When NBA teams accustomed to bottom-feeder status finally bloom into playoff contenders, there usually is cornerstone player leading the turnaround, one guy who’s indispensable when a team needs a clutch basket, assist, rebound or defensive stop that decides so many games.
Is Elfrid Payton that guy for the Orlando Magic? Those who follow the Magic think he can be.
Payton, the only Magic player to play in all 82 games last season and fourth in the voting for rookie of the year, returns to his hometown Tuesday night to give fans a look at his progress when Orlando meets the Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center.
“I’ve been around the block once, and I know what’s going on and how to get things done,” said Payton, who grew up in Gretna and played at John Ehret High School and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette before being a lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft. “I feel a lot more confident about my game this year. I’m a lot stronger. I’m a lot better prepared. My shooting has improved. I think my game will be noticeably better this year.”
The question in Orlando is: How fast?
Magic management said this is the season they expect to get back to the playoffs after three straight seasons of dismal basketball. They hired Scott Skiles as coach, thinking his intensity and straightforward approach would get more out of the four lottery picks (Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Payton and Mario Hezonja) the team drafted the past three years.
It starts with Payton, whose rookie season mirrored that of the team: Lots of promising performances dulled by a constant failure to finish. The hope is that if Payton improves, the Magic will too.
“Elfrid can do just about anything you’d want,” Skiles said. “He can get into the paint often, if not at will. He has great vision and the ability to be a great defender, but now we’ve got to see some consistency with all those tools.
“Elfrid’s got to get to the point where he’s not taking possessions off. When you have the ability to impact the game the way he does, you have to be going 100 percent all the time.”
Payton did some really good things his rookie season. He was rookie of the month in January and became first player in Magic history to record back-to-back triple doubles. He led his team in assists 64 times, rebounding six times and scoring four times.
All that did, however, was whet people’s appetite for more, especially at the offensive end. He is one of the best penetrating guards in the NBA, with a hesitation dribble move in the lane that is as good as any player in the league. The problem is finishing.
He shot just 42.5 percent from the field, 55.1 percent from the free-throw line and 26.2 percent from 3-point land. When he’s not shooting confidently, the Magic are playing four-on-five at the offensive end.
“When he gets into the paint, we’ve got to get something from that,” Skiles said. “If he can make a few of those chippies, maybe hit a few pull-up jumpers at the elbow when defenders go under screens and throw in an occasional 3 from the corner, that’s what we’re looking for.
“He doesn’t have to be another Steph Curry, but he does have to keep the other team honest, and I think he will.”
The turnaround hasn’t happened the first week of the season. The Magic are 0-3 with a familiar problem. They blew a 10-point lead in the final three minutes of the opener to Washington. Two nights later, they led Oklahoma City by 17 in the fourth quarter before losing in double overtime. They cut a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to one with 3:36 left at Chicago on Sunday night before losing steam and the game.
Payton has started slowly, too. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 5.3 assists and is shooting just 36.4 percent against all-stars John Wall (Wizards), Russell Westbrook (Thunder) and Derrick Rose (Bulls). He missed the last five games of the exhibition season and is still learning the new offense Skiles installed but won’t use either as an excuse.
“Things have got to change,” he said. “We can’t do it one night and not the next. We’ve got to be on every night.
“As for myself, it takes me some time to get used to things, but like with everything else in my life, eventually, I figure it out. And I’ll figure this out, too.”