When the Suns signed 2015 lottery pick Cameron Payne to their long-open 15th roster spot last week, not many could even place where Payne played this past year, because it wasn’t in the NBA.
In four short years, Payne went from hyped lottery talent — taken 14th overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder five years ago — to completely out of the league, due to a combination of injuries and poor performance.
But that lottery-level talent is still inside in the 24-year-old Payne, ready for another chance in the NBA to play with the BubbleBoyz in Orlando and a make-good contract for next year too ($196K guaranteed).
After being released by the Bulls, Payne spent this past season playing in China and then the G-League, just waiting for another call-up to the NBA. Little did he know, that would come from his former assistant head coach, Monty Williams.
“It was huge to get that call from him,” Payne recounted. “Man, I jumped out of that pool so fast and got on that call. It was almost like a weight lifted off my back, because the only thing I want to do is be back in the NBA. And now I got that opportunity.”
In a Zoom interview from Orlando, Cameron Payne answered his first press conference questions from local Phoenix media. He appeared humble and excited for another chance.
“I’ve grown up,” he said. “I’ve matured more, so I feel I can bring a great amount of consistency to the team and just do whatever coach needs me to do. I’m a dog, I’m a road warrior, so anything that’s asked I am gonna go get it done.”
Payne said his recent talk with Suns head coach Monty Williams was more about their time in Oklahoma City than anything else. Williams was the Associate Head Coach of the Thunder, under Billy Donovan, in 2015-16 before Williams left the team after losing his wife in a car accident in February 2016.
“With Monty in OKC, we had a real, real, real close relationship,” Payne said of that rookie season. “And coming here it’s great to have somebody I know. There’s a lot of people on staff that I know.”
That was Thunder head coach Billy Donovan’s first year in the NBA, having come from Florida to take over for Scott Brooks. He named Monty Williams his Associate Head Coach to help his transition to the league with a win-now Thunder. The staff also had assistant coaches Mark Bryant and Darko Rajakovic. Williams, Bryant and Rajakovic are all now with the Suns.
“Monty is a great coach. And even off the court he’s a great guy,” Payne said. “And I don’t know what it is, he always has the right things to say to me. And for whatever reason it just triggers me to turn into a different mode. I appreciate that from him.”
That they only spent a few months together in Payne’s rookie season half a decade ago says a lot about the imprint that Monty Williams has on players and the people around him.
Now the question is whether Payne can be a better backup point guard to Ricky Rubio than Elie Okobo, Jevon Carter and Ty Jerome.
Payne can pass the ball and run an offense, and he can shoot jumpers including spot-up and off-the-dribble threes. But he’s never been much of a scorer inside the paint, and that hurts on the NBA level.
All of the backups have their skills. Carter can defend and make wide open catch-and-shoot threes, but can’t really run an offense or make shots inside the arc. Okobo can pass and has the physical tools, but is wildly inconsistent and lacks aggression. Jerome can... well, he has the ability to... be the best passer and shooter of the group, but the rookie still needs to prove he can be effective against NBA athleticism.
“We didn’t speak too much about the Suns,” Payne said of that call with Monty. “We just had a regular conversation about our relationship, and the things he’d want to see out of me. And one of the main things we talked about is maturity and consistency.”
Maturity and consistency. Jevon Carter had begun to wrestle the backup minutes from Okobo and Jerome for those reasons, but he just isn’t a floor general on the offensive end that Monty needs behind Ricky Rubio.
It’s possible Payne can beat out all those guys for backup minutes in Orlando, and that’s all Payne wanted is a chance. All but Jerome are basically free agents after the season (Carter unrestricted, Okobo restricted and Payne only a fraction guaranteed).
“Just the fact that I got this opportunity, man it’s a blessing,” Payne said. “I just want to thank God for one. And for two I’m just ready to play.”