After missing the last 16 games due to a sprained wrist, it appears that backup point guard Cameron Payne is slated to return to the Phoenix Suns lineup tonight when the Suns (49-12) host the Portland Trailblazers (25-36).
While Payne only averages 20 minutes per game, his injury has had a major impact on the Suns rotation. Initially, Chris Paul played extra minutes to make up for the loss and recently, when Paul went down as well, Devin Booker has had to play out of position and shoulder the majority of the playmaking role.
Without Payne and Paul, the Suns do not have a trusted playmaker running the offense. Elfrid Payton has made a career as a point guard, but he is not a good fit running the Suns because of his inability to shoot it. Aaron Holiday was acquired at the trade deadline, but he is more like Jevon Carter (better off ball) than playmaker.
Point Book is fun in small doses and even some occasional big doses, but the wear and tear on Devin Booker as the primary playmaker AND best scorer AND excellent defender is too much to ask over time.
“He’s just not afraid,” Williams said of Booker taking over the point guard duties recently. Booker has posted 27.3 points, 8 assists and 3.5 turnovers in the last four games (including the one Paul got injured).
The Suns are 2-2 in those games, including the comeback win over the Houston Rockets just before the All-Star Break. Paul had left the game in the third quarter with the Suns down eight points. Booker played almost every minute of the rest of the game as the primary point guard, helping the Suns cap off the game with a 13-7 run to win 124-121.
“I put [Booker] in a lot of situations that can be overwhelming, but I believe in him,” Williams said. “I believe in his willingness to be great.”
That said, Williams is aware that being everything to a team — being the only real playmaker and best scorer — is not a great long term plan.
Re-enter Cameron Payne. Williams said after practice on Tuesday that Payne would immediately step into a starting role due to Chris Paul’s injury.
“If we are fortunate enough to get [Payne] back,” Williams said. “It puts Cam Johnson back into his role on the bench and he can be the anchor out there.”
Williams is not suggesting that Payne is a better player than Johnson, but that the team would see a lot of benefits in both the starting lineup and bench unit by making that switch.
“It will give us a bit more balance,” Williams said. “It frees Book to not have to dribble the ball 300-plus times a game. We’ve done studies on guys that dribble the ball that much. They get tired. That’s why Chris [Paul] loves playing with guys like Book and Cam because another guy that can handle the ball keeps you fresh at end of games.”
Payne will be cleared for Wednesday’s game if he does not experience too much residual soreness from two days of heavy practice and scrimmaging, and feels good all day Wednesday. If the medical staff believes he can’t do anything to re-injure the wrist or make it worse, he will be cleared to play.
Do you remember Cam Payne? Or is your memory fuzzy because he hasn’t played in six weeks and has missed a third of the season overall, tying Deandre Ayton at 40 games played (of a possible 61).
Let’s refresh while taking a walk down memory lane of other times Payne has filled in for Chris Paul.
Before the season started, Payne and I discussed the 2021 playoffs. Regarding Chris Paul’s shoulder stinger in game 1 of the Suns-Lakers series, I asked him about his own personal reaction to that moment.
“It was tough, Especially when he went down. Especially seeing him cry, It was like man, is it over for us because C went down,” Payne said. “A lot of people had those doubts. For me I was just like, gahhh, time to step up. Stuff I’ve always talked about, time to step. C not doing well, time for me to hold it down until he got back. I just had that mindset.”
Paul still tried to play, but Payne had a bigger role for a few games.
- Game 2, Rd 1: 32 minutes, 19 points, 7 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks, but was unable to finish the game and fouled out with minutes left
- Game 3, Rd 1: 26 minutes, 15 points, 6 assists and 4 steals
- Game 4, Rd 1: 25 minutes, 13 points, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 block
- Game 5, Rd 1: 18 minutes, 16 points, 1 assist, 1 steal, 4 rebounds
You’ll see the Payne minutes reduce as Paul slowly regained the ability to use that right arm, but his impact on each game was felt in a big way.
Then Chris Paul went down again, this time with COVID, at the start of the Western Conference Finals.
“I was nervous. Nervous as hell,” Payne said of that moment. “I was just ready for the opportunity. When they said he caught COVID, it was right after that trip (to Denver), I was like ‘what’. I was like all right I got to make sure my game is super tight now. Don’t make no turnovers! That was my thing, I was like ‘I don’t care if I shoot good, it don’t matter. Just don’t turn the ball over.’ That was my number one thing. And I guess playing like that allowed me to have some great games. It was definitely an experience. I feel like I stepped up when my opportunity was called and made the most of it.”
- Game 1, WCF: 29 minutes, 11 points, 9 assists, 1 turnover, 5 personal fouls (in this game, Devin Booker had the 40-point triple double)
- Game 2, WCF: 32 minutes, 29 points, 9 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 0 turnovers
The Suns won both games, taking a 2-0 lead in the Conference Finals, before Chris Paul returned in game three.
Now Payne gets another chance to prove himself while Chris Paul is out. The Suns have 21 games remaining in the regular season, most if not all of them without the services of point god Chris Paul.
Payne came into this season wanting to do more with the ball, and expand his game further. He wanted more than just threes and layups.
“I want to be better defensively. I’ve been working on my strength, working on my body,” Payne said. “Also, finishing at the goal a little bit better. I feel like teams have scouted me and they know I’m gonna do a quick left-hand layup. I’ll kinda just add a couple more layups to my package to try to keep the defense guessing a little bit more.”
He wanted to add a mid-range game to his repertoire too.
“I got floaters for sure.” Payne said. “That’s crazy, that’s how I started my career, I was all floaters. Floaters to threes. That wasn’t the shot to take in the NBA at the time, but now it’s okay. I got to add to my game.”
Payne has not made many of those floaters this year, and has not been great at finishing the rim either. His efficiency is down across the board.
- Last year: 18 minutes, 8.4 points (48% FG, 44% 3P, 6.6 shots/gm), 3.6 assists, 1.0 turnovers
- This year: 20 minutes, 10.5 points (40% FG, 33% 3P, 9.8 shots/gm), 3.6 assists, 1.8 turnovers
He’s playing more and shooting more, but making less and turning the ball over almost twice as often.
On the good side, Payne was getting more and more back to his old self the season went on.
In his last 10 games before the wrist injury sidelined him, Payne posted 10.1 points on 44% FG and 43% 3P shooting, 3.8 assists and 1.3 turnovers in his usual 20 minutes per game.
That’s the Payne we need for the rest of the season, especially since he will be getting more minutes per game. The Suns need the good Payne to take pressure off of Devin Booker and Cameron Johnson and everyone else who’s had to step up their playmaking in Chris Paul’s (and Payne’s) absence.
Let’s hope that ‘better balance’ starts tonight versus Portland.