In his first six games with the Suns, new point guard Elfrid Payton’s 8.0 assists per game is the highest assist average for a Suns’ player since Steve Nash retired.
His 8 assists per game ranks 10th in the league, while his 17.2 “potential” assists (meaning, his Suns’ teammates miss the shot more often than they make it) rank 5th and his total passes made per game are 11th at 60.8 over the six games since he joined the Suns in a trade from the Orlando Magic.
Payton’s assist rate of 39.4% is the highest by a Suns’ player since Nash in 2011-12, though the 2012-13 version of Goran Dragic came close (37.5% assist rate on 7.4 assists per game).
You’d be hard pressed to argue that anyone since Nash has been as gifted a passer as Elfrid Payton.
That means the Suns have become a better passing team then, right?
Over Payton’s six games, the Suns rank 18th in the league with 44 potential assists per game and 26th overall with 20.7 actual assists per game.
Prior to Payton’s arrival, the Suns were 15th with 44.3 potential assists and 25th overall with 21.0 assists per game.
It’s not that Payton is dominating the ball, per se. His usage rate (23.3) is relatively low for a 33 minutes-per-game point guard.
What’s happened is that Payton is not just absorbing all of Isaiah Canaan/Mike James/Tyler Ulis minutes, but also has taken some of the playmaking duties back from Devin Booker.
Payton is doing a little more with his passes than any of Suns’ players in recent memory, while Booker is doing less than he’d been doing all year.
Booker’s assists per game have dropped from 4.9 to 4.3, while his potential assists have dropped from 10.0 per game to 7.7 next to Payton. On the other hand, Booker’s scoring is up by as much as his assisting is down.
Overall, the results so far are a wash, which explains why the Suns are 0-6 with Payton and riding a 10-game losing streak with the worst record in the entire league (18-44).
Payton is a good point guard, but not great. He can make nice passes, but gives up as much as he gets. He can’t shoot well, which allows teams to sit back on their heels waiting for the drive rather than close out on him.
Should the Suns give him a huge contract this summer?
It all depends on whether the Suns draft a point guard with their top-5 pick, someone like Luka Doncic. If they take Doncic, then bringing Payton back would be a good idea within reason - meaning, as long as it’s not too expensive or too long a contract. The idea would be having the 6’8” 225 pound Doncic as the primary playmaker in something like a Ben Simmons role as a super-sized point guard. The Suns would need a backup point who can play 20-30 minutes per game alongside or behind Doncic.
If they miss out on Doncic and take a point guard later in the first round with the Miami pick, then yes you go ahead and re-sign Payton for a long-term contract because (ahem Tyler Ennis, Tyler Ulis, etc.) there’s no expectation that a great point guard will be found outside the top 10 picks.
If the Suns take a big man at the top of the draft and want to look at free agency for point guards, then by all means bring back Elfrid Payton before signing a different point guard in free agency, unless you can lure Chris Paul from Houston.
I’d rather have Payton than Isaiah Thomas, who’d command at least twice the money. Other free agent options include Tony Parker and Milos Teodosic. I’d take Milos as a backup for sure, but not as the top floor general.
Best case at point guard next season: Luka Doncic as starter, with Milos Teodosic as the backup. Or even Payton on a cheap or short deal.
Next best: Trae Young or Collin Sexton or Chris Paul, with Payton or Teodosic as the backup.
Serviceable*: Elfrid Payton as the starter, with Teodosic or even Isaiah Canaan as the backup.
*This means the Suns drafted a big man at the top - someone like DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. or Mohamad Bamba. All would look great in that Suns front court.