ORLANDO, Fla. — Call it a lapse in court awareness.
Elfrid Payton is first out the door of the Orlando Magic locker room, slapping hands with fans and ushers as he hits the Amway Center court for warmups before the Magic’s preseason game against Brazilian club Flamengo.
Not until he nears midcourt does Payton realize his teammates aren’t with him. They’re snickering back at the locker room door, enjoying the fruits of their rookie prank.
“It was funny to me,” Payton said later. “I looked back and nobody was there, so I was like, well, I’ll just use this time to work on my game. I’m the only one out here, so I can get all the shots.”
Put this one down under court awareness, too.
Later that same night, Payton hits the floor underneath the Magic basket to come up with a loose ball. With few options from his seated position, he spies Tobias Harris with an open lane to the hoop. A bounce pass rises to meet Harris in stride for an emphatic two-handed slam.
“He does a play every single game where you’re just like, ‘Wow, this guy’s going to be really good,’” fellow rookie Aaron Gordon said.
First things first, though. The lanky kid with the rising hair still has to make his NBA debut. That comes Tuesday night when, as fate would have it, the young Magic’s season opener brings them to Smoothie King Center to face the Pelicans — a mere 10 minutes across the Mississippi River from Payton’s boyhood home in Gretna.
A cluster of friends and former teammates also figure to make the drive from Lafayette, where Payton helped the Ragin’ Cajuns win the Sun Belt Conference tournament and reach the second round of last season’s NCAAs.
“It’s like God has a sense of humor,” mused Payton, whom the Magic acquired minutes after Philadelphia took him with the 10th pick of June’s draft. “But I’m just excited to get out there and play. Get that first game under my belt, get this first season going.”
Payton’s family and friends might even see him on the floor to start, thanks to some key injuries in the final week of preseason.
Victor Oladipo, second in Rookie of the Year balloting last season, underwent facial surgery Saturday after catching a wayward elbow in practice. And veteran point guard Luke Ridenour is nursing a thigh bruise suffered in Orlando’s final preseason game.
“I’ve just got to step up and speed up the learning curve,” Payton said after a loss to Dallas ended the Magic’s preseason at 4-4. “I’ve got to be ready for whatever they ask of me, and be able to do it at a high level.”
On one hand, it may not be a big issue. Payton started four of Orlando’s eight preseason games, averaging 6.3 points and 5.5 assists. On seven occasions, he led the team or shared top honors in assists.
Payton’s 30 turnovers, though, translate to 3.8 per game and come close to doubling the Magic’s next-highest tally. And now comes the whole dynamic of that first official, I’m-in-The-Show realization.
“Rookies are rookies. It’s not like he’s going to sleep great the night before,” said Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, a veteran of 12 NBA seasons at point guard. “He’ll be tossing and turning.”
Forward Kyle O’Quinn said: “He’s going to be jittery; he’s going to be anxious. Everything you can think of, he will be. Hopefully he’ll get it out of his system early. Maybe three or four minutes into the game, he’ll realize it’s a game like any other one, and you’ve got to perform.”
On that note, early reviews have been distinctly upbeat. The turnovers need to scale back, sure, and a more consistent shot would keep defenders honest. But those 5.5 assists were the best of any rookie in the preseason — ahead of both Boston’s Marcus Smart and Utah’s Dante Exum, the two point guards taken ahead of Payton on draft night.
Coaches and teammates have been generally pleased with the decision-making, even if the execution isn’t always there.
“He’s beyond his years,” said Ridenour, an 11-year pro brought in to help ease the transition from the departing Jameer Nelson.
“I could see it in the summer when we were scrimmaging. He understands the game. He’s not always trying to score or make the home-run play. He makes the right play.”
The Magic, who turned over half their roster during the offseason, clearly are still in the getting-to-know-you phase. Twice against the Mavs, big man Nikola Vucevic bobbled a Payton pass he wasn’t expecting. Later, a dish to Willie Green was bobbled and kicked out of bounds.
Not that they always turn out badly. Against Charlotte, Payton spotted Gordon coming free near the baseline and readied to throw an alley-oop lob. But Gordon looked away, Payton made a quick adjustment on the release — and the ball banked hard off the glass for a 3-pointer.
“On a nightly basis, your job is extremely tough because you’re orchestrating other men that you’re playing with,” Vaughn said.
“(It’s) the demands from your coach, the demands from yourself, which you’ve always had. And that’s not even taking into account the opponents that you have to play on a nightly basis and how smart this league is and how familiar they get with you extremely quick.”
Give Payton credit for doing the little things. He arrived in camp a month ago with a goal of trying to spend time away from the court with each of his teammates.
“As a point guard, it’s kind of my job to be able to talk to everybody,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to be open. When people like you, it’s much easier to play with you. Guys feel comfortable telling you stuff, then it becomes this bond on the court.”
It helps, too, that the Magic have such a young core. Ten players are age 24 or younger, none with more than three years of NBA experience. Oladipo is 22, just two years older than Payton. Gordon, drafted No. 4 overall, just turned 19.
“We have a good group of guys here,” Payton said. “Nobody’s really closed, nobody has an ego. Guys have been taking me to restaurants, showing me around, things like that.”
Perhaps the only disappointment for Payton is a lack of court time with Oladipo. A strained knee sidelined last year’s No. 2 pick for most of the preseason; the ill-timed elbow happened in his first practice back.
“That’s the one guy,” Payton said. “I got a little bit of a chance to play together [with him] in summer league, but obviously we haven’t been able to spend much time with these unfortunate events.”
When they do come together, it could be a look at the Magic’s backcourt for the next decade. “He’s a pass-first point guard, and he plays D,” Oladipo said during summer league. “He’s perfect.”
For now, Payton will concentrate on strengthening ties with his other teammates. Harris, just 22 but embarking on his fourth NBA season, has been in his ear a little bit to build him up as opening night nears.
“I think as a young point guard in the position he’s in, confidence is the key,” Harris said. “So anytime he’s getting confidence and getting good words from older guys on the team, it’s probably going to help him.”
It’s a long season ahead, offering Payton a mixture of ups and downs. But there’s only one NBA debut, and that’s at hand.
Though he naturally grew up a Hornets fan and watched a lot of Chris Paul, he never got a chance to see a game in person. The only time he’s been in the arena was for an all-star game while in high school.
In a quiet moment Tuesday, he’ll have a chance to reflect on the journey — a late bloomer with just two Division I offers, through UL-Lafayette and Team USA and draft night — to wind up 10 minutes from home, ready for the biggest stage yet.
“Yeah, I’ll think about it a little bit: how far I’ve come and how (things are) already starting,” he said.
A thoughtful look then shifted back into focus. “But then you’ve got to snap out of it,” he said. “Get back to what’s important, and that’s winning this game.”