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Phoenix Suns v San Antonio Spurs

Cameron Payne sparking Suns second unit again

Phoenix Suns backup point guard is one of the keys to Suns success

Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Cameron Payne sparked the Phoenix Suns win over the San Antonio Spurs with 20 big points and 3 assists off the bench against 0 turnovers. The Suns really needed Payne’s energy in the second unit, and after a slow start to the season we saw once again how Payne can play at breakneck speed while also protecting the ball at all costs.

Since joining the Suns, Payne has been a hair-on-fire change of pace behind the methodical brilliance of Chris Paul. While CP3 plays chess with the 10 players on the court around him, Payne plays like a whirling dervish.

“I just try to come in and do my job and that’s a part of it,” Payne said after Monday’s game. “Change the pace of the game, be aggressive defensively, and just try to give the starters much-needed rest. But also, give them a sense of ‘the bench is ready to play too’.”

The biggest keys to Payne’s effectiveness at such a frenetic pace on the offensive end are two-fold: (1) he has to make his threes to keep the proper spacing on the court and (2) he has to limit his turnovers.

Last year, Payne made 44% of his threes and had one of the two best assist-to-turnover ratios in the entire league among players with at least 50 games played and a high usage rate (19+) — second only to teammate Chris Paul — as he racked up almost 4 assists for every turnover.

Payne’s apex game was in the Western Conference Finals against the LA Clippers, where he scored 29 points, dished 9 assists and committed 0 turnovers in a starting role while CP3 recovered from COVID-19.

This year, Payne has been much less effective — he’s committing 1.7 turnovers per game while dishing just 2.7 assists and making only 33% of his threes. Payne has only tallied two games this year (out of 12) with 0 turnovers, compared to 33% of his games a year ago being turnover-free.

Small sample size, of course. Because of injury (hamstring), Payne has only played 12 of the Suns 17 games. In addition, his bench unit is very different than last year as only Cameron Johnson returns to the same role. Now, Landry Shamet is the regular shooting guard with Payne (over Jevon Carter/trade), and JaVale McGee is the center (over Dario Saric/injury). Abdel Nader is getting 10th-man minutes (over Torrey Craig/FA). It takes time to figure out how those guys move and react to the defense amid the play call.

The Suns need Payne to re-discover his high shot-making, low turnover game again this season.

Maybe Monday’s game against the Spurs was a sign of things to come.

“He’s got wiggle in his game,” head coach Monty Williams said afterward. “I think he’s in much better condition to play the way that he played last year in the playoffs and we just hope it continues.”

Williams focuses as much on Payne’s defense as his offense (“I can’t reiterate enough that his defense has stepped up”), saying that both need to get back to last year’s levels and are showing signs of doing so.

“The positive of Cam playing that way,” Williams said, “is that we don’t have to play Chris 30+ minutes every night. When Cam can come out there and control the game, and play under control, it’s a bonus for us.”

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