One year ago today, the Phoenix Suns signed yet another in a long line of backup point guards — this one from the scrap heap of NBA flameouts — on the off-chance that he could help them in the Orlando Bubble a few minutes a game behind starter Ricky Rubio.
Yes, that was only one year ago. Seems more like a decade.
Head coach Monty Williams was trying to cobble together a rotation and knew he would be missing a few players in Orlando. He didn’t even have enough players to go five-on-five once team practice time would be cleared in a few days!
Cameron Payne was sitting at home at the time, 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.
365 days later, he’s playing a pivotal role for a Suns team on the doorstep of the NBA Finals.
Payne sat down with Bright Side last month for an exclusive interview about his journey through the NBA.
The 6’2” point guard was drafted 14th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, one slot after Suns star Devin Booker. But poor performance and questionable work ethic left him traded or released from three teams in four years, the last of whom was the Toronto Raptors in the preseason of 2019.
“After they released me it was just like where do I go from here?,” Payne told me, in an exclusive interview last month. “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.”
after a month of sitting the bench, eating local food, unsure if he would ever play, he suddenly filled in for another NBA flameout Jamaal Franklin who injured his ankle.
“I had cramps everywhere,” he recalls with the chuckle of going from 0 minutes to 40+ minutes. “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 but then Franklin was healthy again and Payne knew it was time to return to the states.
That’s when he he decided that winning was more important than anything else, including is own stats.
“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!”
Then Monty called, and his future became bright again.
“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. He shot 51% on threes in the Bubble and is still shooting better than 42% a year later (league average is 36%). He’s also averaging better than 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, hardly ever turning the ball over to the other team. That’s the hallmark of an effective player, especially a playmaker.
In part thanks to Payne as the primary backup point guard, the Suns have the best record in the league since the day he signed (bubble + regular season + playoffs). Payne even swung a couple of playoff games, starting for Chris Paul (COVID) in Games 1 and 2 in the Western Conference Finals. His box score line for Game 2 was incredibly rare in any postseason for any player — 29 points, 9 assists and 0 turnovers — and helped the Suns take a 2-0 lead in this hard-fought series.
“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.”
Now Cam Payne has a chance to help the Suns make the NBA Finals by closing out the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Finals. Payne will play a major role off the bench, and the Suns desperately need his energy and shot-making to get past a difficult Clippers team.
Watch Payne and the Suns take on the Clippers tonight on ESPN at 6:00PM.
If the Suns win, they will be in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. If not, they get another chance on Friday at home. They only need to win one of those two games to advance.