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Cam Payne was a Top-20 NBA Point Guard Last Season

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Phoenix Suns’ backup point guard transitions from out of the league to upper-echelon lead guard in less than a year

2021 NBA Finals - Milwaukee Bucks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Did anyone else catch the cacophonous groans of 29 NBA front offices last month? Most assuredly, those sounds emerged once word arrived that one of the league’s premier point guards was re-signing with the Phoenix Suns on a three-year, $19 million deal. Wait, what? I have the finances all wrong? The Laker fan next to me in line says I need to check my sources, that Chris Paul signed for around $30 million per year, not six-and-a-half. Although the Point God is still deserving of his namesake (and still not a Laker) as he approaches season seventeen, today’s discussion is about giving Paul’s understudy the flowers he started earning back in the Bubble.

For the 2020-21 season, Basketball-Reference listed 76 players that 1) played a plurality of their minutes at point guard, and 2) at least 250 total minutes throughout the year. From this moment on, that group will be referred to as “The 76”. LeBron James and Steph Curry are on the list- as are Trent Forrest and Chasson Randle- among many others. So is Cam Payne.

Succinctly, Mr. Payne balled last year. Cam was electric as an efficient tri-level scorer, pinpoint distributor, and provider of relentless defense and energy en route to the Suns’ first finals appearance since ‘93. However, this past season’s NBA was replete with excellent point guard play, leaving Cam’s fit in the positional hierarchy uncertain. Let us look at how he stacked up to his peers. Each statistic below will feature Cam’s data from this past season, followed by his ranking among The 76 in parenthesis:

Scoring/Shooting

  • Points Per 100 Possessions: 23.1 (T-31st)
  • True Shooting %: .602 (T-6th)
  • 0-3 Foot FG%: .667 (T-17th) on 63 attempts
  • 3PT FG%: .440 (1st) on 166 attempts
  • FT%: .893 (14th) on 56 attempts

Cam’s scoring volume last year was solid, if unspectacular. This is likely due to his egalitarian approach (his 18.1 FGA/100 possessions ranked 34th among the group) and difficulty getting to the line (his .142 free-throw rate ranked T-61st, although he made the most of those opportunities). Part of the free-throw rate’s explanation is Cam’s ability to use his quickness, slithery handle, and craftiness to avoid contact at the rim.

Additionally, Monty often deployed Cam as a spot-up shooter when paired with another ball-handler (his most played-with teammate was Devin Booker). While he was free to attack off the dribble in these scenarios, Book’s gravity made many looks too good to pass up.

Here’s that connection again, in transition.

While Cam did not fill it up at quite the same rate as the position’s top scorers, his efficiency was pristine. He was a surgeon from all three levels, including 50% shooting from the “midrange” (shots between 10 feet and the three-point line) on 66 attempts, within 0.5% of maestro Devin Booker. He set the positional benchmark for three-point accuracy and was also among the best interior finishing guards in the league. Cam thrived attacking the rim mostly because no one could guard him on the way there. Here he is incinerating the memory of LeBron’s six All-Defensive team selections:

Playmaking

  • Assists/100 Possessions: 9.9 (19th)
  • Assist/Turnover Ratio: 3.62 (10th)
  • AST%: 28.1% (24th)

Cam’s playmaking numbers mirrored the efficiency of his scoring, but with even greater volume. This was a testament to his hybrid role as both a lead-creator in the Suns’ attack, as well as a quick and smart decision-maker when spotting up. He excelled at both driving and kicking to the Suns’ litany of lethal shooters, as well as finding open cutters for spoon-fed buckets.

All of this goes without mentioning his masterful manipulation of transition and pick-and-roll opportunities, or his special chemistry with The Homie (the two had a ridiculous +16.1 net rating in 473 minutes together). That combination inflicted a whole lot of Payne on opposing defenses last year (sorry).

Defense/Rebounding

  • BLK%: 1.3% (T-15th)
  • REB%: 7.6% (T-23rd)
  • STL%: 1.6% (T-38th)

While Cam’s defensive counting stats are moderately impressive, they undersell what he brings to that end of the table. His instincts, relentless intensity, and hounding ball-pressure are perfect fits within the Suns’ culture, and welcome traits at perhaps the most difficult position to make a substantial defensive impact. For a shorter guard, he gets his hands on a surprising number of opponents’ shots.

Last season he became just the fourth player in NBA history at 6’1 or less to record double-digit blocks in a single postseason. He also averaged 6.6 rebounds per 100 possessions, and posted a higher rebounding percentage than 6’10 Dāvis Bertāns. In lineups featuring him, Book, DA, Mikal, and Jae, the group posted a defensive rating of 108.8. That was 2.5 points better than the Suns’ final defensive rating, and would have been good enough for the fifth-best team rating in the NBA over a full season.

Bottom Line

The Suns dominated opponents with Payne on the court last year. Above we have two different metrics (RAPTOR, BPM) from two separate databases, and both paint Cam’s season as similarly outstanding. If the impact metrics feel a bit iffy, what about this?

  • Chris Paul Net Rating with Book-DA-Mikal-Jae (706 MIN): +5.9
  • Cam Payne Net Rating with Book-DA-Mikal-Jae (129 MIN): +9.3

Net rating is not all-encompassing, and the discrepancy above does not mean CP15 was better than CP3 last year. However, it is one stat of many that point to the same thing: in 2020-21 Cam Payne was hot on the heels of his position’s elite. Sharing backcourt minutes with Chris Paul and Devin Booker may have limited his counting stats, but the research does not lie. The Suns’ run to the 2020-21 Finals featured two top-20 NBA point guards.

Alas, please thank the wonderful Sam Cooper and Mike Vigil for the fireworks below.

*Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference, Stathead, and FiveThirtyEight