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Former Men’s Basketball: Payton’s NBA dream to be fulfilled Tuesday where it all started

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, October 26, 2014



Magic guard Elfrid Payton (4) talks with head coach Jacque Baughn during the Magic’s preseason game with Charlotte last week. (Photo: Jeremy Brevard/ USA TODAY Sports)



He ended his college career in an NBA arena, the AT&T Center in San Antonio, where last March UL lost its opening 2014 NCAA Tournament game to Creighton.

Next up: Another NBA arena, this one in the city of New Orleans, just across the Mississippi River from his hometown of Gretna.

New Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton will play his first regular-season pro game there Tuesday night, in the same city where the Ragin’ Cajuns punched their ticket to San Antonio with an overtime win over Georgia State.

It’s quite a leap from Lakefront Arena – where Payton played his final Sun Belt Conference Tournament games before being selected 10th overall in the June NBA Draft – to Smoothie King Center, home of the New Orleans Pelicans.

For Payton, though, the ride to Orlando from Gretna to Lafayette to all Sun Belt stops in-between is well worth getting somewhere he’s always wanted to be – and that, so far, is all it’s cracked up to be.

In the league, that is.

"It’s everything you ever dreamed of, if this was your dream," Payton said last week by phone from Orlando, where he’s a key young piece for a franchise moving on now that both Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson are in the rearview mirror.

"At the end of the day I know it’s a job," Payton added, "but it’s still a game, it’s still something you love. So, it will never feel like a job."

It’s possible, but remains to be seen, if Payton will be Orlando’s starting point when the Magic open their 2014-15 season on Tuesday night against the Pelicans.

He has plenty of advocates, including the Orlando Sentinel’s Brian Schmitz, who wrote earlier this month that "If you’re uncertain about where this thing is going since Dwight Howard bolted, Payton has the potential to ease your mind and find the open man."

But with veteran point Luke Ridnour on the roster, it’s uncertain which way Magic coach Jacque Vaughn will turn Tuesday.

"Ridnour banged knees with Chandler Parsons during Friday’s preseason finale and didn’t return," Josh Cohen wrote on the Magic’s team website.

"Assuming he is healthy to play … in the opener, Vaughn will have to decide (whom) to start," Cohen added. "Payton has shown flashes of excellence during the exhibition schedule, but it’s possible the coaching staff will prefer to be more patient before handing him the keys to the offense."

Either way, it appears clear that the Magic’s plan is for Payton – still just 20 years old – to ultimately be driving.

"The Magic had experimented with (off guard/2013-14 Rookie of the Year runner-up Viktor Oladipo) at point guard," Schmitz writes, "but drafting Payton signaled the club’s intent to establish an Oladipo-Payton backcourt."

(Oladipo sustained a facial fracture in practice last Thursday, however, and is out indefinitely).

Perhaps predictably for the humble-as-it-gets point, Payton suggests it just doesn’t matter to him if he starts.

"I’m not exactly sure how Coach is gonna play it," he said. "I’m comfortable coming off the bench; I’m comfortable with starting. Whichever he thinks will help the team most, I’m ready to step into that role."

There’s one role, however, that Payton prefers to play sooner rather than later.

It’s the one wise NBA players – and wiser NBA coaches – will tell you matters most.

"I would like to finish games," said Payton, a John Ehret High product. "That’s kind of where I’m at with it."

On top of the world, it seems, is where Payton was when he left UL after his junior season to chase NBA riches.

In the offseason prior to his final Cajun season, he toured China with a Christian ministry team, helped Team USA win gold at FIBA’s Under-19 World Championships in the Czech Republic and toured Spain with his UL teammates.

The whirlwind summer gained Payton – who averaged 19.2 points, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals last season – added attention from NBA scouts.

By the time he led the Cajuns to the NCAA Tournament – winning the national Lefty Driesell Defensive Player of the Year Award en route – it had become more and more apparent that exiting UL early was the sensible way to go.

"They’re real excited about him," UL coach Bob Marlin said of Magic front office and coaching-staff members he met during a recent recruiting trip that took him through Orlando. "I think he’s in a great position. He’s done well in the preseason. … I’m looking forward to (Tuesday)."

He won’t be alone.

Several ex-Cajun teammates expect to be on hand, as well as numerous friends and relatives.

"At first I didn’t know what to think," Payton said of debuting in New Orleans, "and then (thought) it’s kind of exciting to start your career off at home."

Back in Orlando, Payton said he’s received "nothing but love" from Magic fans.

He averaged 6.3 points, 1.3 steals and – perhaps most importantly – 5.5 assists in his first NBA preseason.

It was a learning experience.

"I see the things I can get away with, the things I can’t get away with; the flow of the game, how long the game actually is," Payton said. "I’m learning that any team go on a run, at any time.

"With how long the game is (48 minutes compared to 40 in college) you can be out of it and come back real quick."

For many in the NBA, you can be in it – then out real fast also. With Payton’s approach, however, that hardly seems to be a concern.

Query his concern over living up to being the draft’s No. 10 selection, and Payton’s answer is right on the rails.

"I haven’t even thought about that," he said.

"It’s the same pressure I would feel if I was picked No. 60 (last in the two-round NBA Draft)," Payton added after momentary reflection. "I put pressure on myself to be the best, try to be the best, and to help the team as much as I can, in either instance."


As Tuesday’s start to his NBA career fast-approaches, what they’re saying nationally about ex-UL/new Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton:

"Elfrid Payton’s hair is unruly but his game is in order. The Magic shouldn’t have to deliberate: Start the kid with the chronic case of bed-head. They need to start Payton at point guard when the regular season opens and check back in a decade or so for a replacement.

"There’s nothing else left to see… and yet everything left to see. This should be an easy call for coach Jacque Vaughn. Hand Payton the point-guard keys and watch the rookie turn this test-drive into a road rally. Stick with him through all his warts and wonder.

"(Ex-Orlando starting point) Jameer Nelson is not walking through that door, and Payton can now close it behind him."

– Brian Schmitz, Orlando Sentinel


"No disrespect to Andrew Wiggins, who can fly like a young Tracy McGrady and defend like a future Scottie Pippen. No disrespect to Jabari Parker, who can score like Carmelo Anthony. And nothing against Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, or any of the other mega-prospects who will likely be lighting up the league for the next 10 years.

"But Elfrid Payton is the coolest player in the NBA’s new rookie class. It’s not just his hair, which is perfect for his Louisiana roots and makes him look like an awesome, even more Rasta version of Sideshow Bob.

"It’s not just the fact he went to Louisiana-Lafayette and played for the Ragin’ Cajuns, a cool team in a small conference that he almost singlehandedly carried to the Big Dance this past March. Nope. It’s his soft-spoken, grown-up game that makes him the man."

– Kels Dayton, Sheridan Hoops


"Payton has shown he has the NBA smarts to run a team. His slashing game is top notch, and his defensive skills are as good as advertised. In a lot of ways, it is wise for Orlando to start Payton. As good as Luke Ridnour is, there is a reason why he has spent the bulk of his career as a bench player, and on a young, athletic team as the Magic, Payton would be a tremendous fit.

"Payton has the talent to be another Gary Payton. Payton began his NBA career the same way as Elfrid. Gary was a traditional point guard who focused on setting up his teammates rather than scoring.

"(Elfrid) Payton has displayed that he has the poise and the leadership skills to run an NBA team. Will there be road bumps? Of course. All rookies will eventually hit the rookie wall, and Payton will not be immune to it. But it is important for the Magic’s future to start Payton now."

– Kareem Gantt, Rant Sports