Elfrid Payton was once America’s best kept secret at point guard, but you can only hide a young, cat quick big point guard with go go gadget arms for so long. In draft weak on point guards, Elfrid Payton has emerged as a potential new mid-major guard success story.
Elfrid Payton possesses excellent physical attributes as a NBA point guard. Measuring in at 6’3.75" with a wingspan of 6’8" and weighing in at a pretty sturdy 185lbs, Payton’s size compares favorably to Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. While he didn’t blow the competition away at the combine on the athletic testing as some expected, he still notched solid numbers across the board.
Payton had similar vertical number as recent draftees Trey Burke, Dennis Schroeder, and surprisingly Russell Westbrook, as well as similar speed agility numbers as Jeff Teague and Devin Harris. While none of his athletic figures are elite, the combination of all the attributes makes an enticing packages at the point guard spot.
Perhaps more important than simple physical attributes is that his athleticism and size advantage translates into game situations. Payton averaged 6.3 rebounds a game, and an impressive 2.4 offensive rebounds from the point guard position. From time to time he would dunk on players challenging him at the rim. An absurd 57% of his shots were right at the rim, and he finished at a staggering 70% (courtesy of Hoop-Math.com). On top of his driving prowess, he got to the line almost 9 times a game, ranking him 2nd in the NCAA in free throw attempts. Payton’s tremendous body control cannot really be measured, but his ability to use his length and hang time to creatively finish at the rim is reflected in those numbers.
This video essentially demonstrates how well all of his physical attributes applies as a basketball player.
You know how we love the way Patrick Beverley plays defense? Elfrid Payton plays the same brand of in your face defense with bigger size and longer arms. He won the Lefty Driesell Award, otherwise known as the collegiate defensive player of the year award this past year. He is disruptive with his hands and quick with his feet. Not being a big time recruit or a big time high school star, you can tell Payton never took defense for granted.
He’s visibly satisfied and proud when he makes defensive stops. He pressures the ball handler often, and denies the pass when he guard bigger players. His head is always on a swivel and his feet are always moving, allowing him to read screens and passing lanes well. He managed 2.5 steals a game, both on and off the ball, and with those steals, he wreaked havoc in transition. LA Lafayette was a very high pace team, and a lot of it has to do with Payton's ability to create extra possessions, not unlike what Patrick Beverley does for the Rockets.
I will address his shortcomings later as a playmaker, and I'm willing to admit that this will be one of my more biased paragraphs, so stay with me here. Elfrid Payton has the potential to be a next level passer and shot creator in the NBA. Elfrid Payton assisted on 32.4% of his teammates’ baskets when he’s on the court, which is greater than Smart, Ennis or Napier.
Among DraftExpress's top 100 for 2014, he’s tied with Tyler Ennis for 4th in assists per 40 minutes, behind Kyle Anderson, DeAndre Kane, and Russ Smith. His ability to slash into the paint combined with his height and length made it rather easy for him to shift defenses, survey the court and make the pass. He showed the ability to make pass only he can make, often seeing and making plays beyond the primary action with creative passing angles. Legitimate court vision and willingness to move the ball despite being very heavily relied on as a scorer.
Payton seems to be comfortable in a role player mentality, even when he essentially had to carry his team with his also intriguingly talented teammate Shawn Long. He never really quite sought to dominate the ball even though he had to. His first instinct is always to pass the ball, rather than take it to the guy he already burned over and over.
To say Elfrid Payton is a poor shooter is an understatement. Elfrid cannot shoot at all. His free throw percentage was under 65% all 3 years in college. For a guy that gets to the line all the time, that is a highly problematic. When a guy cannot shoot well while stationary, there’s little hope that he shoots better jumping. Payton’s jump shooting was below 30% both from 2point range or from 3 point range. On the one hand, it is a testament to his potentially elite ability to attack the rim. It is a semi-miracle that a guy can play 3 years of college ball without any semblance of a jump shot, and still increase his scoring output and efficiency year after year.
This guy averaged 19 points a game somehow when everyone knew he couldn’t shoot, 2 years ago. On the other hand, it’s incredibly worrisome that it’s been 3 years and his shot chart still looks like a center. This is problematic not only from a skill standpoint, but also mental. Elimination of shooting as an option this early in his career will make him hesitant to shoot even when his shooting becomes more polished, which will negatively impact his game as a play-maker. In an era of NBA where shooting is not only in demand, but necessary to survive, Payton’s utter lack of shooting is a potentially fatal flaw.
Here’s another potential fatal flaw in Elfrid Payton’s game. He’s very mistake prone as a ball handler. He averaged 4 turnovers per 40 minutes. His assist to turnover ratio was under 2 all 3 seasons of college ball, and his pure point rating (a pace adjusted, weighted metric of ball handler's competency as a point guard) was a paltry 0.04. While Payton’s court vision appear to be solid and perhaps above average, his passing is not quite up to par. Payton often made less than ideal/lazy passes to his intended target and passes in an unorthodox way. The results were a lot of telegraphed and errant passes.
To make matters worse, because of his lack of shooting and unwillingness to do so, he often had to force the issue with out of control drives, which resulted in a lot of ball handling error despite being a fairly advanced ball handler. He suffered the same ball handling issues that most big guards have, which is high and loose dribble that’s easy to jar loose. However, Tom makes a great point about the force monopoly Payton had with the ball as the only effective ball-handler and play-maker on roster, which inevitably lead to higher turnovers. Young players have very little room for error in this league, and Payton’s propensity for them could be the difference between a spot in the rotation and end of the bench.
Thoughts from Tom Martin
For those of you who thinks, "what the hell does NVP know, he’s just some guy on the internet," luckily for you guys, The Dream Shake has its own insider on Elfrid Payton. Our editor emeritus Tom Martin happened to have covered LA Lafayette for the past season and has graciously shared some of his insights.
On playing in a mid-major conference
Let's not forget, Payton played on the USA Under-19 team in Prague this summer. He didn't just get a roster spot - he worked his way into starting alongside Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon and some of the top prospects in college basketball. And he played really well - that's what first put him on the radar and began to put the small-conference-kid talk to bed.
I don't think it does anything negative for him. He has played with the best on many occasions and he hasn't looked out of place once.
On the cause of his passive play offensively
It's a mentality thing. He literally didn't shoot for five minutes in a home loss to Georgia State - they sagged back in a zone and made him shoot, and he chose to drive and kick and actually got his teammates wide open looks... but they couldn't hit. Afterwards he said he "probably should have shot the ball more." I'll get into his shot later but in this instance I'll just say that he's not one to simply pull up if he has space, and I think that's a good thing.
On his shot
At ULL he never shot from outside because he never had to - against Sun Belt teams, he could drive at will. There was the occasional opponent that could keep him outside the lane, but the destination for him was the paint, above all else. His coach told me he hit thirty straight three-pointers in practice, but why shoot from twenty-plus feet in a game when you KNOW you can go to the rim?
His free throw shooting a is a legitimate concern for me, but he gets there so often that it cancels itself out to a degree. His mid-range jumper will come first - his coaches are going to tell him that the same stuff he did in college won't work, and he knows that. The mid-range is something he did every now and then to keep defenders honest and he was pretty decent. Once he really works on taking three-pointers in game situations in order to keep NBA defenders honest, the sky is the limit.
On his demeanor toward the game
Takes losses very hard but he's never let them carry over to the next game, at least on the court. Extremely hard worker, was a zero-star recruit before coming to ULL, shot up four inches and now he's, well, this. He rebounds very well for a point guard and hustles defensively despite carrying the offensive load (along with teammate Shawn Long, who could very well be a lottery pick next year).
With the media, he's quiet and to the point - he's got a bigger personality than he lets on, but he's already more of a professional with us than any of his teammates. He answers a question directly and he is as honest as he can be without starting a fire. Jonathan Givony from DraftExpress posted a video of an interview with him at the combine that I think really showed how intelligent he is - he knew the media wanted to hear him talk more and he adjusted.
Overall thought on his NBA prospect
I think he has a chance to be one of the league's premier second unit guards out the gate, and could be a longtime starter if placed in the right situation. His defense is legitimately great, and if anything he'll pull a Kyle Lowry and do nothing but get opponents in foul trouble as a rim-hungry rookie. I don't know if his shot will improve to the point that Lowry's has, but it's far from unfixable.
He's perfect for the second unit. He rebounds where they can't, pushes the ball as often as he can, knows how to pick out shooters and can drive when they aren't open. There's going to be an adjustment period as he translates to facing top-tier competition on a daily basis, but he's got enough tools, enough smarts and enough drive to make the adjustment. He's my third favorite point guard, ahead of Ennis from Syracuse. You can't teach 6'3 with an innate desire to play defense and NOT take bad shots.
Why draft Elfrid Payton?
Even though Rockets currently carry 3 point guards on the roster, the stability of the position is nebulous at best. Jeremy Lin may not finish next season as a Rocket, and is almost assuredly gone after the season for financial reasons. While Patrick Beverley is a fan favorite, his limited skill set and impending free agency also looms over the Rockets. A young PG with potential locked into meager salary for a while would not be the worst idea. Gambling on a big point with elite driving ability and defensive potential to wreak havoc could turn out very beneficial. It is not everyday you get a prospect whose body profile is comparable to Russell Westbrook, but mental profile more akin to Rojon Rondo.
While Payton is a boom or bust prospect with some serious weaknesses, he is essentially the same age as Embiid and Smart, but as experienced as K.J McDaniel or Branden Dawson, making him one of the most unique prospects in the draft. You can still do a lot of developmental work on a 20 year old, and he’s already mature enough as a player to have an identity on the court. The fact that he appeared quite comfortable as a role player in a setting like the U19 team USA also speaks volume about his ability to step in and contribute.
Fortunately, shooting and decision making are something you can polish at younger age. There are precedents for both. Kawhi Leonard made a miraculous leap in shooting despite never shown the aptitude for it in college. No one expected Chandler Parsons to make an inexplicable stride toward being one of the best shooters in the NBA, but he did. Guys like Derrick Rose, John Wall, and Jrue Holiday also made great strides as shooters as time went on. Eric Bledsoe, Jeff Teague, even Damian Lillard posted less than ideal passing numbers in college, and they are all fine in the NBA.
Why not draft Elfrid Payton
Well, for one thing, the fact that he can’t hit the ocean from the beach and that he is a spatula with the ball are not exactly qualities that the Rockets are looking for right now. The Rockets happen to have both in spades. Payton, even in a best case scenario, which some thinks is Rajon Rondo, does not exactly fit next to James Harden, given that he needs a massive turnaround in shooting ability to really compliment the possession hungry Harden and Howard.
It is possible that Payton could never be an NBA player, because his flaws can be considered fatal if he doesn't make significant strides on them. On Ian Levy's prospect similarity scores, you see exciting names like Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and Derrick Rose, but you also see fringe NBA players like Tony Wroten, Myck Kabongo, and Tyshawn Taylor. Wroten in particular really closely mirrored his great ability to penetrate, but utter inability to make jumpers. Wroten is a decent player, but is on one of the worst teams NBA has ever seen.
This draft features a number of wing and big players that also have potential to be immediate contributor on this win now team. There is a distinct possibility that Elfrid Payton would not even play his first few seasons for any team due to his flaws. Instead of spending a draft pick on a project, the Rockets' rookie contracts might be better served on guys that can help toward an immediate championship goal.
I think most people see can't shoot and high turnovers, and they immediately dismiss Elfrid Payton as a possible target for the Rockets. However, I do believe in building something sustainable, and part of building something sustainable is to continually find and develop talents. Elfrid Payton strikes me as someone that has a high ceiling as a NBA player, and his floor might be high than projected. He's a potential starter pick up in an area of the draft where most guys' ceilings are back ups. Of course, all this might be moot. If he is as good as I think he is, he might not be there when the Rockets are on the clock.
Plus this guy's hair game is awesome! You know my motto, when all else fails, draft the best hair!