The Magic needed a point guard. So the logic has gone for some time now. As Jameer Nelson got older and it was clear the franchise was moving in a different direction, Orlando needed to find a replacement.
Nelson was a great player for the Magic. He was always more scorer than distributor though. Not a “real” point guard, with whatever that means (Eddy Rivera of MagicBasketball.net might be right in describing him as the “average” starting point guard).
Passing point guards though do have a way of changing the game in a way a scorer like Nelson could not (for the most part). Watching Rajon Rondo or Jason Kidd or Steve Nash control the pace of the game feels like what a point guard can do with their ability both to drive in and score and find impossible or narrow holes to pass the ball through. The floor opens up for them and for their teammates.
Let us not heap those expectations on Elfrid Payton quite yet. He gained early comparisons to Rajon Rondo (thanks NBADraft.net!). Let us not get that far. But Payton did look very good during Summer League, gaining confidence with each game as his assist totals and general stat-stuffing increased.
Payton was rarely looking for his own scoring, he often said he needed to be more selfish. That is the essence of a point guard and why Payton might just be the point guard the team has been looking for.
“He’s got a good feel for the game,” assistant coach Wes Unseld, Jr. said. “He understands the nuances. He’s able to be a playmaker at times. He has worked on his catch and shoot offense, able to initiate for us. It’s a different dimension for us at that position, I think.”
It was clear watching him just how he could open things up. During Summer League, Payton averaged 9.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game. His assist totals led all players across both Summer Leagues in the NBA. That is not something to push aside, as many Summer League stats are. That means Payton was getting into the lane and working well with teammates. It is a stat that could very well translate into next season.
That is not to say Payton will enter the league and immediately put up those numbers and post triple doubles left and right. That is a growth that will have to come as he gets more practical NBA experience.
It was hard not to see the tracks laid though when he followed an 8-point, 9-rebound, 10-assist performance with an 18-point, 4-rebound, 8-assist performance to close his Summer League. Again, it seemed he gained confidence and consistency as the week went on.
Payton made himself a favorite among his teammates for that very reason. He is good at getting everyone involved.
“You can just see out there, his pace is different,” Victor Oladipo said. “He is not forcing anything. He’s a pass-first point guard and he plays D. He’s perfect.
“I think we played well together. I can play on-ball, he can play off-ball. I can play off-ball, he can play on-ball. We can just rotate the whole game. It’s tough, I remember one possession I came up and I ran a play and the Pistons were like ‘He’s coming off,’ and they were like ‘No, he’s coming off, they switched it.’ It’s kind of tough for teams to plan for one person and have another person run the same play. It’s going to be fun playing with him. He plays at a high level, especially on the defensive end. The big steal to the lob today was crazy. I’m looking forward to playing with him and turning people over.”
The potential of that Oladipo-Payton backcourt and the defense they can potentially play is certainly a part of the reason the Magic jumped up and grabbed Payton in that Draft night trade. They are young and will make plenty of mistakes. Not to mention, both have to improve their outside shot — Oladipo shot 32.7 percent from beyond the arc last year and Payton shot 25.9 percent from the college 3-point line last year at Lafayette.
Both are still going to rely on their ability to attack the paint to create havoc on a defense. That is what Rob Hennigan said they liked about Payton. His attack mentality and his constant ability to attack and dish is something the team valued.
During Summer League, Unseld noted how Payton understands the details of the game and what he needs to do to break down a defense, creating for others and (eventually) for himself. He obviously has to add strength, but that is the plight of any rookie.
“I love him to be honest,” Magic rookie Devyn Marble said after playing with Payton for just one week. “I have never really played with a point guard that can get into the lane and create for me. I’ve definitley tried to take advantage of that this week — catch and shoot, catch and one dribble, whatever. He makes the game a lot easier for the people around him. That’s what you want out of a point guard, someone who can play make and make the game easier for everybody else.”
That is what a point guard like Payton can do. Make the game easier for everyone else.
That is the essence of a point guard’s job. His ability to score makes it easier for everyone else by forcing the defense to crash on the guard. His passing ability frees up space for those players. The defense can only cover so much ground.
There will be growing pains for sure. But Payton is confident he will make things that much easier for his teammates in the long run.
The Magic have found their point guard.
“I think I have a pretty good foundation,” Payton said. “I think every day I got better. Every day I built on what I had. I think I’m pretty good.”