Shortly after the 2018 NBA trade deadline passed and everyone was left trying to wrap their head around all of the moves, an Eastern Conference small forward was left scratching his head by one move in particular.
“Orlando confused me. What are they doing?” the player texted HoopsHype unprompted. “What was up with that Elfrid Payton trade?”
This player said what many were thinking about the Payton deal. The Orlando Magic sent their 23-year-old starting point guard to the Phoenix Suns for a 2018 second-round pick. The Suns own three 2018 second-rounders and the Magic will receive the second-highest selection of the trio. As of now, the pick that Orlando is poised to receive is slotted in the 40s.
Prior to being traded, Payton was averaging 13 points, 6.3 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.5 steals this year. His scoring average was a career-high, as were his shooting percentages from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (37.3 percent). Over the course of his four NBA seasons, he started 236 of his 283 games and averaged a respectable 11.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 29.6 minutes. He also emerged as a strong leader for the young squad and he was popular among his teammates.
The main reason Orlando traded Payton, according to president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman, is that the team wants more shooting and consistent defense from their point guard. Also, Payton will be a restricted free agent this summer and Orlando was hesitant to give him a significant payday. “Do we want to lock in financially to a team that struggled in recent years?” Weltman asked rhetorically after completing this trade. Weltman and general manager John Hammond inherited much of this roster from the previous front-office regime, which must be noted as well.
The trade may have been a shock, but Payton is clearly enjoying his fresh start in Phoenix. Through two games with the Suns, he has totaled 48 points, 14 assists and 14 rebounds while shooting 61.3 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the free-throw line.
HoopsHype caught up with Payton to discuss the surprising trade, how his former Magic teammates reacted to the deal, his first impression of the Suns organization, how he fits in with Phoenix’s personnel, whether he can see himself staying with the Suns long-term and much more.
In the days leading up to the deadline, did you expect to be traded or did the move catch you off guard?
Elfrid Payton: Well, my mindset this whole season has been to be ready for whatever happens. I knew a trade was possible, especially having a new GM and president of basketball operations in Orlando. Because they didn’t draft me, I always understood there was a chance that they’d want to bring in their own guy. So the whole year, I was basically prepared for anything.
When you saw that you were traded for a second-round pick, what was your reaction? Did you feel disrespected at all?
EP: I mean… A little bit. I think a lot of other people were more upset about it than I was, though. Others took it to heart more than I did, but that’s just because of the type of person I am. I’m pretty nonchalant and I don’t really get worked up, so it wasn’t really that big of a deal to me. I’ve always felt underrated and felt like I have to prove myself. I’m the kind of player who feels like you have to prove yourself every single night – no matter what you’ve done or who you are – because in this league everyone is thinking, “What have you done for me lately?” So it wasn’t too big of a deal to me.
(Long pause) It was kind of crazy, though. I’ve seen a lot of people say that it was a steal for Phoenix and stuff like that; I guess time will tell. I heard they were offered a lot more than a second-round pick [from other teams], but they just didn’t decide to do one of those other trades… I don’t know all of the details, but I know they had offers from a team in the East and a different West Coast team other than Phoenix.
Interesting. So how much did you know or hear as everything was unfolding that afternoon?
EP: Honestly, I wasn’t super involved. My agents were the ones who were hearing different things and they were trying to keep me updated throughout the day. About 30 to 45 minutes before the trade actually went down, my agent told me, “It seems like the talks are over and it looks like you’ll be staying in Orlando, at least until the end of the season.” They had heard from John [Hammond] or Jeff [Weltman] – I don’t know which one exactly, I’m not sure. But they were basically saying the talks were done and a trade was unlikely. Then, maybe seven or eight minutes before the deadline, the deal happened.
What was your initial reaction when you found out you were traded? That has to be tough, especially when you’re told that you probably aren’t getting dealt and then it happens anyway.
EP: Yeah, it was tough. I was just like, “Dang, this is crazy.” I was definitely a little bit shocked. But then when they told me I was going to Phoenix, I started getting excited about the opportunity.
You were close with a lot of your teammates in Orlando. How did other Magic players react when they heard about the trade?
EP: Man, a lot of guys were upset. The timing of this wasn’t the best, for a lot of reasons. A lot of the guys let me know that they were disappointed, but they were very encouraging. I think every single player on the team texted or called me to offer me encouragement or say that it was a pleasure playing with me, so that meant a lot. They were torn because they were upset about the trade, but happy for me because they knew that this was a good opportunity for my career. I also got texts and calls from a lot of people who worked within the organization, like members of the training staff and other employees. They wanted to wish me well too. I really appreciated all of the support.
The Suns worked you out multiple times before the draft and GM Ryan McDonough recently said he was disappointed when you were selected four picks before they were on the clock back in 2014. How nice is it to be in a situation where you know that you’re wanted and where they feel comfortable giving you a ton of minutes and responsibilities immediately after acquiring you?
EP: It feels really good. That’s what every player in the NBA wants. That’s really all you can ask for – to be wanted, to play for someone who wants to see you succeed and to be with an organization where everyone puts their trust in you. Now, I just have to make the most of this opportunity.
In your first two games with the Suns, you’ve averaged 24 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds while shooting 61.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from three. Did you want to send a message that the Magic made the wrong move by trading you, or are those numbers just a result of you fitting better with Phoenix’s system and players?
EP: I think it’s a combination of those things (laughs). I’ve always tried to play with a chip on my shoulder and this trade just added a little more fuel to my fire. But a lot of it does have to do with this system, my new teammates and the fact that the coaches are putting the ball in my hands and asking me to make something happen.
You’re a pass-first point guard and you’ve never averaged fewer than six assists per game in a season. Looking at this Suns squad, you’re going to have a lot of weapons at your disposal.
EP: This team’s potential is really intriguing. They have so many talented, up-and-coming guys like Devin Booker, TJ Warren, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, plus great vets like Jared Dudley and Tyson Chandler. I’m just excited to help them and put the ball in their hands. I’m obviously still learning where they each like the ball and all that, but I’m excited for the All-Star break because I’ll be able to get a few practices in with these guys. We can start figuring things out and get rolling.
I know you have a lot of friends around the NBA. Were you close to any players in Phoenix prior to the trade?
EP: Yeah, TJ Warren and I are represented by the same agency and we went through the pre-draft process together. We did a lot of pre-draft workouts together in L.A. and he’s such a talented player. Before the draft, we actually talked about how cool it would be to play together one day. So when I found out I was going to Phoenix, I thought of that and got excited. There are a few other players who I knew a little bit and have had conversations with, but TJ is the main one I’ve known for a while.
You haven’t gotten the chance to play with Devin Booker yet because he’s dealing with a hip injury, but I know fans in Phoenix are excited to see the two of you together. How excited are you to play alongside Devin and how good can you guys be as a backcourt pairing?
EP: I’m very excited to play with him. He’s a really great talent – someone who can shoot the ball extremely well, someone who can really score from anywhere on the court. I’m looking forward to trying to make the game even easier for him. I also think I can feed off of him because I know he’s going to draw a ton of attention from defenses. That will leave a lot of open opportunities for me, so I have to knock those shots down. I think we can be really good together. We definitely have a chance to be special. With Devin and TJ, those are guys who can really fill it up and put a ton of points on the board. I can’t wait until we’re all out there together.
You’re only 23 years old. Sometimes a change of scenery and some patience is all a player needs to break out. I mean, we’re seeing that with your friend and former teammate Victor Oladipo in Indiana. How much room for improvement do you still have and what is your ceiling?
EP: I feel like I still have a very high ceiling. Obviously, my shooting has gotten better this year, but I still feel like I can become a way better shooter. And there are still so many different things that I’m learning about the game and so many areas where I know I can improve. For example, I’m finding little tricks to get to the free-throw line more and get my team in the bonus. I’m also working hard to improve on the defensive end. I feel like my ceiling is still pretty high and I have a lot of room for growth.
You mentioned your shooting. That’s something that has been discussed a lot since you entered the NBA. This season, you’re hitting career-highs from the field (52.6 percent) and three-point range (38 percent). How confident are you in your shot now and what are the biggest differences for you this year?
EP: I think the biggest difference is just that I’m actually attempting the threes. I’m definitely more confident in my shot now, so I’m shooting more. I know all of the work that I put in over the summer and all of the work that I continue to put in each and every day, so I’m not hesitating to shoot it. Also, my teammates see the hard work and they were encouraging me to shoot more too. The fact that my teammates have that kind of confidence in me and my shot has been a big help.
What has been your first impression of the Suns organization?
EP: This organization is full of really nice people. Since I got here, they’ve been great to me and made me comfortable. They took me on a big tour and set me up in a nice hotel [while I look for a place to stay]. Everything has been super positive. It’s been great.
I know the trade just happened, but when you look at the roster, the organization and the city, could you see yourself potentially staying in Phoenix long-term?
EP: Yeah, I really could. Obviously, it’s not only up to me and I understand the business side of the NBA, but this is definitely somewhere I could see myself being for a long time.