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New Suns G Cameron Payne will have chance to earn rotation spot

Cameron Payne #22 of the Chicago Bulls reacts after making a basket against the Charlotte Hornets during their game at Spectrum Center on October 26, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

You do not need me to tell you that the Phoenix Suns have severely lacked competent guard minutes off the bench this season, but I need to establish that from the jump here, so apologies on stating the obvious.

Starting point guard Ricky Rubio’s net rating of 3.8 is the highest on the team, and the team’s when Rubio is off the court is -6.5, the worst effect of any player and a difference of over 10 points per 100 possessions.

When you look at the Suns’ 26-39 record, it’s startling to think of where they could be if they got some version of what Tyler Johnson was in Miami or decent minutes elsewhere from another guard.

Alas, here they are.

The worst net ratings on the team outside of Cheick Diallo (-4.6) are Elie Okobo (-3.3), Jevon Carter (-3.8) and Ty Jerome (-14.9!!!). If we add in the waived Johnson (-8.1), those are the four guys who have all tried and failed to become the permanent number two to Rubio.

Again, it’s necessary context because new Phoenix Suns guard Cameron Payne honestly should not be finding himself in a spot where he could earn instant rotation minutes given the way he has played in the league thus far. But he will have a chance to.

“Certainly he’s not in a position where he’s earned anything with us but he’s got an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation,” head coach Monty Williams said Wednesday of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2015 first-round pick that he coached there for a year.

Payne’s career true shooting percentage is 48.2% over 153 career NBA games. Looking at the last decade for guys to play in that many games and take as many or more shots as Payne has (909), the only players with a percentage worse than him that are still NBA players are Frank Ntilikina, Stanley Johnson, Michael Carter-Williams, Dennis Smith, Ish Smith and Kris Dunn. That’s four lottery busts and two specialists.

Payne does not shoot at the rim as much as a point guard should. His career percentage of shots there of 17.6%, in fact, is lower than how many he takes from 3-10 feet in the short mid-range area, 17.8%.

That’s because for his career he shoots an alarmingly low 51.9% at the rim, and is averaging 0.6 free throw attempts per game.

Where Payne gets most of his work done is shooting threes, attempting 40.9% of his shots there. Unfortunately, he’s at 33.1% efficiency from deep.

Payne will need to either come back into the league as a good three-point shooter or clean up his efficiency inside that line to survive.

That could be enough because Payne is fine athletically for your typical point guard and can be a good playmaker. He’s 6-foot-2 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and is quick.

Payne has a nice pace to the way he moves with the ball, which is the point of his game that Williams accentuated.

“He’s got a burst, got a feel for the game that’s hard to teach and he’s still in that age group where he’s still learning and he’s been humbled,” Williams said. “Sometimes you can grab guys like that and put them in a situation and they perform well, so I’m hopeful.”

Payne doesn’t rush, and that allows him to make simple reads that some younger guards can miss because they’re trying to attack NBA defenses too recklessly because of how much faster they react.

It’s also good instincts. In this clip, all Payne sees is teammate Antonio Blakeney close out on the shooter before he turns to the potential rebound. Whether it was Blakeney calling out, Payne knowing his teammate’s tendency to be there, or something else, Payne grabs the ball and immediately fires a money pass.

Payne worked well with Chicago’s pick-and-pop bigs because of these attributes. He waits for them to get open or goes fast when they slip. That would mesh nicely with Frank Kaminsky.

In the 2017-18 season, the one you are seeing footage from, Payne averaged 7.0 assists per 36 minutes and had a very solid 12.3% turnover percentage. Over 25 games, he had a 3.15 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is excellent.

There’s no high-skilled wizardry at play. It’s just playing patient and smart.

For what the Suns lack, if Payne can find that form from two seasons ago and has focused on correcting some of his weaknesses, he could be useful for them.

Until Jerome starts playing like the arena isn’t being bombarded, Payne is the most “natural point guard” the Suns have. Don’t be surprised to see him earn some minutes based on that.

But more than anything, Payne’s presence echoes how desperate the Suns are and should be this offseason to add a competent ball-handler behind Rubio and Devin Booker for next season.

All statistics via NBA.com/stats, Basketball-Reference and Cleaning the Glass


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