Two years ago, Phoenix Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne thrived as Chris Paul’s replacement.
With Paul limited with a shoulder injury in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers and later out with COVID-19 through the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, Payne stepped up. He had 29 points and 9 assists in Game 2 against the Clippers and was consistent with his speed and energy brought off the bench.
Last season, Payne had the best net rating among all NBA players who started more than five games in 2021-22 at 13.9 in 12 starts. But Payne was not himself in the playoffs.
He scored in double figures just once and shot an abysmal 29.7 percent from the field.
But Payne has returned to form this season. He has averaged a career-best 11.8 points with 3.8 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 41.7 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from 3-point range. As John Voita pointed out, Payne has compared well to other backup guards in the league, ranking among the top-25 in points off the bench (9.5).
Payne has always brought pace to Phoenix’s backcourt while Paul has been more methodical, and that has not been a surprise this season. Payne has a pace of 98.63 per 48 minutes compared to Paul’s 97.94.
Before the Suns’ loss to the Heat Monday, Payne averaged 19.7 points with 5.7 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game. Phoenix went 1-2 but it was a confident improvement for Payne, who has been more like the guard who earned a three-year, $19 million deal before the 2021-22 season.
And they may need more from Payne, too. Paul has missed the last three games and is questionable for Wednesday’s game against the Golden State Warriors due to heel soreness. Paul is also 37 years old and will not be able to perform his best in the postseason if the Suns do not reserve him at some point during the regular season.
Even though the Suns have lost four of their last six games, Payne’s insertion into the starting lineup has been a positive for Phoenix’s offense. It ranked 85th and 88th percentile, respectively, in its win over Minnesota last Wednesday and its loss to Miami Monday in points per possession among games played by all teams, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Suns were also above the 78th percentile in turnover percentage in their win against the Timberwolves and loss to the Magic last Friday.
Paul’s return to the lineup, as it was during the 2021 postseason, will be necessary if the Suns want to chase another championship. Paul is averaging the lowest usage percentage (15.2) of his career, but he still ranks second in the NBA in assists (9.4 per game).
There is no doubt Payne is a solid backup option, like he was in 2021 and in the 2020 NBA Bubble. They just may need him to be more than that, and his uptick lately shows he has the capability to step up.
“I just got to keep working,” Payne said two years ago after the Game 2 win over the Clippers, which included Deandre Ayton’s ‘Valley-oop.’ “Right now, I’m just here to fill in for C.
“I’m just doing whatever I can while I’m on the court to be his protege.”