Phoenix Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne has had the fortune of playing with two sure-fire first ballot of Hall of Famers in Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.
He was drafted 14th overall in 2015, right behind Devin Booker and ahead of Kelly Oubre Jr., to play behind the mercurial Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Payne remembers draft night fondly. “The first thing that went through my mind was like, I looked at my dad and said ‘oh man I gotta guard Russell Westbrook every day in practice’.”
“He will make you better,” was all his dad could come up with as advice.
That was six years ago. Since then, Westbrook has periodically dominated the NBA landscape while Payne has simply tried to stay on an NBA court.
For his career, Westbrook has won a league MVP (2017), been an All-Star nine times, All-NBA nine times and Player of the Month 10 times. He has mind-blowingly averaged a triple-double in FOUR different seasons now. He’s been in one NBA Finals, in OKC with Kevin Durant, but never won a title.
Against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday night, with the Wizards now, Westbrook set a new standard for excellence with his 182nd career triple-double (at least 10 of three different statistical categories).
The 182 triple doubles is the most by any player in NBA history, eclipsing the record set by Oscar Robertson decades ago.
The 32-year old Westbrook has been written off as too old, having lost a step or two, a caricature of his former brilliant self. But Westbrook isn’t just barely getting these triple doubles either — he had 33-19-15 in an overtime win over the Pacers on Saturday to tie Robertson, followed immediately by 28-13-21 on Monday.
Westbrook is not “too old”, in fact. For the FOURTH time in his career, he is averaging a triple double (22 points, 11.6 rebounds, 11.6 assists) for the season. Averaging. The next closest active player to Westbrook in total career triple doubles is 36 year old LeBron James with 99 over a 16-year NBA career.
“It’s just a blessing,” said Westbrook, who singled out his first triple-double against Dallas as the one that stands out the most to him. “You put so much into the game, so much time, you sacrifice so much, to be able to just be mentioned with guys like Oscar, Magic [Johnson] and Jason Kidd, those guys, is something I never dreamed about as a young kid growing up in L.A. Truly grateful for moments like this.
“Normally I don’t like to pat myself on the back but tonight I will. Just because I am so grateful for the ones before me and so blessed.”
Quotes from Westbrook and the other players in the top five of all-time triple doubles can be found here.
Let’s bring this back to the Phoenix Suns, since this is a Suns blog.
Cam Payne has had the fortune of backing up Westbrook in his first and second year, and now Chris Paul in his sixth. Westbrook and Paul’s careers have a lot of similarities. Both played next to James Harden in Houston. Both became beloved in Oklahoma City. Both have bounced from team to team in recent years, now playing for their 3rd team in three years. And now both have had Cam Payne as their backup point guard.
On the surface, you couldn’t mold two more different looking Hall of Fame point guards for Payne to learn from.
Russell is uber-athletic, racking up box score numbers like a video game and willing his team to victories on sheer individual force.
CP is uber-cerebral, racking up assists and steals (top-five all-time in both) and dominating clutch moments with unparalleled shot-making. CP is an 11-time All-Star and 10-time All-NBA.
“What I learned from Russ is work ethic,” Payne said in an exclusive interview with Bright Side. “Come in every day and work as hard as you can, and you’ll reap the benefits.”
Chris Paul is legendary for his work ethic as well, and Payne can credit both players on that end.
“I just like the competitive nature of Russell,” Payne said. “He comes in every night, he’s only playing with 15 guys and that’s it. He got your back no matter what.”
But once you get past the work ethic, the drive to be great, the intense focus on the game, there are more differences than similarities between Paul and Westbrook.
“Now CP, he loves talking,” Payne said with a smile. “He’ll let you know the details about the game. Little things to get players going. CP is not super athletic, but he got that up there. He got that brain, he got that knowledge. He’s a wizard on the court.”
Several Suns players have marveled that Chris Paul doesn’t stop talking to teammates about what he sees on the court. All game long, on or off the court, Paul is constantly teaching.
“With CP it’s just the knowledge of the game,” Payne said. “Learning. Finding out things that help my game. Like turnovers. CP, he don’t get turnovers and it’s surprising when you see him with turnovers. I’m just trying to back that up. That just comes from watching him play. He just picks his spots. He knows when to take chances and he knows when to fall back. He’s just great at managing the game.”
Cam Payne might just come into his own in the NBA, maybe even as a long-term starter, but for now he’s happy gleaning everything he can from future Hall of Fame point guard Chris Paul.