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Men’s Basketball: Payton has created bunch of new Orlando Magic fans

Kevin Foote, The Advertiser, June 28, 2014

Magic Draft Picks Bas_Foot.jpg

Orlando Magic draft pick Elfrid Payton answers questions at a news conference introducing him as a new member of the NBA basketball team on Friday. (Photo: Associated Press )

In the mid-1970s, there were an awful lot of New York Yankees fans in the Acadiana area with local product Ron Guidry pitching for the Bronx Bombers.

In the 1980s, more than just a few NBA fans in these parts supported the Philadelphia 76ers with ex-Ragin’ Cajun great Andrew Toney being a first-round draft pick there.

A decade ago, a large number of Carolina Panthers fans suddenly arose – even in the middle of New Orleans Saints country – once former UL quarterback great Jake Delhomme took over the reins there.

Same scenario when Carencro’s own Kevin Faulk was drafted by New England, producing a lot more Patriots fans around here than ever before.

So after UL’s Elfrid Payton ended up in Orlando after Thursday’s NBA Draft, it’s pretty safe to assume that the number of Magic fans escalated rapidly in this area in one day … or at least the most we’ve seen since Shaquille O’Neal left that franchise almost two decades ago.

On Friday afternoon, Payton was introduced to the Orlando area as he took part in an introductory press conference along with No. 4 overall pick Aaron Gordon and second-round Roy Devyn Marble, who like Payton was acquired in a draft-day trade Thursday.

For the record, Payton will be wearing jersey No. 4 for the Magic.

Orlando can only hope that Payton ends up twice as big an impact player as he was in leading coach Bob Marlin’s Cajuns back to the top of the Sun Belt Conference wearing jersey No. 2.

“When we started to follow Elfrid (at UL), we got really excited about all the things he can bring to a team,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said in Friday’s press conference.

So just as the fans and media in the Orlando area begin the process of learning how special Payton’s approach to the game is, the basketball fans in Cajun Country are now starting to educate themselves on their new favorite NBA team in the Magic Kingdom.

It doesn’t take a very long look to discover that the Orlando Magic will be one of the NBA’s youngest teams next season.

Just look at the primary pieces already in place. Gordon is still 19, Payton is 20 and Marble is 21. Last year’s top pick, Victor Oladipo is 22 and promising forward Tobias Harris is 21. Starting center Nikola Vucevic, a Sixers’ first-round pick in 2011, is still just 23.

On Thursday, the Magic traded last year’s leading scorer, 28-year-old Arron Afflalo, for 21-year-old Evan Fournier, a 2012 first-rounder from Denver. By the way, in addition to 7 years of age, Magic also saved $6 million in that deal.

The team’s next big decision may be whether to keep 32-year-old veteran point guard Jameer Nelson, who averaged 32 minutes, 12.1 points and 7 assists a game last season.

Hennigan said after Thursday’s draft that Nelson’s future in Orlando had yet to be determined.

If Nelson fits into Orlando’s financial plans, it might not be a bad idea for Payton to learn under a veteran floor leader for a stretch. With no other true veteran presence around him, Payton would have quite a burden to bear as a 20-year-old floor leader come November.

With that said, Orlando trading for Payton may end up being a blessing. I certainly prefer the Cajuns’ all-time steals leader getting in on the ground floor of a rebuilding project than being thrown into the circus that is the Lakers these days, or the graveyard that is Sacramento or a more impatient lot in Philadelphia.

If the new local Magic fan is expecting an immediate winner, however, disappointment is almost a certainty. The Magic went 20-62 in 2013 and 23-59 this past season.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Orlando is currently $28.4 million under the salary cap. This year might be too early in this reconstruction phase to spend too much money on a big-name free agent, but the Magic should be in great position to do so, financially anyway, by the 2015-16 season.

The other encouraging trend is the kind of players Hennigan has accumulated in Orlando. From Payton to Gordon to Oladipo, this young crop is described as an admirable combination of humble, tough, attacking, competitive players with great work ethic and a selfless basketball mentality.

Third-year head coach Jacque Vaughn described this group as “inspiring” and one that he’ll “never have to worry about their effort and energy level on a nightly basis.”

In other words, it figures to be the kind of team that its new fan base from South Louisiana will likely love following.

The problem is, will a team comprised of three young defensive-minded players be able to score enough points? For instance, Payton shot 60.9 percent at the line this past season, which was way better than Gordon’s 42.2 percent at the line.

Oladipo is better at 78 percent. And for the record, Vaughn was a career backup point guard in his 12-year NBA career and also shot 78 percent at the line. Perhaps he can help their progress in that area.

Harris showed some scoring spark last year at 14.6 points and 7 rebounds a game, as did the 7-0, 250-pound Vucevic at 14.2 points and 11 boards a game.

While the Magic are going through a rough stretch in recent years since the departure of Dwight Howard, it’s not like this franchise has been a perennial loser.

On the contrary, after its inaugural season of 1989-90, the Magic made the playoffs for the first time just four years later and then made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 1995 and Eastern Conference finals in 1996 with O’Neal and Penny Hardaway.

After a stretch of six first-round playoff losses from 1997 until 2008, Orlando had a second patch of success by reaching the NBA Finals again in 2009 and then losing in the Eastern Conference finals in 2010.

The organization and fan base has certainly won enough to know what it feels like. Now Hennigan appears to like the Cajuns’ prize pupil point guard Elfrid Payton enough to give him the reins of the franchise’s future.

A future that just inherited a brand new pocket of fans. Perhaps it’s time for Mickey Mouse to try some crawfish anyway.