Despite losses and uncertainty, Orlando Magic's Elfrid Payton finishing season strong

Despite losses and uncertainty, Orlando Magic's Elfrid Payton finishing season strong

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Despite losses and uncertainty, Orlando Magic's Elfrid Payton finishing season strong

Since the NBA’s All-Star break, few point guards have been filling the stat sheet like Elfrid Payton of the Orlando Magic. The team has struggled and will make their fifth straight lottery appearance, but Payton’s recent play has been a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing campaign.

In the 16 games since the break, Payton has averaged 13 points, 8.3 assists, 7.6 rebounds and1.2 steals while shooting 50.5 percent from the field. He has recorded five triple-doubles in that span, including a 22-point, 14-assist, 14-rebound, 2-block, 2-steal outing in a win over the Chicago Bulls three weeks ago.

“EP is a monster,” Aaron Gordon said earlier this season. “We’ve been together awhile – this is our third year together – and I knew him even before that with Team USA. He has always been a monster and always been tenacious. Offensively, he always makes the right play. And defensively, he’s really, really good.”

“I’m just trying to help the team any way I can,” Payton said. “Some nights I feel like I need to score more and be more aggressive. I think it helps us as a team because when I’m more aggressive, I draw more defenders and I can get guys easier shots. … Sometimes guys will tell me, ‘Hey, be a little bit more aggressive. Try to attack more.’ So I’ve been looking for those opportunities and I’m improving there.”

On the season, Payton is averaging 12.6 points, 6.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals even though he’s playing 29.5 minutes. He has accepted whatever role head coach Frank Vogel has asked of him, starting 53 games and coming off the bench in 24 contests. Regardless of his role, Payton is making big strides and it seems like the game is slowing down for him at the NBA level.

“My confidence level is pretty high – as high as it’s ever been,” Payton said. “I feel really comfortable. I’m obviously not content, though; I feel like I still have a lot of work to do, but I definitely feel pretty confident in my game right now.”

As you can tell, Payton is the first person to acknowledge that he needs to continue to expand his game – specifically his jump shot and consistency. But because he is just 23 years old and still developing, his dominant games turn heads since he makes his presence felt all over the court.

Last summer, reports indicated that former Magic head coach Scott Skiles wanted to trade Payton, but general manager Rob Hennigan refused to move the young point guard whom he landed with the No. 10 overall pick in 2014. After all, Payton still has a lot of untapped potential and he’s shown glimpses of the excellent defender, adept passer and strong leader he could be as he continues to develop.

Despite some trade rumors surfacing at this year’s deadline, Hennigan once again opted to hold onto Payton. It remains to be seen if Payton’s recent play has cemented him as Orlando’s point guard of the future or if he has simply increased his trade value entering the offseason. For what it’s worth, Payton does his best to avoid trade rumors and speculation.

“Personally, I just block them out,” Payton said of trade rumors earlier this year. “I just hoop, man. My job is to hoop and that’s what I do. I stay in the gym, focus on my work, and whatever happens, happens. I don’t hear about trade rumors from other people either. It happened one time, from a friend of a friend, but my family and close friends don’t really bring that stuff up.”

In Orlando, it seems that everybody’s status is somewhat up in the air, especially since there’s no guarantee Hennigan will continue calling the shots due to the Magic’s struggles.

Entering this season, everyone within the organization made it abundantly clear that the goal was to make the playoffs. The team made win-now moves in the offseason, adding veterans such as Serge Ibaka (which cost the team Victor Oladipo and lottery pick Domantas Sabonis), Jeff Green, Bismack Biyombo, DJ Augustin and Jodie Meeks among others. Hennigan also hired Vogel in an effort to break into the Eastern Conference’s top eight.

However, Orlando’s roster never seemed to fit together. Ibaka was traded to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Terrence Ross and a late first-round pick. The Magic currently sit at 27-47, which is the second-worst record in the East and fourth-worst record in the NBA. While the season has been a failure, Payton has tried to learn as much as he can from his experienced teammates.

“The veterans bring their knowledge from other teams, and most of those guys have been to the playoffs,” Payton said. “You learn what works for other teams. They bring that strong locker room presence and let us know what worked with their former teams, the different things that they learned from other players who have been successful – such as how to take care of your body – and things like that.”

In addition to learning from the vets, Payton has enjoyed growing alongside Gordon. Since the All-Star break, the No. 4 pick in the 2014 NBA draft has averaged 14.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, .6 blocks and .6 steals while shooting 50.3 percent from the field.

This has been a tough year for Gordon, who has played out of position at times and attempted to add a three-point shot to his arsenal. Still, Gordon is mature beyond his years and, at 21 years old, he still has plenty of time to improve. Payton sees the work that Gordon puts in behind the scenes and he’s confident that the forward will break out sooner than later.

“I’ve seen growth, growth, growth from Aaron,” Payton said. “I’m not surprised by anything he does because he’s a very hard worker. He’s so athletic, and he makes plays that other guys just can’t make. He’s continuing to work and his confidence is going up too.”

Despite being just 23 years old and having so many veterans in the locker room, Payton has been a leader for this Magic team. He has earned the respect of his teammates and he has embraced the leadership role.

“It means a lot and it comes with great responsibility,” Payton said. “I’ve been trying to do my best to handle my business because you can’t tell others what to do without being on top of things yourself. I’ve been trying to do that, and just lead the best that I can.”

When asked who taught him to lead, Payton cites many influences.

“I learned how to lead from a lot of different people,” Payton said. “My AAU coach, Mitchell Johnson, taught me early. My college coaches definitely helped me become a better leader because I really had to lead at a young age [at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette]. I’ve learned a little bit from Chris Paul too. I just picked up little things from everybody. I think the biggest thing for me has always been to lead by example first and then be vocal.”

Payton and Paul are represented by the same agency, so they met in 2014 when the Los Angeles Clippers point guard decided to work out with some of that year’s up-and-coming draft prospects. Payton was among that group, and he won Paul over with his competitiveness and intensity.

The two floor generals forged a friendship and Paul invited Payton to continue working out with him each summer. While Payton has learned plenty of on-court tricks from the nine-time All-Star, he has also picked his brain about being a good leader.

“The best thing about Chris’ leadership is that he gets to know his teammates really well,” Payton said. “He knows, ‘Okay, I can yell at this guy to motivate him,’ or, ‘This guy is a bit more sensitive so I’m just going to pat him on the back, but still tell him what’s needed from him.’ He gets to know each guy and learns how to get the best out of them.”

During the season, Payton and Paul mainly communicate via text message due to the rigorous schedule and time difference. Payton also admits that he doesn’t want to bother his mentor too much, but he does “hit him up every now and then.”

There’s no question that this has been a frustrating year for the Magic. Payton is particularly irked with the team’s defense, which ranks 21st in the NBA with 107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. He says that Orlando “didn’t have the defensive season we wanted.” However, he believes the right pieces are in place for the Magic to significantly improve on that end next year and added that he’s “excited for that challenge.”

After finishing the season really strong and getting another offseason to work on his game (likely under the tutelage of Paul), Payton may be ready for a breakout 2017-18 campaign.

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