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Could Elfrid Payton actually become a viable long-term answer for the Suns?

With his pass-first style alongside an elite ability to finish at the rim, Payton might be the perfect backcourt sidekick to Devin Booker while helping progress their other core pieces.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Golden State Warriors Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

For Elfrid Payton, his NBA career, based on fit, was started off with a massive mistake made by the front office who selected him. Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan was enamored with the long, lanky point guard out of Louisiana-Lafayette to the point of trading up for him in the 2014 Draft.

However, what Hennigan failed to notice when trying to construct a team that would bring out Payton’s best traits, he placed him next to Victor Oladipo, who at the time was a very raw shooter from beyond 15 feet. Through his first two seasons with Orlando, Oladipo averaged only 33% from three-point land. Placing a non-shooter next to another one, where neither could properly space the floor for one another led to obvious issues schematically.

For Hennigan, who died on the Payton hill until his firing, shipped off Oladipo and their own first-round pick to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka.

Not only did Oladipo begin to make significant strides alongside an elite backcourt partner in Russell Westbrook from the perimeter, but his confidence was going way up in the process. Hennigan choosing Payton led us to where we are today, where would-be Magic in Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis are leading a resurgent Indiana Pacers squad to a likely playoff berth.

Suns general manager Ryan McDonough hopes fortunes go the same for Payton as he leaves the Magic for an opportunity to get heavy usage immediately alongside an elite scoring guard who could bring out his best attributes.

Simply put, McDonough acquiring Troy Daniels and a second-round pick from Memphis and then using that pick to flip for Payton was a brilliant move working the market. He acquired both of them nothing, and each has a chance of being on next year’s roster as well.

When thinking about Payton’s fit long-term in Phoenix, look at his first two outings as a member of the Suns.

  • 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 9 assists on 8-13 FGA
  • 29 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists on 11-18 FGA

Average those out and Payton has been putting up 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists while shooting above 60% from the field. Albeit without Devin Booker right now until after the All-Star break as he continues to recover from a hip pointer, Payton seems to have built an even bigger chip on his shoulder since being moved last week.

It’s showed early results that show promise to help young prospects like Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender along.

These moments will only continue to grow as the pass-first style Payton possesses will keep his new teammates on the lookout for the dimes right where they are needed.

Normally, any of the six other point guards the Suns have run out this season would not go back to Bender here after not going towards the basket. However, Payton sets him up here all the way, resetting and getting an easy mismatch onto a guard. Bender then converted the and-1.

Many of these situations weren’t happening before his arrival.

Check out how Payton sets up Bender right after he touches the ball off the inbounds. He immediately looks back to see where Bender is then flipped it back to him as he’s hitting full stride for the easy three-pointer. Don’t overlook how Payton pulls the Steve Nash screening off both for the 7-foot Croatian to have over 5-plus feet of room.

Here this not only showcases Bender’s ability defensively as he stonewalls Nikola Jokic off of his balance on the way up for a hook shot, but Payton rewarded Bender again for getting out and running ahead.

Bender easily beats the bigger, slow-footed Jokic down the floor and Elfrid hit him right in the bread basket. That scenario never played out for Bender at all this season, so to say he was caught off guard would be an understatement.

It’s a welcome sign to see a Suns point guard doing this, and it will only continue as they develop more of a chemistry over these final 20-plus games together.

Two more videos below I wanted to show was how Josh Jackson and Payton got into an early synch in his debut. Jackson loves to get out and run, especially in transition, and Payton kept rewarding him.

Jackson and T.J. Warren are the teams two best cutters, and when they are utilized it’s hard to stop them when they reach a full head of steam. Converting free throws regularly is a different story at the moment, though.

It’s not a high bar to cross, but what Payton brings to the point guard slot is the ability to read angles and keep secondary options alive.

Payton begins to see Jackson whirl around Marquese Chriss’ screen and resets with an extra dribble. It not only allows extra time for Jackson, but extra space carved out for an easy lane to the rim.

Again, these moments will keep happening for Payton, especially with the quartet of Warren-Jackson-Bender-Chriss moving forward.

I’m rather intrigued at this point to see how Payton looks when the starting unit is at full strength post-All-Star break.

Speaking of how Payton could fit alongside his new backcourt partner in Booker, they might have stumbled upon an unlikely combo. If he could ever live up to his NCAA career at ULL where his 6’7” wingspan terrorized smaller guards into steal opportunities.

Per 100 possessions in each of his three years as a Ragin Cajun, Elfrid averaged 3 pick-pockets while carrying a near 2-1 assist to turnover ratio as their primary ball handler.

If Jay Triano can get him to reach that untapped potential defensively over this season’s final quarter stretch, we could see some positive results that have many asking whether they should take a big over a guard because of his strong play.

Per Cleaning The Glass, Payton has always been an elite finisher at the rim. And in his first two performances as a Sun, that showed early and often against Denver and Golden State.

In total, Payton has taken nearly 53% of his career shots at the rim. He loves to get downhill and finish through contact. And if he is able to improve his free throw shooting, that could open up another avenue in his development later on (Payton has averaged 61.7% on free throws thus far).

If you take a look at his shot chart frequency, again via the great Ben Falk over at CtG, Payton has lived on shots past the free throw line in the restricted area.

The last guard who had these moments where he was unstoppable on drives was a peak Eric Bledsoe. With a full head of steam, good luck stopping him. The reason why I’m bringing up Bledsoe, though, is the correlation I noticed between the two.

Payton’s shot frequency shown above looked nearly identical to Bledsoe’s until he started to add more mid-range looks into his arsenal around Year 5 and Year 6. With Payton, who is just now starting to get comfortable outside of the restricted area, a similar career trajectory might be what’s happening.

Payton, however, is a way better facilitator than Bledsoe ever has been. He has never had a season averaging below 6 assists, and I imagine that might increase to 7 or more with the weapons at his disposal in Phoenix.

In Year 4, Payton has taken steps forward trying to add more into his offensive outlook, and maybe he could feast off of openings set up by the ample spacing Booker should provide him.

As Payton told HoopsHype’s Alex Kennedy recently following the trade, he believes he could become a long-term piece in the Valley.

In terms of his fit alongside Booker, too, he says it has the chance to be special.

On the surface, I don’t disagree with him because this amount of talent was never assembled around him in Orlando.

“I’m very excited to play with him,” Payton told Kennedy. “He’s a really great talent – someone who can shoot the ball extremely well, someone who can really score from anywhere on the court. I’m looking forward to trying to make the game even easier for him. I also think I can feed off of him because I know he’s going to draw a ton of attention from defenses. That will leave a lot of open opportunities for me, so I have to knock those shots down. I think we can be really good together. We definitely have a chance to be special. With Devin and TJ, those are guys who can really fill it up and put a ton of points on the board. I can’t wait until we’re all out there together.”

If Payton continues to shine, even so once Booker returns, should that play a factor in their draft choice? At the moment, no, but if the Payton-Booker duo provides some immediate chemistry while helping elevate other supplementary pieces, I’m on board taking a big man like Deandre Ayton, Mohamed Bamba, or Jaren Jackson Jr.

Fresh off of a strong showing in his first two games as a member of the Phoenix Suns, Payton now has everyone wondering whether they have found lightning in a bottle here.

After Orlando gave up on the 23-year-old point guard, Phoenix welcomed him in with open arms. Now, let's see if this turns into a long-term relationship or a two-month fling.

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