A year ago today, Phoenix Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne was sitting at home, wondering if he would ever get another chance in the NBA. He’d already been a year out of the league with short stops in China and the G-League to keep hope alive for another NBA call, but then COVID-19 pandemic shut down him down again.
He was still just 25 years old, only five years removed from being an NBA first round lottery pick, taken 14th overall right after Devin Booker and just ahead of Kelly Oubre Jr. Payne’s future was bright on draft night, with four good contract years on a solid playoff team awaiting him. His biggest worry with the Thunder was having to defend the freight train Russell Westbrook every day in practice.
But the NBA was a lot harder than he thought it would be, and injuries didn’t help. By year four, he’d bounced around to three different NBA teams before being released outright by an awful Bulls team mid-season, January 2019. He grabbed a pair of 10-day contracts with the Cavaliers, then a non-guaranteed training camp invite to the Raptors, but suddenly the floor dropped out from under him when the Raptors cut him loose in preseason.
“After they released me it was just like where do I go from here?,” Payne says now, in an exclusive interview. “And I kinda felt like that was my last opportunity.”
He had no good choices at that point. NBA rosters were mostly set, and no one wanted to sign a guy who’d been let go by three teams in eight months anyway. He could do the G-League or head overseas.
“It was a scary, scary, scary decision I had to make,” Payne says, shaking his head, of deciding to leave the US for China. “But I made it.”
He spent a month getting the paperwork done and another month sitting dormant on his team’s bench, not being able to play due to heavy restriction on American players on China team rosters.
When he finally got a chance to play, due to a hamstring injury to Jamal Franklin, it was against their two toughest opponents, on the road, and suddenly all the pressure was on his shoulders. Even teammate Eric Moreland (y’all remember him right?) was ejected in one of the games, leaving Cam as the lone American in the lineup.
“I had cramps everywhere,” he recalls with the chuckle. “Full body cramps! I ain’t played in a long time, I been drinking Cokes, just chilling, cause I’m thinking man I ain’t never gonna play.”
He played well, averaging 22.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 4.5 steals per game over those two roadies, but it wasn’t enough to get the much-needed wins. He said he knew they would go back to Jamal Franklin as soon as he got healthy, and that his chances were almost zero of playing again that season for the Chinese due to the limited number of playing changes they were allowed to make in a season. So he made another scary decision to pivot back to the US and make the most of the G-League.
He got into a good situation with the Texas Legends and arrived with one thing in mind: win. every. game. After two years mired in the muck of losing, Cam knew the only way to get back into the league is take his team all the way and show he could be a winner.
“I was like ‘we win, everybody gets a look’,” he said. “Imma get the look but everybody’s gonna get the look’.”
Cam signed on January 25, 2020, debuted the next night, and led the team in points and assists the game after that. He led in scoring, assists or both in just about every game after that.
“I was big on making sure the team was good,” he said. “I was the CP of my G-League team, coaching everybody up, trying to make sure we win every game. And I did my job. We had a helluva time, a great group of guys.”
Payne got better as the season went along, leading them to a 9-6 record overall after he signed including winning 5 of their last 6 before COVID struck everything down.
“I was like man, I’m not gonna catch a break!”
He had figured his only chance to get back in the NBA would be to win a G-League championship and the MVP. But the pandemic put everything on hold, including what Payne thought might be his last chance to make an NBA roster. Even his hopes of joining the Mavericks in the Bubble were dashed when they opted instead for Trey Burke — who’d been going through an ‘out of league’ experience himself.
Then Suns coach Monty Williams called. No one knew this yet, but the Suns were suddenly hurting for point guard depth. Elie Okobo was out for personal reasons (officially), Jevon Carter was more of a two-guard and Ty Jerome just wasn’t ready for prime time. And to the Suns, the Bubble was going to be their breakout moment.
“I was like I made it back, and I’m not getting out until it’s time,” Payne said. “I’m gonna give it my all, every game. I got to, because even one game it could be over. It’s crazy to think about it like that, but it’s true. You have to stay locked in and really be dedicated to this work in order to reap those benefits.”
Payne has definitely made the most of his new chance with the Suns. In part thanks to Payne as the primary backup point guard, the Suns have the league’s best record since the start of the Bubble, since the start of the current season and over the past few months to show there’s no letup with this team.
“You learn a lot when you go through things, experience things,” Payne says of the journey. “I probably wouldn’t want it any better way.”
Since joining the Suns, Payne has set career highs in several categories — including assists per 36 minutes, three-point shooting percentage and minutes played — but it’s the more advanced statistical areas where Cam has really shined.
On an individual level, Cam is setting career highs in such stats as True Shooting Percentage (57.1%), Win Shares (1.5), BPM (1.4) and VORP (0.8) which, in English, means he’s definite plus player on the floor. Negative players have negative numbers in those stats, for the most part. Another new advanced stat called ‘Estimated Plus/Minus’ rates Payne in the 80th percentile of NBA players with a +1.1 EPM this season, ranking him 6th on the team, according to dunksandthrees.com.
For the Suns, taking care of the ball is extremely important.
“CP, he don’t get turnovers,” Payne says of All-Star Chris Paul. “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.”
Chris Paul has the 5th best assist-to-turnover ratio in the game (5.5 to 1) and is the only full-time starter in the Top 5. Not far behind him is Cam Payne with a 3.4 to 1 ratio which ties him for 11th best in the league among all NBA players.
He’s shooting and running an offense better too. Not only is he setting career highs in three-point shooting (50% in Bubble, 40% for the 2020-21 season), the team is in the 94th percentile of points per possession and 96th percentile in eFG% (which gives extra weight to threes) when he’s on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass.
Payne actually plays most of his minutes this season with a majority of the starting lineup. Paul leaves after about six minutes in the first and third quarters, giving Payne some run with the starters so Paul can get some rest and come back with the bench guys to start the second and fourth.
In fact, Payne’s most frequent 5-man lineup this season, by far, puts him with four starters: Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Jae Crowder (113 minutes). That lineup has the 4th-most minutes for the Suns, though it’s well behind the full starting lineup with Paul (676 minutes, tops in the NBA by more than 100 minutes). Payne’s “starter” lineup has a +11 net rating, best among those top-four most used lineups.
The Suns helped resurrect Payne’s career, and he’s returned the favor by helping the Suns to the league’s best record since he signed on.
I’d say that’s a win-win.
Big thanks to Cam Payne for giving me a long exclusive interview for Bright Side and the Solar Panel podcast!
Watch out for more from Cam on different subjects, including how different the playoffs really are, how his early flameout mirrors that of some failed Suns draft picks, and just how much the Suns players really appreciate your love and support online and in the arena.
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