Who the heck is Cameron Payne? Is he the next mid-major star like Weber State's Damian Lillard? Is this hype even warranted? Those are the questions fans are asking as Payne has skyrocketed up mock drafts.
Earlier this week, I argued that D'Angelo Russell is the top point guard prospect in this draft. Truth be told, though, Payne isn't too far behind him. Clearly, NBA teams picking in the lottery don't think so either, since Payne received workouts with the Lakers and Kings. The Pacers and Thunder were also linked to him.
Many of their strengths and weaknesses are strikingly similar, which is precisely why teams interested in Russell are also taking a look at Payne. They might be thinking that trading down and selecting Payne in the No. 6-11 range while acquiring other assets presents more value than just taking Russell in the top five.
That's a risk for those teams. Is it worth it?
Murray State ran a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls, which will undoubtedly help Payne's transition to the pros. The 20-year old-point guard has excellent body control and ability, and also showed advanced patience when reading the play. While watching him, it's clear that he has spent extensive hours learning from elite guards, considering his ability to throw defenders off with change of pace dribbles and hesitations.
On this play, Payne stayed patient after being stopped initially before delivering a rocket pass off the dribble to his rolling big man that allowed him to seamlessly transition into a layup.
Payne was so lethal that teams began to blitz or trap him anytime Murray State ran a pick-and-roll. Even so, he'd still make them pay with passes like this:
Payne isn't getting hounded there by forgettable college scrubs. Those two UTEP defenders are Vince Hunter and Julian Washburn, both potential second-round picks and bulldog defenders. He stayed in control throughout the game, finishing with only one turnover to 10 assists, as well as countless hockey assists like the one above.
But Payne understandably gets knocked for his athleticism. He's only 6'2 in shoes with average size. He's a mediocre finisher at the rim, and though he's shifty, his top gear isn't lightning quick. Payne has to rely on his craftiness and feel for the game to score.
But that's why he has worked so hard on maximizing his strengths.
Payne's trademark move is the mid-range floater. It's so fast, and you can't block it. This is what separates many of the great point guards from the good ones, and Payne knows that.
"Tony Parker, doing it with the floater," he said when asked which players influenced his game. "I've been working on that since college and I feel that's what got me over the hump, being able to be crafty around the rim."
Players like Parker, Chris Paul and Mike Conley have taken their games to the next level because of their floaters. When they can't get to the cup or finish over bigger defenders, they toss it up with their soft touch and it tends to go in. Shots like this take years of experience and practice to master. It's arguably Payne's best weapon already.
Payne is also capable of pulling up and shooting from three-point or the mid-range area. This helps him be a major threat in the pick-and-roll, since he'll drain a three if teams go under a screen or take a few dribbles forward and pull up from mid-range if they go over the top. He can score from multiple levels of the floor and has no issues adjusting to what the defense gives him.
Payne also excels shooting triples off screens. His natural instincts are put on display in his ability to run through screens or relocate on the perimeter.
Look at the way he accelerates around the screen to create space. As he catches the ball, he hops to get his shot off before the defender can get his hand up. That move allows him to score even with the shot contested. This is textbook shooting guard movements coming from a point guard. Payne plays off-ball even better than many of the wings in this draft class.
In a league where positional versatility is valued, Payne can be used by offenses in multiple ways. Like Russell, he's a threat whether the ball is in his hands or not, and he has elite court vision as a point guard. Russell does get his shots off with a higher release, which might make his transition to the NBA a little easier, but both players have comparable skill sets.
There are key differences between the two, to be fair. Russell is two and a half inches taller, so size won't be as much of a problem for him playing shooting guard. He's also 18 months younger, so he hypothetically has more room to grow as a player. Russell has a higher ceiling considering his age and size.
But as basketball players, there isn't much separating them. Teams like the Lakers, Knicks and Kings are correct to assess both players and ask themselves if Russell over Payne is really a slam dunk choice. From a value standpoint, it might make more sense for them to trade down, pick up an additional asset and then draft Payne. They may decide one player isn't going to get them to where they need to be.
Regardless, there's a reason Payne is surging up draft boards. After toiling in obscurity at a small school, NBA clubs are discovering just how good he could be.
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