BROOKLYN — Before Sunday’s game against the Nets, Elfrid Payton sat in a chair inside the visitor’s locker room holding a book filled with life advice. The book, titled Wisdom Walks: 40 Life Principles for a Significant & Meaningful Journey, was a gift from teammate Kyle O’Quinn and Payton says it’s helped him pass the time. It also serves as evidence that Payton, a rookie, is still learning.
“That’s good stuff, man,” Payton said after reading a few words aloud.
Payton may take some of that advice into consideration as he continues to settle into NBA life off the court. On it, there’s no manual for how to manage the transition from college basketball. Payton, whom the Magic acquired in a draft-night trade with Philadelphia, is learning through trial and error. That process has been far from seamless. On Sunday night against the Nets, for instance, Payton was outplayed by Deron Williams and managed only two points on 1-of-5 shooting.
Yet, the early returns from Payton have been more positive than negative. With Victor Oladipo sitting out while recovering from a facial fracture, Payton has averaged 8.0 points, 6.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds in 30.1 minutes, the most of any rookie who has appeared in more than one game this season. Though it’s hard to forecast what’s in store for Payton long-term, the Louisiana-Lafayette product’s early performance is promising for a team in the throes of a rebuild trying to identify core pieces.
For one, Payton has asserted himself on the defensive end. He’s been particularly impressive in his ability to hound opposing ball handlers, even though Sunday’s matchup with Williams and an Oct. 30 tilt with the Wizards in which John Wall dropped 30 and 12 suggest otherwise. Take this play from Orlando’s Nov. 5 game against the 76ers, in which Payton picks up Tony Wroten near the free throw line and strips him before gliding in for a dunk.
Payton has also made a strong impression with his distribution skills. He became the third player in league history to record at least seven assists in his first four games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In particular, Payton’s ability to spot cutters and thread passes through tight spaces is commendable for a player still getting his bearings in the NBA. In this sequence against the Bulls, Payton backs down Kirk Hinrich, spins away, then pauses a beat before firing a bounce pass to Nikola Vucevic for a layup.
For all the good things Payton has done to date, though, it’s hard to ignore the flaws in his game. Simply put: Payton is a poor shooter. Over seven games this season, he has posted a 35.6 field goal percentage and has yet to attempt a three-point shot. Payton excels at penetrating, so it’s no surprise that a majority of his field goal attempts have come around the basket, but he’s even struggled finishing from close range at times.
Payton also leads all rookies by a sizable margin with 3.0 turnovers per game. He talked about trying to limit his giveaways as well as improve his free throw shooting (he’s only converted 50 percent of his 24 attempts this season).
Any early assessments of Payton must come with the disclaimer that he hasn’t even made it through 10 percent of his first season yet. With such a small sample size to work with, it’s hard to know how Payton will develop. One could suggest, for instance, that a Payton-Oladipo backcourt is untenable because neither player is an elite shooter. But that could change as Payton (and even Oladipo) round out their offensive games going forward.
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn commended Payton for his ability to apply what he’s learning on the fly. “His ability to gain some sort of knowledge and use it the next day or next week [has] been pretty impressive,” Vaughn said.
Added fellow first-round pick Aaron Gordon, “Just his capability to affect the game in so many ways. Defensively, he’s a stat stuffer—whether it’s steals, assists, rebounds, blocks sometimes, he scores. He just does so many things so well that his potential is incredible.”
The good news is Payton should have every opportunity to continue playing through his mistakes even when Oladipo returns. (He reportedly participated in drills wearing a protective mask over the weekend.) Even if Payton hadn't acquitted himself well so far, the Magic would be eager to give him and Gordon significant minutes to see whether they fit in the team’s long-term plans. Payton’s early play has hinted at his potential as a franchise cornerstone, but it’s too early to know for sure.
At the very least, Payton has performed well enough at this stage of the season to draw attention to something other than his hair.