ORLANDO, Fla. — Ask Elfrid Payton about top memories he took home from All-Star Weekend, and the short list inevitably includes participating in the Slam Dunk Contest.
Even though the rookie never actually threw one down himself.
Payton got his fair share of court time, though, as setup man for Magic teammate Victor Oladipo — helping him finish second to Timberwolves teenager Zach LaVine. Three of Oladipo’s four sets began with the ball in Payton’s hands.
“Vic had always talked to me about it, that he might want to use me,” Payton said Friday, hours before the Magic welcomed the Pelicans to start both teams’ stretch run. “We went through some things, and that’s what we did when we went out there.”
Consider it another vignette in the growing bond between backcourt mates the Magic see as cornerstones for the franchise’s revival. They also were U.S. teammates in the Rising Stars Challenge, with Oladipo scoring 22 points in a losing effort and Payton tallying three assists.
“We just continue to get closer,” Payton said. “I think we’ve grown a lot.”
It’s a chemistry endeavor that was late in getting underway, as Oladipo sat out the preseason and first nine games of the regular season with first a sprained knee and then facial fractures from a wayward elbow in practice.
They didn’t start together until just before Christmas, enduring a 10-game losing streak and coaching change since that juncture. But they’ve also shown glimpses of what Magic brass hopes to see on a regular basis.
Payton is pushing the pace with greater regularity, opening space for easier buckets. Oladipo frequently is the closer.
“Obviously we’re still a little ways away,” Payton said, “but little things like that show that we’re making progress.”
Oladipo agrees. “The beauty of playing together is that you kind of learn each other,” he told reporters just before the break. “Just imagine after we get a year or two under our belts. It’s going to be fun to grow together.”
The bond extends beyond the court as well. Oladipo, 22, is Payton’s elder by just 21½ months on the calendar and one year in the league. Both got just one Division I offer in college — Oladipo to Indiana, Payton to UL-Lafayette. Both are the only boys in families surrounded by sisters.
“Just a lot of things in common,” Payton said.
Payton leads all NBA rookies in assists at 5.7 per game, but there’s plenty of learning curve ahead. Though he averages 7.9 points, he’s shooting just 42 percent from the floor and a paltry 19 percent from 3-point range.
The 20-year-old ballhandler has developed a nice floater he can launch from the lane, and he amazes his teammates with some of his pinpoint passes. But the mid- to long-range jumper remains in development.
“He’s got to become a better finisher, and he is,” said interim coach James Borrego, the onetime Hornets/Pelicans assistant handed the Magic’s reins after Jacque Vaughn’s dismissal.
“He’s got to use his float game, and he is. But he’s got to get into the paint for us,” said Borrego. “When nothing’s there, he’s got to kick it, find the next open man. And that next man’s got to make the right play.”
At 17-39, the Magic are third from the Eastern Conference bottom and seven games out of a playoff berth. Though Payton is holding up well through the NBA’s physical rigors, the bigger challenge has come from too many nights on the losing side.
“It’s easy to start feeling sorry for yourself,” he said. “But you’ve got to stay mentally strong, stay positive and try to take something from those losses into the next game.”
Said Oladipo: “We’ve definitely got to have the proper focus every game. We manage to do that these last 26 games, there’s no telling what we can do.”