ULL's Payton could be latest mid-major point guard to flourish in NBA
Elfrid Payton knew as soon as he walked off the court that it was time to face the questions.
Louisiana-Lafayette had just fallen to Creighton in the NCAA tournament. As an overlooked No. 14 seed, the Ragin' Cajuns kept the game uncomfortably close, holding a two-point lead with 11 minutes left, only to come up short.
Payton, the Cajuns' junior point guard, had put together the type of performance his team had come to expect every night: 24 points, eight rebounds, three steals and three assists. Payton even stuck Creighton star Doug McDermott at the defensive end of the floor for stretches.
But for Payton, the loss meant there was no more avoiding the topic he'd spent all season dodging. Ever since he'd returned from Prague after playing with USA Basketball in the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship last summer, talk of the NBA draft had lurked in the back of his mind.
"I was thinking about one more play, feeling like we let one slip away," said Payton. "And now I gotta answer these questions ... What am I going to do? I really just didn't have any clue, and I didn't want to deal with it."
The past year had been a whirlwind. He'd played in the Czech Republic, China and Spain, excelled in Sun Belt Conference play on the way to an NCAA tournament star turn. The NBA seemed like a fitting next step.
With the recent success of mid-major guards jumping into the lottery -- Damian Lillard (Weber State) in 2012, C.J. McCollum (Lehigh) last year -- there is a precedent. Players from smaller schools have proven their worth in the draft preparation process after breakout college seasons raised their stock. In declaring for the draft this April, Payton committed to do the same and now must elevate his game yet again.
"I talked to several general managers and a bunch of scouts and they had him projected at the end of the first (round), early second," UL-Lafayette head coach Bob Marlin said. "We talked about it, and I think he debated on it for a week or so. His words to me were, 'Coach, I'm ready.'"
NBA types are enthusiastic about Payton's 6-foot-4 frame, smothering on-ball defense and instinctive slashing into the paint. Though his jump shot still needs work, it seems clear he has a home at the next level. He averaged 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals as a junior, and his numerous postseason honors included the Lefty Driesell Defensive Player of the Year award. At 20 years old, he was an entire year young for a college junior.
If you'd gone to New Orleans three years ago, found UL-Lafayette assistant Kevin Johnson watching John Ehret High School for the first time and told him there was a future draft pick on the court, he probably would have laughed. He also wouldn't have known which kid you were talking about.
"The first time I went to watch Elfrid, I look around and I see LSU, Baylor, Alabama in the gym," said Johnson. "I'm like, 'Who are they here to see?' They were actually there for another guard on his team."
That guard was O.C. Tart, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard and Ehret's leading scorer. They were both seniors, but Payton worked largely in his teammate's shadow. 16-year-old Elfrid stood 6-foot-1, weighed 150 pounds and was an entire year younger than most of his classmates.
The first time Johnson showed up to see Payton, Ehret coach Al Collins had called in a favor from his old friend. He saw a "solid" player with flashes of athleticism, and at Collins' behest, he came back for another game. The second time, Johnson got a much better look -- Tart had violated school policy and was serving a six-game suspension. The team was now Elfrid's.
Ehret finished with a 30-4 record, and Elfrid scored 23 points playing in front of Marlin for the first time in a season-ending state semifinal loss at Louisiana-Lafayette's Cajundome. Marlin wasted no time prioritizing the point guard, who was named first-team all-state and earned District 9-5A Player of the Year honors.
"We went to the school and visited with Elfrid in the principal's office," Marlin said. "He looked very young -- which he was. When you drive away, you're thinking, 'Golly, this is the guy that's gonna run our team?' Because he looked like an eighth grader."
UL-Lafayette was Payton's only Division I offer. He committed shortly after an unofficial visit, drawn by a comfort level with the staff, the short distance from home -- his father, Elfrid Sr., was a Hall of Fame defensive end in the Canadian Football League -- and the chance to play immediately.
Early in his freshman year, a growth spurt shot Payton up to nearly 6-foot-4, giving him a physical advantage he'd never had before. He developed an intense competitive nature that helped mitigate his early struggles.
"I would light into him, and the more I did, the harder he would play," Johnson said. "He'd always amp it up. Whenever we'd play a team who had a primary guy, he'd always want [to guard] that guy. He's always looking for challenges."
Handed the reins as a sophomore, Peyton blossomed, and Marlin began looking at high-level summer ball options for his star.
UL-Lafayette planned a trip to play in Spain that summer, which Marlin had hoped to schedule to accommodate Payton. Elfrid hoped to attend the prestigious Chris Paul Elite Guard Camp -- an invite-only instructional weekend featuring 30 top high school point guards and 15 from the college ranks.
Marlin called friends within the NBA, ESPN and Nike to try and get Payton into the camp. There was no love for Payton, who'd led the Sun Belt in assists and steals as a sophomore. It was mid-major politics as usual, and both coach and player felt the frustration.
A new option emerged when Marlin was contacted by Sports Reach, a sports ministry program for college players that was in need of a point guard for a summer trip to China. Payton went the next day to get a passport, finished exams the same week, met up with the team and headed overseas.
While Payton traveled, Marlin had a realization. Because Elfrid was a year young for his grade, he was eligible for the USA Under-19 team that would head to Prague at the end of June for the World Championships. It was time for some more phone calls.
Marlin talked to Florida's Billy Donovan, the U19 head coach, who relayed Marlin's pitch to men's national team director Sean Ford. Intrigued by Elfrid's skill set and recent success, USA Basketball invited him to camp in Colorado Springs.
"From an age standpoint they were all similar," said Ford, "but [Elfrid] was almost three years older basketball-wise than a guy like Jahlil Okafor. He brought a basketball maturity in terms of the professionalism he brought to practice and games, the preparation and focus."
Payton joined a talented group that also included Marcus Smart and Aaron Gordon. He didn't just make the roster -- he earned a starting spot on a Team USA squad that breezed to a gold medal last summer, winning by an average of 39.6 points per game.
"I always felt kind of underrated -- nothing is wrong with that," Payton said. "But I always tried to play with a chip on my shoulder. It was all about trying to prove to them and also to myself that I can play on that level. I always thought I could, but it was all about going out there and showing it."
Upon returning from Prague, Payton got a call from a representative of the Chris Paul camp. He finally had an invitation, but there was a catch: It now overlapped with UL-Lafayette's team trip to Spain. Elfrid respectfully declined.
When the fall came around, NBA scouts became fixtures at UL-Lafayette's practices and games. Elfrid had arrived.
"Once we started playing games it just got crazy," said Johnson. "We were at Georgia State one night and there were 29 teams represented between scouts and GMs. I stopped keeping up."
As a junior, Payton improved on his numbers again, playing with a level of confidence his coaches hadn't seen before. He attempted an insane 302 free throws and shot over 50 percent from the floor while setting UL-Lafayette's career steals record in only three seasons. In the weeks following the loss to Creighton, Payton's decision became clear.
"I think he can surprise people," Ford said. "He has the ability to play in the league. For him it's going to take a great circumstance with someone that needs his skill set and has time to develop his skill and see his value and strengths."
Payton sits behind Smart, Dante Exum and Tyler Ennis in most point guard rankings and is widely projected to be taken in the second half of the first round. The Jazz, Nuggets and Raptors were among the teams showing early interest, while San Antonio, Miami and Oklahoma City have also sniffed around. But Payton hasn't concerned himself with potential destinations -- after shooting 26 percent from three-point range last season, he's devoted the past couple of months to his jump shot.
"To be successful in the NBA you have to open yourself up to more options offensively, and shooting would really help him tremendously," Ford said. "One thing about him, he's a gym rat. He was always the last one to leave, and he will definitely put the time in to work on other parts of his game. I'm pretty confident that's an area he'll be able to improve in."
Payton has been working out in Los Angeles with other draft hopefuls, including Gary Harris, Glenn Robinson III and T.J. Warren. Though he won't participate in drills, the combine and interview process presents another opportunity for Payton to separate himself and prove how little his mid-major pedigree really matters.
"We told him he can reach his goals here," Marlin said. "Every article we saw about Damian Lillard, we'd give to Elfrid. Lillard winds up in the lottery, ends up Rookie of the Year. The rise he made in his game, Elfrid's done the same up to this point. He knew he could get there."
"I never needed anything like that to make myself work even harder, but it did," added Payton. "Seeing guys like that coming from a mid-major lets you know it can be done."