Elfrid Payton’s first impression with Suns is both encouraging, concerning
The Phoenix Suns’ trade for Elfrid Payton was, really, a no-brainer.
Lacking starter-level contributions from the point guard position all season, Phoenix has a very young roster and too many draft picks in this year’s upcoming draft.
As a restricted free agent, the Suns can match any offer given to Payton. Considering the lack of salary cap space across the league, it’s possible they could sign him to a reasonable multi-year deal.
The funny thing about this context is that, in a way, there are low expectations for Payton, who Orlando dumped for a second-round pick in the 38-46 range.
If his play doesn’t impress, the Suns can move on. If he does impress but they don’t bring him back, they still got a point guard who made their play much more functional to wrap up the season.
The soon-to-be 24-year-old is averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game on 57.1/50.0/83.3 shooting splits in three games as a Sun.
Look, overreacting to small sample sizes is dumb, and that’s analyzing a couple of weeks, let alone one.
But the Magic moved on from Payton because of consistent weaknesses that were even showing in the recent games where he was outstanding for Phoenix.
At a fork in the road of his career, let’s take a look at the good and the bad.
Efficient start as a Sun
Payton’s efficiency is of a different nature than observers of the Suns are used to.
He plays the game at a consistent tempo that isn’t necessarily quick, but it’s high frequency.
Someone always in attack mode can also be reckless, but Payton not finding himself in those situations is what makes him an overall positive player.
Constantly keeping himself in position to get to the basket, or at least make one or two extra defenders react to his actions, can lead to success, especially against sleepwalking defenses.
The Golden State Warriors were certainly sleepwalking against Payton in the first quarter of last Tuesday’s game, and he roasted them for 16 points.
Payton is not a respected shooter — more on this later — so defenders feel a certain ease about letting him have space. Doing this, though, gives him easier angles to slash to the basket.
Stephen Curry is trying to figure out matchups in a semi-transition look and gets caught standing still at the elbow. Sub-consciously, I’m sure, he knows Payton’s jumper isn’t something where he has to defend.
Floor sense and basketball IQ are two different things. Some players can just sense how the floor and space is changing around them. Some players would just catch this ball and think about shooting for a second, but as soon as Payton receives the ball, he goes at Curry and uses his finishing ability to get a free bucket.
Once he has enough space to get to the rim, it is extremely difficult to force him into a bad shot. Even when that’s the case, look at how easy this finish over 7-foot tall JaVale McGee is for him.
As we covered in the past, Payton has developed into a fine shooter. His percentages are good, but he’s not a threat to pull up off the dribble or take catch-and-shoot threes when a defender is within range. This flat-out caps his ceiling as a shooter.
However, when a defense lets even an average shooter get in rhythm, things become easier.
Zaza Pachulia does the right thing here and sags off Payton to make him shoot. But when he’s 4-of-4 five minutes into the game, he makes the Warriors pay despite the slow wind-up on his jumper.
Patience is the key word to describe Payton’s game, and it benefits him the most as a passer.
Watch how long he tries to get Dragan Bender this ball in a mismatch on Curry. The point guard takes three full dribbles looking at Bender and even when he pulls the ball up, he doesn’t rush it, making the angle and the timing perfect for Bender to make an easy catch in traffic.
We don’t need to break down any video to show how Payton gets everyone involved. If you watch him, you see it. Since the trade deadline, Payton’s 18.3 potential assists per game is third among all players, per NBA.com.
If Payton can be more than a guy who hasn’t averaged more than 6.5 assists a game in his career and is instead pushing eight or nine, the Suns really have something to think about.
At his peak, he “controls” games. Let him get to the rim five or six times, get a rhythm jumper or two off and have his way as a passer, and all of a sudden he has 19 points and nine assists like he did against Denver in his debut.
But, as a heady pass-first point guard, if Payton doesn’t have his scoring going and his defense is off, he has to take care of the ball.
When things aren’t going right
Payton had a triple-double against the Utah Jazz, but he finished with five turnovers, and it was surprising to see him make a common mistake like getting caught in the air.
If this sounds nitpicky, that’s because it is and Payton has been so spectacular in three games that it’s more of an indicator of what to look out for when he’s not shooting above 50 percent.
When he’s 3-of-10, is he still setting everyone up and limiting missteps with the ball?
Where that point translates to is his defense.
More to prove on D
Payton is a fascinating case of evaluating and scouting the defensive profile of an individual player.
He’s a fairly decent on-ball defender and a physical matchup at 6-foot-4, but his floor sense leaves more to be desired.
Payton still can’t figure out how to get around screens in his fourth year in the NBA and the Jazz attacked him all night on Wednesday.
Off the ball, Payton is bad. He pays attention, but he gets lost a lot and doesn’t stay engaged physically.
Watch him here on Donovan Mitchell. He follows the play and is within a good distance of his man, but he’s standing still and not in a stance.
Every player does this to an extent, but even when the ball is one pass away as Joe Ingles catches it at the top of the key, Payton is still standing and watching. This leads to a scatter of a closeout, albeit a pretty decent one given the position he was in. It’s more a credit to those physical gifts as a defender that were marveled at in the draft process.
On our next example, Payton’s head is on a swivel as he tries to cut off a bit of space on an Ingles drive. Once that action happens, though, he doesn’t look back to where Mitchell is and ball-watches.
Payton doesn’t even close out while low in a defensive stance until Mitchell blows by him.
The score in these clips is important.
These are the types of defensive mistakes that are the difference between a 25-30 win team and a 40-45 win team. The Suns want to make that jump next year.
Payton and most of his new teammates have to kill those bad habits if they want to start thinking about the playoffs.
This is being unfair to Payton overall in his short stint thus far, as he has been terrific, but his flaws are a spot-on representation of what the Suns want to improve next year.
He is always getting his teammates involved, can score and be a good on-ball defender. But he has to improve in his aggression and consistency as a shooter, scorer and defender for him to take the next step as a surefire starting point guard in this league.
Those steps are all what the Suns desire as a team next year. If Payton is a part of that core, those improvements will have to come from him as well.