Over the course of two short years, Cameron Payne went from fringe starter to potential lottery pick.
Cameron Payne’s earnest enthusiasm reverberates through the phone. The 20-year-old point guard speaks about basketball with such passion and excitement, he describes the scene of his individual workout with the Los Angeles Lakers through the wide eyes of a child daydreaming of the NBA in his backyard.
Most NBA Draft prospects deny checking mock drafts; athletes often believe they should just put their heads down and play, not read about themselves in the papers. Payne candidly admits he’s checked the latest mock drafts and big boards three or four times a week. “I love looking at them,” Payne tells SI.com. “People put my name out there. I love it 100 percent. And it makes me want to go harder, see if I can move up some more. People doubted me so much, I’m just trying to make people into believers.”
Payne says he could be drafted as high as No. 6 by the Sacramento Kings in Thursday’s draft. Earlier this month, reports surfaced Oklahoma City had promised to select him at No. 14 if he was still available. Yet Payne remains focused on enjoying the process, as last year’s mid-major point guard and lottery pick, Elfrid Payton, advised. “It’s been a whirlwind, but I love it,” Payne says. “Everything’s been moving so fast.”
The national media attention has taken Payne by surprise, but the suddenness of the mayhem is hardly a new phenomenon. Cameron Payne has been thrown into the fire before.
Back in 2013, Steve Prohm, who is now the coach at Iowa State, spent the week watching Isaiah Canaan at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. Then the Murray State head coach, Prohm left the gym enthusiastic about Canaan’s draft stock and confident in the state of his program.
Prohm’s Racers were expected to enter rebuilding mode in the 2013-14 season, with Canaan and the Racers’ other top two scorers, Ed Daniel and Stacy Wilson, all graduated. But Prohm’s week in Chicago reaffirmed one of his strongest beliefs: Zay Jackson could play.
“I came back and met with Zay,” said Prohm. “I told him if you can get your things right, I think you have a chance to make it.”
Jackson had spent his freshman season as the first guard off Murray State’s bench, playing an integral part in the Racers’ 23-0 start and NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011-12. But he redshirted his sophomore season, Canaan’s last, due to legal troubles. At long last, Murray State had reinstated Jackson for his sophomore year and Prohm licked his chops at the thought of Jackson running his three-guard offense alongside incoming freshman Cameron Payne.
Payne arrived at Murray State’s campus early in the summer and spent August shadowing his Jackson. At first, Jackson’s intensity intimidated Payne. “He just has a presence about him,” Prohm said.
Three days into the Racers’ preseason practices in October, Jackson displayed the athleticism and talent that gave Prohm such confidence. The 5’11" guard soared above the rim during a box-out drill, took one dribble and unleashed a ferocious jam on top of a Murray State big man as Payne, recovering from a bout with mononucleosis, watched in awe from the sidelines. “He could’ve been one of the best out of Murray State, man,” Payne said.
Instead, as Jackson released the rim, he landed awkwardly on the floor beneath the basket. Jackson tore his ACL before his season and comeback story ever truly began. “You could tell right away his knee was done,” Prohm said.
Now Prohm was left with only one point guard on his roster, an unproven freshman from Bartlett, Tenn., a suburb 17 miles northeast of Memphis. If there was one saving grace, it was that Jackson had taken Payne under his wing. “He was guiding me, man,” Payne said. “That was my big brother. We worked out almost every day together. I started lifting weights with him.”
Payne had shown flashes of potential in practice. Following Jackson’s injury, Prohm’s staff began to spot the makings of a special point guard prospect. When Payne’s parents visited in mid-October to check on their son’s recovery from mono, they had lunch with assistant coach William Small, who recruited him to Murray State. By the time of their visit, Payne was absolutely dominating the team’s intrasquad scrimmages.
“Every team he plays on always wins, no matter how we stack the teams,” Small told Payne’s parents.
“If you put the ball in his hands,” Tony Payne, Cameron’s father, told Small, “you’re never going to take it out of them.”
Payne signed with Murray State hopeful for an opportunity. He never foresaw starting at point guard in the Racers' season opener at Valparaiso in November of 2013. Payne shot just 6-24 from the field in Murray State’s 77-74 overtime loss. “I looked at the stat sheet and I laughed,” Prohm said. “Man, Isaiah never shot the ball 24 times as a senior.”
Payne embraced the inevitable comparisons to Canaan, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, although both point guards recognize their obvious differences. “I’m a scorer,” Canaan said. “He’s a better passer. And he’s so long defensively.”
Prohm, who recruited Canaan to Murray State as an assistant to Bill Kennedy, reveled in Canaan’s development into a second round pick. “But I really think Cam has the chance to be special at the next level,” Prohm said.
Prohm accepted the Iowa State job following Fred Hoiberg’s departure for the Chicago Bulls. In his 17 years of coaching, the 40-year-old has worked with dozens of point guards. Payne has always stood out from the rest. “It’s not even close,” Prohm said. “He’s got the best IQ of any kid I’ve coached.” Payne’s saw plays develop within Prohm’s scheme he had never imagined. At 18 years old, Payne ran the offense with the poise of a senior.
The perfect marriage between Payne and the coach’s offensive scheme now has the 6’2" point guard primed to perform at the next level. Payne will need to add muscle to his 183-pound frame, but he plays with tremendous pace in pick-and-roll situations and boasts a dangerous jump shot that keeps defenses off balance. Today’s NBA is dominated by the point guard position, yet Prohm sees Payne’s potential to compete against the likes of Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. “I think he’s got a chance to be really special," Prohm said. "There’s no question. His upside is tremendous.”
Payne is a self-proclaimed basketball junkie. He has few friends outside his inner circle from childhood, and aside from eating his mother’s home-cooked chicken, basketball and NBA 2K are his only interests. “I run the sticks and will always run the sticks,” Payne says before chuckling.
Two years after barely receiving recruiting attention from high-major programs, Payne will watch the NBA Draft from the Barclays Center green room. He’s ultimately responsible for his improbable rise, even though it all began with an opportunistic break.