Elfrid Payton: 'I feel we embody what New York basketball was about back in the day'

Elfrid Payton: 'I feel we embody what New York basketball was about back in the day'

Interview

Elfrid Payton: 'I feel we embody what New York basketball was about back in the day'

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Unfortunately for the New York Knicks, this offseason hasn’t gone exactly as planned. They failed to win the Zion Williamson sweepstakes and missed on big-name free agents including Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who signed with the Knicks’ crosstown rivals (adding insult to injury).

The Knicks ended up pivoting to their back-up plan and signing low-risk, high-reward contributors with something to prove like Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Elfrid Payton.

HoopsHype talked to the latter about his free-agency experience, his decision to sign with the Knicks, his message for flustered New York fans, how he can build off last year’s success and more.

You and I talked as free agency was getting underway and I know you were hearing from a lot of teams. What was going through your head over the weekend?

Elfrid Payton: I was excited, man. I had a good number of options this year, so I was really excited. It was a little bit different from last year when I didn’t have as many [teams reaching out]. At first, I’m thinking, “Man, this is great! I have so many possibilities to choose from!” But it definitely made the decision a little bit harder initially because there were so many options and I was trying to pinpoint the best fit and the best situation for me.

Last year, I think the best thing that happened to me was that I went to the team that was the best fit for my game – the Pelicans – and I think that’s why I was able to play the way I played. I wanted to do the same thing this year and make sure I found the best situation for me. So I was excited, but it was tougher because I had to think through the different options to find the best fit.

What were the main factors that you were considering as you made your decision and why did you ultimately pick New York over the other interested teams?

EP: Playing time was a factor and it depended on the deal. I obviously don’t mind playing on a one-year deal – I did it last year and I feel like I did just fine – but when you’re in a situation where you’re on a one-year deal, you have to be able to play to showcase what you can do. If you’re on a one-year deal and you don’t play, then your hands are kind of tied, you feel me? I also looked at the coaching and playing style. Does the team like to run and get up-and-done the floor? Are there other guys who care about defense? What’s the system that they’re trying to run? Then, lastly, it’s just the overall roster and fit; do the players on that team kind of complement what I do? When I was going through the whole roster and talking to Julius [Randle], who played a big part in this, I just felt like it was a good fit.

You and Julius played well together in New Orleans too. Why do you think you guys work so well together and are you excited to team up with him again?

EP: Yeah, I’m excited to play with Julius again. I had always liked Julius from afar and really respected his game. But last year, being up close with him and being in the situation we were in last year – where we were going through all of the injuries and tough stuff and still having to produce – I got a chance to see what he does when his back is against the wall and he came through in a big way. I gained a lot of respect for him. He’s a dog. I respect anybody who’s a dog in this league. I can say the same thing about Bobby Portis. I’ve never been in war with Bobby, but I can see how he gets down, so to speak. He’s a dog. Taj Gibson? He’s a dog. When I saw those signings, [coming to the Knicks] was almost a no-brainer.

It certainly seems like New York targeted you guys because you’re all dogs who play with a lot of intensity and an us-against-the-world mentality. Do you think that was intentional and did they talk to you guys about that?

EP: That’s definitely what they were echoing in the meetings we had and when we all sat down together. That’s exactly what they were echoing.

Last season, you averaged 10.6 points, 7.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game and emerged as a nightly triple-double threat. You had five-straight triple-doubles at one point, joining Michael Jordan and Russell Westbrook as the only players in NBA history to do that. How can you build off of last year’s success and get to the point where you can perform at that level even more consistently?

EP: Making sure my conditioning is at an all-time high is important. That’s one of the biggest things that I did last summer. I feel like I’ve always been in good shape, but last year I made sure I was in great shape. I think that’s the biggest thing for me because then I’m able to have that same energy night in and night out. That’s definitely something I’m going to continue to work on. Other than that, I think a lot of it is just going out there and playing with a lot of confidence. I feel like I always [enter games] with a lot of confidence, but I need to be able to keep that confidence no matter what happens. I can do this every single night. And in the right situation, I think I’ll prove that.

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

You mentioned that you like how all of the pieces fit together, and this is a nice mix of young guys and veterans too. How much potential does this team have?

EP: I think we can be really good. Obviously we’ve got young pieces like RJ Barrett and Kevin Knox – guys who are up-and-comers. Then, you have younger veteran-types like me and Julius and Reggie [Bullock]. Then, you throw Taj in the mix, who’s a real vet and seen so much and been deep in the playoffs. It’s a good mix of guys and I think we have a chance to be something special.

What message would you give to Knicks fans who are upset right now after missing out on the big-name free agents?

EP: Just sit back and watch, man. They’ll grow to love this group of guys. It’s totally natural to feel some type of way when you miss out on guys like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but I think they’re going to grow to love this group. I feel we embody what New York basketball was about back in the day – just being grimy, tough guys who play with a chip on their shoulder and have something to prove.

You’ve played in small markets – Orlando and New Orleans – and now you’re going to be playing on basketball’s biggest stage in Madison Square Garden. This is a little bit new for you; what are your thoughts on that?

EP: I think it’s a great opportunity for people to see who I really am as a player. I think a lot of people would just hear about me from a distance; they’d hear that I had a triple-double every now and then or they only knew me because of my hair (laughs). I think people are really going to get a chance to see what my game is all about and how I’ve evolved each year. It’s exciting! It’s the Mecca of Basketball!

Last year, you shot 31.4 percent from three-point range and you were knocking down 0.8 threes per game, which was a career-high. I feel like fans know about your passing, rebounding and defense, but they’re curious about how your shot is developing. How is your shot coming along and is that something you’re going to work on over the summer?

EP: Yeah, it’s something that I’ve been continuously working on, something that I’m continuing to get better at. I’ve seen progress in my shot and anyone who has watched my game has noticed the progress. I feel like it’s coming along. It’s something that I’ve tried to work on each and every year. I’m getting more and more confident and I’m shooting the ball more. And I feel like it’s only going to continue to get better. I have a coach [who believes in me]. Coach Alvin [Gentry] last year was confident in me shooting those shots and I feel like Coach [David] Fizdale will be the same way. My teammates encourage me to shoot too. It’s getting better and it’s only going to continue getting better, so I’m excited about it.

What are your thoughts on RJ Barrett? He has so much potential and it’s looking like he could become a star in this league for a long time. What do you think of his game and upside?

EP: I’m excited to see what he can do. I don’t get to watch many college games throughout the season, so it’s really tough for me to pinpoint his game and stuff like that. But from what I’m hearing, he’s very athletic and he’s a great competitor. Anytime you have someone like that who isn’t scared of anybody, who is never going to back down from someone, that always helps you on the floor. I’m excited to get in the gym with him and learn about his game and vice versa. I think when we’re out there playing, we can bring the best out of each other.

What do you think of Dennis Smith Jr. and how you guys could potentially play together or complement one another? And how much do you think you can help each other grow?

EP: I feel like good players can always figure it out. As far as I know, he has a good basketball IQ, so I think we can make it work. I’m sure he’ll be picking my brain just as much as I’ll be picking his brain, and we’ll try to figure out how to make it work. I do think he can play off-the-ball a little bit and I feel like I can play off-the-ball a bit too, especially now that I feel I’m shooting the ball better. He’s young and athletic and gets out to run and he plays good defense. I can see [us playing together]. I don’t really know the plan or how they want to do it, but in today’s game, you can definitely have two point guards out there at the same time. That’s just how the game is evolving. You need people who make plays and be able to guard multiple positions; I think he can do that and I know I can do that, so I’m excited to get in the gym with him.

I know he’s going to push me just like I’m going to push him and we’re going to get the best out of each other to help this team ultimately make the playoffs because that’s the goal. I’m excited. I feel like we have a lot of talent at every position. I think we are way deeper than people think. We have players at every position who are going to compete. People are forgetting about Mitchell Robinson too. He’s going to be in the back, blocking everything. I’m excited! I know I keep saying it, but I’m excited.

In New York, the fans and media demand a lot. If you have a bad game, there’s going to be a lot of criticism. As I mentioned, this will be your first time playing in a big market and experiencing all of that. Are you bracing yourself for that and preparing to live in a fishbowl?

EP: I feel like I’m ready for it. I have an AAU team and I try to be a big brother, a mentor, to a lot of little kids – especially in [my hometown] New Orleans. I always tell my young guys, “As soon as you figure out that the media are just regular people who are doing their job, it is easy to deal with them.” Sometimes you know what they’re trying to get – whether it’s good or bad – but you just have to take it all in stride. At the end of the day, they’re just doing their job. You may not like what they have to say, but it’s their job. And I’ve never been the kind of player who reads about himself anyway, so I don’t think it’s going to affect me. I’ll try to do my best to protect my family and tell them to take everything with a grain of salt. But I don’t read it anyway, so I think I’ll be fine.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, you had a front-row seat to the Anthony Davis drama and I know that can be difficult for a team to go through. Not only are you constantly being asked about it, but it’s natural for players to look over their shoulder and wonder if they might also be traded in some kind of blockbuster deal. What was it like having all of that drama and uncertainty around the Pelicans last season?

EP: I feel like for all of us, to a certain extent, it wasn’t as bad as the media was making it seem. AD had already told us all that there was a possibility that something might happen, so it wasn’t a shock to us. We already knew. Then, the media took it and ran with it and made it bigger than it really was. They’d ask a bunch of questions, which kind of got aggravating. But, again, I just tried to remember, “They’re just doing their job.” For us, I felt like it wasn’t that big of a deal since he had told us that he may get traded.

As for the fear that you may get traded along with him, you’re definitely going to think about that a little bit. But at the end of the day, you have to realize that you can only control what you can control. You have no real say-so in something like that if it’s going to happen. You try not to think about it, but it’s tough, especially when you’re a guy who’s on an expiring contract and things like that. It may go through your head at times, but you can’t really control that.

The only thing that was crazy was how they were like, “He needs to play in this game, but then he can miss the next game. And, when he does play, he’s only going to play 20 minutes…” That was the wildest thing for me and it’s what aggravated me the most about the entire situation. This is probably my first time saying this, but having him play some games and then miss some games and then only play 20 minutes in some games, that was hard. It’s hard to find a rhythm. And this is his job, something that he loves to do, and you’re taking it away from him. To me, it was almost like they were just teasing the guy by putting him out there for 20 minutes and then pulling him. That was the weirdest thing about the situation. I understand trying to protect your asset, but I feel like they should’ve just been able to sit him down for the whole time. You might as well play him for real or don’t play him at all, you know? I know the NBA got involved too. But that was the only thing that was aggravating because it was hard to get into a rhythm. It was hard for him and the players who were playing behind him. They were like, “Oh, I’m starting tonight?! Wait, no, I’m not starting tonight.” It was just weird.

Even though New York didn’t sign a superstar this summer, the Knicks are always going to be a franchise that pursues big-name free agents. Now that the dust is settling a bit, we’re starting to learn that Spencer Dinwiddie and others played a big role in recruiting Kyrie Irving to Brooklyn. Would you be willing to help the Knicks recruit star players?

EP: For sure! I definitely would, especially if I feel like they could help us. I’m all about winning. However they want to do it – if they feel like [pursuing stars] is the best way – I’m with it. I’m all about helping the team, so if they want me recruit anyone, I’m for sure down. One hundred percent.

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