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Cameron Payne heats up Suns short-handed bench

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What was supposed to be a huge hole for the Suns has turned out to be a bright spot.

Phoenix Suns v Sacramento Kings Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

You’d be hard-pressed to find Suns fans totally dissatisfied with a 2-1 start, but I think we can all admit it hasn’t gone down quite like we expected.

Through three games, the Suns have successfully clamped down on opponents, ranking fifth in defensive rating. Their offensive rating, however, sits at 17th. It’s a reversal of where most expected the team to be this season, and a sign that on offense, this tremendously talented starting lineup, isn’t firing on all cylinders yet.

I expect those team numbers to self-correct in a matter of time, but in the interim, scraping together enough bench production sans Saric has been a necessity. And while several players have stepped up to that challenge, none have been more consistent than Cameron Payne.

Coming off the best eight-game stretch of his career in the Bubble, Payne continues to solidify himself as the Suns’ rightful backup PG. As fellow BSOTS contributor Zona Sports laid out in his most recent piece, Payne’s averages through 11 career games with Phoenix are:

10.3 PPG - 3.4 APG - 3.6 RPG - 1.0 SPG on 49/50/89 shooting splits in 21.6 mins per game.

Right now, he’s averaging 17 points, 8.5 assists, and just 2.0 turnovers per 36 minutes on a 59.0 true shooting percentage. Most importantly, the team looks better when Payne is on the floor:

So how is he doing it? The three-point shooting numbers are encouraging, but that contributes only a small fraction of Payne’s shots so far. The most impressive part of his offensive game has been his slashing.

At just 6-1, Payne has always relied on being more of an acrobatic, finesse finisher. He looks determined to tear up any bigs who get in his way this year, beating them off the dribble and then finishing with crafty finger rolls. Take a look at some slashing highlights below, and note how quick Payne is to get his shot off. In many examples he opts for an underhand finish, guiding the ball to the backboard as quickly as possible so that it cannot be contested.

While Payne is a competent enough ball handler to run sets by himself, his ability to put pressure on the rim next to either Booker or Paul makes him a uniquely versatile weapon. Even once Saric returns to the lineup and soaks up some touches, the Suns will want Payne to remain this aggressive in looking for his own shot.

The Suns have always had faith in Payne’s offensive ability, but after last night, it’s clear that his defense has caught the attention of the coaching staff as well.

When the Suns were at their best last night in the third quarter, ultimately pushing their lead to double digits, they were denying De’Aaron Fox any opportunity to generate transition offense where he is objectively at his best. That was a team effort, but it all started with Payne.

Take a look at this play, which was initially ruled a charge before being overruled as a blocking foul. Even though Fox ended up at the free-throw line here, the hustle from Payne to get in front of him in the first place was incredible.

And then just a couple of possessions later, Payne got him. This one wasn’t overruled.

Payne has long arms, but he isn’t supremely tall or strong in a way that would make people think of him as a “switchable” defender. He will mostly continue to guard 1s in the NBA, but he can do that effectively just by bringing this effort on a nightly basis.

A former lottery pick from the same draft class as Devin Booker, Payne has not seen his career pan out quite like he expected. He’s no longer billed as a starting point guard, instead taking a backseat to a couple of All-NBA guards.

But he does have a clearly-defined role on this team, one that can provide him gratification. His 15-20 MPG role can allow him to conserve energy and then push the pace when he does take the floor, showing full effort on both ends. If the Suns are to make the playoffs this year, it won’t be without Payne’s consistent contribution.