In the weeks leading up to last month’s NBA draft, no player’s stock rose more dramatically than Elfid Payton’s.
At the start of the college season, Payton’s name couldn’t be found on any draft boards, let alone in the first round. But as he led Louisiana-Lafayette to the NCAA tournament, averaging 19 points, nearly six assists and two steals, experts and executives alike began paying more attention to the impossibly long, 6-foot-3 point guard out of John Ehret High School.
Following impressive predraft workouts, Payton skyrocketed up the ranks. First, he snuck into the first round. Then he crept up into the mid-20s. There seemed to be no stop to his absurd ascent as his name soon appeared among the likes of more highly touted prospects such as Julius Randle, Noah Vonleh, Dario Saric and Nik Stauskas, all of whom were expected to be picked in the 6 to 12 range.
Payton found his way to the Orlando Magic via a draft-day trade with the Philadelphia 76ers, who selected him with the 10th pick.
“Elfrid, going into the draft, was someone we had targeted,” said Rob Hennigan, general manager of the Orlando Magic, on the night of the draft. “We love his toughness, competitiveness and desire to play defense.”
What stands out most about Payton — aside from his hair, some new variation on an afro — is his even-keeled manner. He’s rarely rattled, either on the court or during interviews. His voice hardly changes pitch or tempo: It’s light and steady, with a slight southern drawl.
Nothing seems to bug him, not a reporter’s question nor a point guard trying to take the ball away. If by chance something does bother him, he’s quick to adapt. Take, for instance, his first game in the Orlando Summer League.
His debut left much to be desired. Philadelphia’s Casper Ware — all 5-10 of him, if we’re being generous — pestered Payton all over the court, preventing him from getting into a rhythm on offense. Like so many rookies getting their first taste of NBA action, it was the speed of the game that bothered Payton most. While he said it didn’t necessarily catch him by surprise, he admitted it “threw me off a little bit.”
This is a common refrain from rookies, especially those who have come from a lower level of competition. But it’s not just the speed of the defense that catches them off guard; it’s their own speed as well. Too often, rookie guards want to play at 100 mph, showing little regard for their lower gears. Payton admitted to falling victim to such a trap.
“You have to learn to play at your pace and learn your tempo,” he said.
It didn’t take long for Payton to find that tempo. The next game and throughout the rest of the week, Payton was one of the best players in Orlando. He didn’t score much — he had 46 points in five games — but that won’t be his focus early in his career.
He constantly replied to questions about his focus and areas in which he needs to improve with answers about running the team better and staying aggressive on defense. Sometimes, he’d talk about his scoring, but it was clear that defense and passing came first.
Payton has joined a team replete with high-character players, which the Magic place a premium on. One of those players, Victor Oladipo, experienced last year exactly what Payton is going through this year. Oladipo had nothing but praise for his future backcourt mate, noting in particular his quick progression over the course of summer league play.
“You can see (his comfort) out there,” Oladipo said. “He’s not forcing anything. He’s a pass-first point guard, and he plays defense. He’s perfect.”
The backcourt pairing of Oladipo and Payton excites the Magic and, in a few years, will be “a problem” for opposing offenses, said Wes Unseld Jr., the Magic’s summer league coach. While Oladipo anointing Payton as “perfect” is more than a little bit of hyperbole, it shows just how excited the Magic players are to have him in the fold.
“Every day presents a new challenge,” Payton said. “(I’m) trying to build from the last day to the next day.”