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Cameron Payne has been everything the Suns needed in Orlando

The new Suns guard has found a perfect situation, and not a moment too soon for a team that’s needed a bench play-maker all year.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Where he’s supposed to be.

It was a bit of a corny line from Cameron Payne at face value, but how could you not take him seriously? Payne said it after leading the Suns to a 21-0 run at the end of the third quarter that squashed the Pacers’ hopes of a comeback and gave the Suns’ their fourth straight win in Orlando.

After arriving in Florida with hardly any familiarity with his new team and a whole lot to prove, Payne has answered the call. The former 15th overall pick has already had a humbling experience as a pro, arriving in Oklahoma City as the star of mid-major Murray State before plummeting down to Earth and having to play overseas just to get back to the league.

“Opportunity means a lot,” Payne said after the Suns beat the Clippers. “I kinda feel like this may be my last opportunity.”

If he keeps playing like this, he won’t have to worry about getting a chance, but it seems to help him to play like it’s his last minute on the NBA court. Though that sense of urgency is clearly there for Payne, what has stood out in his time so far with the Suns is his calm on the floor. All season long, the Suns have struggled to find a backup guard who could keep the rhythm when Ricky Rubio hit the bench. Replacing all that Rubio does is a tall order, but Payne has done enough to maintain good pace and ball movement when Rubio is on the bench, and the young guard can also suitably defend opposing ball-handlers.

Payne’s desperation and attentiveness are on full display in the little things. It’s another way he reminds of Rubio. Every shot contest, hit-ahead pass and finish at the rim are full of energy. When the Suns have been at their worst his season, it’s because players are not locked in, either because they’re not playing hard enough or smart enough. Payne does both, and it’s no coincidence his presence has helped the Suns look their best.

“I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be,” Payne told the media after the win over Indiana.

How could anyone disagree? He’s averaging 11.5 points on 54 percent shooting, nailing a sizzling 53 percent of his triples, and turning defense into offense just like the veteran Spaniard he’s backing up. Phoenix is capable of unleashing a pretty unstoppable up-tempo attack when the pieces and mindset are right, and the addition of Payne means they don’t have to lose momentum from any chunks of the rotation.

Bench lineups that were once a Suns weakness have led dominating runs in the Bubble to keep or create leads. Without Payne and Co., the Suns would not be 4-0.

“They’re our backbone for us,” Devin Booker said. “We know we are in good hands.”

A complete inverse of the regular season, the bench players have been the biggest positives for this team in the Bubble. When Payne has played, the Suns have outscored teams by 12.2 points per 100 possessions, with Jevon Carter and Cameron Johnson even more impactful in the lineup data.

After the victory over Indiana, Payne praised his bench mates, and all month, he’s hyped up the relationship he has with Carter. The two have bonded over playing aggressive defense and bringing energy to the team. Their perimeter chaos and shot-making have opened the floor up for Johnson and Dario Saric to play some of the best basketball of their careers, too.

Praising this group, many of whom fell out of the Suns’ rotation at one point or another in 2020, as well as Payne, who wasn’t even in the league until the Bubble, may seem over-the-top. But the improvement has been massive from when the bench routinely wasted great performances for the Suns to now, stealing games in the pressure cooker of the Bubble against playoff squads.

The Suns needed a spark off the bench, and they found it in Payne, playing at his best, just in time for the best stretch of their season. Playing basketball in a quarantine zone is not where anybody would say they’re “supposed to be,” but for Payne, it’s true.