By John Denton
Oct. 11, 2017
ORLANDO – The ease with which Elfrid Payton controlled the critical moments of the Orlando Magic’s win in San Antonio on Tuesday – stealing the ball on one end and dunking on the other; flipping a perfect alley-oop to Jonathon Simmons; and, finally, firing an off-handed, no-look pass by a defender to Bismack Biyombo for the sealing dunk – spoke volumes about the comfort that the point guard now feels in his game.
Undoubtedly, it’s taken a lot of time for Payton to get here – three long, losing seasons while working alongside four head coaches and too many teammates to count – but this much is a certainty now: The Magic are demonstrably better with Payton on the floor than without him.
There were plenty of times along the way when it looked like this moment might never come for the floppy-haired Payton, what with his wayward jump shot, wavering intensity on defense and his seemingly constantly changing roles in Orlando’s offenses.
But all throughout this preseason, Payton has shown signs that both he and the Magic might be poised for major breakthroughs. If that indeed does happen for the Magic, Payton almost certainly will be in a leading role as the team’s driving force. Payton has seen all of the analytics and they point to him being a true barometer of the Magic’s chances of success – a responsibility that he no longer shies away from.
“I try, every night, to go out there and have a good game. I try my best to make sure that I’m on my game because I know our (win) percentages are good when I’m on or having good games,’’ Payton said in one of those rare instances that he was comfortable talking about himself. “I’m definitely trying to have more of those (good games) instead of the bad ones.’’
Starting with the final 24 games of last season and carrying over to this preseason, Payton has taken full flight playing in a system under coach Frank Vogel where he is encouraged to drive the Magic’s up-tempo, quick-strike offense. Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon might be the pistons of the Magic’s high-octane offense, but Payton is the driver revving that engine with his foot on the accelerator.
Those final 24 games of last season gave Magic fans a peek at what Payton might finally evolve into. Not only did he put together an eye-popping five triple-double performances over that stretch, he averaged 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists while shooting 50.8 percent – big jumps over his pre-all-star-break numbers (12.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.7 assists while shooting 45.7 percent from the floor).
Then, there was this from Payton: In Orlando’s nine wins over the final five weeks of last season, he stuffed stat sheets with all-star-like numbers of 15.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 10 assists and 1.6 steals a victory. This much became clear to everyone involved with the team: As Payton goes, so too do the Magic.
“His on/off stats over the final 24 games last year, as brought to me by our analytics crew, were off the charts in favor of Elfrid being on the floor,’’ Vogel said of his point guard. “That just gives the coach even more confidence in him and it’s not surprising considering how well he played.
“We were just really effective last year when he played well,’’ Vogel added later. “That’s not to say that we can’t be effective when he’s not being effective, but he finished strong for us last year and so did the team.’’
Payton has shown plenty signs of carrying that momentum over to this preseason – and Tuesday’s 103-98 defeat of the Spurs in San Antonio was just the latest example. He had a hand in most of Orlando’s points as it doubled-up San Antonio 26-13 in the fourth quarter to rally for the victory. The point guard’s final numbers – 11 points, eight assists, four rebounds, four steals and a blocked shot in 32 minutes – emphasized his total control over the game.
“He just looks so much more confident now than at this point last year and what I’ve watched prior to last year,’’ Vogel assessed, referring to the totality of Payton’s three-year NBA career. “He’s just running the show for us. I’ve empowered him to call the offense and unless I want something run, he calls the plays. He’s doing a really good job of creating for others.’’
It can’t be left unsaid that a big reason for Payton’s confidence and comfort now is because he is playing for the same coach (Vogel) and in the same system for the first time in his NBA career. He had Jacque Vaughn and James Borrego as a rookie, butted heads occasionally with Scott Skiles in his second season and looked like a square peg being jammed into a round hole early last season when Vogel was forced into playing a slower-paced style suited for big men Serge Ibaka, Vucevic and Biyombo. Dealing Ibaka to Toronto for guard Terrence Ross last February allowed the Magic to pick up the tempo and put control back in Payton’s hands.
“It’s way different now and (playing for Vogel again) was something I was excited about heading into the offseason,’’ said Payton, who has averaged 5.0 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals in limited minutes this preseason. “I think that comfort is coming to fruition (in results) this preseason. I feel really comfortable with (Vogel), he feels comfortable with me and it makes the game go a lot smoother for both of us.’’
Aaron Gordon, a close friend of Payton’s even before they were both drafted by the Magic in 2015, notices a difference in the point guard this preseason.
“It’s just a pace that he’s playing at and it’s incredible right now,’’ Gordon said. “Whether he’s getting it out of the net or off a miss, he’s just moving the ball up the floor so quickly right now. He’s basically just putting the defense on their heels all game long and that’s so huge for us.’’
The mission now for Payton is to prove that he can play his best basketball at the start of the season and not just after the Magic have been long since eliminated from postseason contention. All eight of his triple-doubles and most of his biggest games have come after the all-star break each of the past three seasons. In his final 26 games of his 2014-15 rookie season, he averaged 11.1 points, 8.3 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Two years ago, his numbers were solid again over the final 25 games (9.9 points, 7.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds) and they were even more impressive over last season’s last 24 games (13.5 points, 8.4 assists and 7.0 rebounds). For some perspective, Payton’s numbers in 162 career games prior to the NBA All-Star Game, his production (10.5 points, 5.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals) pales in comparison.
His fabulous finishes the past three seasons are the culmination of Payton’s workmanlike pursuit of improvement over the long season, he said, but he knows he needs to be better from start to finish for the Magic to get into playoff contention this season.
“I know why – I get better every day. That’s always been my goal. And that’s my goal every year – to finish the season better than I started it,’’ said Payton, the only Magic player to appear in all 82 games in the 2016-17 and 2014-15 seasons. “Each year I want to start off better than I left off, but then when I finish I want to be up here (higher). So far, so good, but I’ve got to keep getting better.’’
Rather than attempting to address his wayward 3-point shot, his hit-or-miss free throw form or even developing a more consistent shooting release, the perpetually positive Vogel had Payton focusing on his positives this offseason. The coach’s assignment was for the 23-year-old guard to study the short-range shooting tactics around the rim of Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving – two of the best guard finishers in the league – to better his effectiveness when defenses dare him to score.
Again, the Magic know full well that as Payton goes so goes their team. If Payton and the team forgets, all they have to do is look at these numbers to remind themselves: In 29 wins last year, Payton contributed 14.7 points, 7.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals while making 50.5 percent of his shots; meanwhile, in the 53 losses, he mustered just 11.7 points, 5.7 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 0.9 steals while making 45.3 percent of his field goals.
The point is this: The better Payton is, the better Orlando is. It’s a heavy responsibility that he welcomes and one he says he is ready to handle at this point in his career.
“My job is anchoring the defense and making sure everybody is feeling good on the offense and everybody is touching the ball,’’ Payton said playfully. “If everybody is happy, then everybody is playing defense. I’m just trying to be somebody to set that table and be someone that this team can count on every night.’’
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