me all they got, the way I give it all I got to them.”
Though Paul is listed as probable to play in Game 3, performances like Tuesday’s illustrate that Payne is primed to expand his role if needed. He is continuing his impressive career turnaround story, one that thrives on him playing with the freedom and fury of a desert haboob, and the sense of urgency of a guy who now knows his job depends on it.
“This is just the beginning,” Payne said. “I’m just getting started, and I’m looking forward the journey. … It’s just a different Cam, a new Cam. I’m just glad it’s with the Suns."