EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns need a bounce-back year from backup PG Cam Payne

Oct 11, 2022, 4:20 PM | Updated: 4:31 pm
Cameron Payne #15 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball during the second half of Game Two of the We...
Cameron Payne #15 of the Phoenix Suns handles the ball during the second half of Game Two of the Western Conference First Round NBA Playoffs at Footprint Center on April 19, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Pelicans defeated the Suns 125-114. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The term “X-factor” can be overused at times, but the Phoenix Suns absolutely have one this season.

Two seasons ago, reserve Cam Payne was arguably the best backup point guard in the NBA. The change of pace he brought with his lightning speed as a true playmaking slasher toward the rim was a perfect dynamic to sprinkle into the ball-handling group.

When Chris Paul got COVID-19 before the start of the 2021 Western Conference Finals, Payne was spectacular in his place for the series’ first two games.

The Valley-Oop in Game 2 will go down in history, and so too should Payne’s incredible performance that should be remembered as one of the best in franchise postseason history given the circumstances.

“If we don’t have Cam Payne, we don’t win that series,” head coach Monty Williams correctly stated last week.

Payne battled through brief blips out of the rotation and proved he deserved to be the No. 2 to Chris Paul every night. He was then signed to a three-year, $19 million deal in the offseason, a bargain.

He came into last season with, rightfully so, high expectations to bring that same level of contribution. And considering how that was Payne’s breakthrough year in the league with a certified role for the first time in his six-year career, it was justifiable to even expect some improvement.

Instead, Payne regressed.

Statistically, he shot 10.4% worse on his 3s and declined 6.6% for 2s. From an impact standpoint, Payne was now not only on the scouting report, but was featured on it. Teams were adjusting to what had worked for him so well the previous year, denying access to the paint. And if he got there, they were ready for the quick finishes that Payne is so good at sneaking by opposing bigs.

Payne during the season said teams were taking away everything he was good at, so you can imagine how hard it is trying to recalibrate from there. He started running into some of the troubles that plagued him in the past by getting too sped up.

It all came to a head in the postseason.

Payne’s great assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.92 dipped all the way to 2.08. It was a roller coaster in terms of what to expect night in and night out, which never bodes well against playoff defenses. Even in Payne’s awesome Game 5 versus the New Orleans Pelicans, he fouled out in 12 minutes.

Fans were calling for other options off the bench by the midway point of the first round but Williams stuck by Payne as long as he could before going to Landry Shamet as the primary imitator in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals the Dallas Mavericks. By then, traps on Devin Booker were enough to stop a lethal offense thanks to a wear-down effect on Chris Paul and the ineffectiveness of Payne and Shamet.

And now, we are at the present. A new season, and the Suns are sticking by Payne. There were no significant additions in the backcourt. In fact, Phoenix’s depth is even shallower, with two-way guard Duane Washington Jr. the only other real option to run the offense outside of Paul, Booker, Payne and Shamet.

It’s an incredible amount of trust in Payne. There are a few different reasons why it makes sense.

For one, his individual numbers misrepresent how the team played with him out there.

The Suns’ net rating when Payne played with Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton was a monstrous 20.8 for 233 minutes, a more than solid sample size for those stretches when Payne is the first sub in for Paul or a fill-in starter. And when he was with the normal second unit of Shamet, Cam Johnson and JaVale McGee, it was a respectable 2.0 in 250 minutes.

Williams always says how the second unit has to maintain, and that foursome did not fall behind when it was together. It’s important to remember how many minor injuries the Suns had last year, and the natural stagnation that comes from that affected no one more than Payne.

From a fit perspective, Payne will go back to having his pick-and-roll partner as a stretch five as opposed to the consistent dives of McGee.

“I think the one thing that hurt him was the makeup of the team,” Williams said of that element. “Playing with a diving big all of the time, I thought it hurt him.”

McGee was great in his one year with the Suns but it was to the detriment of Payne, who thrives when he has as much space as possible around the basket. Williams described it as Payne having to play against a crowd.

“I feel like that part of the dynamic will help my game a lot,” Payne told Arizona Sports on Sunday of going back to a stretch big.

Payne was at his best with Dario Saric two seasons ago. The two battered teams with a tremendous 16.5 net rating across 471 minutes, one of the top marks in the league for a duo.

The threat of Payne’s rim pressure combined with perimeter spacing and a big that is both diving and popping is how Payne needs to be utilized.

It looks like, though, that McGee’s replacement will actually be Jock Landale, a second-year player Phoenix acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for cash.

Landale seems to be the perfect balance with what the Suns got out of Saric and Frank Kaminsky. He’s not as much of a creator with a dribble or as much of a knockdown shooter but Landale definitely succeeds with quick decisions while operating in 0.5.

On top of that, Landale’s size and quickness could make him the best defender of the trio. He’s quicker than you’d think, and his edge is how physical he plays combined with that typical motor Aussies have when they just never stop moving while embracing contact.

“I love everything about his game,” Payne said, joking that he, at first, didn’t recognize Landale with the way he moved after playing against him last year.

While it’s a new player to get some chemistry down with, it’s Payne’s fourth year in the system and the same openings will be there. If the defense tries to take them away again, Payne is more ready for it this year after focusing on his midrange jumper over the summer.

“I feel like the midrange will kind of open up more parts of my game that was open before people started locking in on me more,” Payne said.

That pull-up jumper is almost always going to be there after a dribble or two past the ball screen because of the danger Payne can put a defense in when attacking the basket.

It’s just never been a part of his game, as Payne attempted a total of 63 shots outside of 14 feet inside the 3-point lane the last two years, per Cleaning the Glass. He was 28-for-63 (44.4%) on ’em and it’s a spot where his good touch can help him knock an easy one down so the 3s feel better.

“Get that 3 in rhythm instead of come out jacking treys,” Payne put it as.

Another positive was Payne filled in extremely well for Paul across 12 games after the All-Star break. He said he felt like he was ready for it, and he looked like a new player, in a good way.

His assists per 36 minutes jumped from 6.8 off the bench to 10.9 as a starter. That number is right next to Paul’s 11.8, and the turnovers per 36 were 2.6 for the each of them. Payne’s assist-to-turnover ratio got all the way up to 4.15 (!) compared to 2.16 when beginning the game on the bench.

Payne’s 3-point shot, as well, was at a much steadier 35.5%. He said that playing with Booker allowed him to get more clean catch-and-shoot looks. That’s an area where his percentage year-to-year cratered from 48.9% to 36.0%.

Payne was shouldering that floor general responsibility of filling in for Paul and playmaking in a specific way. The reading of the defense really shined through.

It was a year where his usage rate jumped big time — over 5% — and maybe that was the adjustment too.

Getting down what the team needs from him in each role is something Payne is working at.

“I feel like I’m kind of just in the middle of that, trying to figure out and learn how to be better in both spots,” he said.

Williams brought up a similar thought when discussing the battle for Payne to find the right pace to play with.

“It’s the balance of being aggressive but making sure that everybody else is taken care of on the offensive end,” he said. “Cam can score the ball. There’s no question about it. We don’t want to take that away from him. At the same time, if you’re out there with Cam Johnson, if you’re out there with a guy that can roll and pop, you gotta be able to take advantage of everything.”

There are obviously parts of what worked over that dozen of games that can be replicated in Payne’s normal slot.

Lastly, Payne is with his guys. I know this is something many will breeze by but Payne is an original of this group going back to the bubble. He said he’s never had this type of chemistry and bond with an NBA team before, and that does more to allow him to have a bounce-back year than anything else.

It’s what really motivates him.

“I feel like that’s what pushes me to be better. My peers. Not coaches, not my fam,” Payne said. “My peers push me more than anybody and I feel like, man, I owe it to ’em every time I get out there. That’s why I’m always locked in and play as hard as I can because, shoot, my brother doing the same thing and I can’t let them down. I feel like that chemistry just helps me on the court.”

All statistics via nba.com/stats.

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