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On the ball: Touches have translated to success for Elfrid Payton

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Since a lineup shift last month, Elfrid Payton has excelled with more touches on offense.

Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton dribbles the basketball up the court during the second half Wednesday's game against the Phoenix Suns.
Orlando Magic guard Elfrid Payton dribbles the basketball up the court during the second half Wednesday's game against the Phoenix Suns.
Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Eflrid Payton is the kind of player that needs the ball in his hands to be most effective. Sure, he can make heady cuts from the wing or the corner, flashing toward the basket when he catches a defender looking elsewhere, but at his core Payton needs the ball. And really, that’s why the Orlando Magic acquired him on draft night in the first place.

Entering the 2014 draft, one of the NBA players Payton kept getting comparisons to – as he climbed up big boards of pundits and front offices alike – was Rajon Rondo. There was a lull in Dallas, but in Boston, and now Sacramento, Rondo too has been a guy that needs the ball in his hands to be at his best.

You can squabble over the details, but the foundation of the comparison makes sense. Like Rondo, Payton is billed as a floor general, the player you look toward to direct traffic on offense and get the ball to right spot. At their best, the two are reliable and crafty perimeter defenders. And their biggest weakness is hitting jump shots. The brains, passing, and inability to consistently knock down shots are all reasons why Payton needs the ball in his hands.

He’s been getting it more often lately, and he seems to be comfortable with that.

The first 14 games of the season touches were a little scarce, as Payton had to split them with another guy who’s perhaps at his best with the ball in his hands: Victor Oladipo.

On November 25, though, Scott Skiles made his most dramatic change to the lineup yet by moving Oladipo to the bench. The move has propelled the Magic to a stretch of winning basketball and given Payton the freedom to do what he does best.

With that newfound opportunity, among other things, Payton has established some consistency – something that proved elusive in the beginning of the season.

In the eight games since the lineup shift, Payton’s had a positive plus/minus in seven outings, and that’s just the beginning; Payton’s improved on most of his strengths in that time. He’s scoring more and doing so more efficiently on drives to the basket – one of, if not his best, scoring weapon. According to NBA.com, despite getting more touches per game (87.5), Payton’s averaging more points per touch (.170) compared to 80.1 touches and .124 points per touch with Oladipo starting along side.

It all goes back to those comparisons, which framed what kind of player we expected Payton to be. Perhaps all that was needed to bring it out of him was this minor tweak to his role.

In the first 14 games of the season Payton put up 10 points, six assists and four rebounds a game on just 34.2 percent shooting from the field. Since then, he’s become much more efficient. Over the last eight games, Payton’s boasted a 15 point, 7.5 assist, 4.3 rebound line on 47.7 percent shooting.

If the recent trend continues, it means we’re watching Payton become more comfortable in his role, and that’s paying dividends across the board. His recent performance – marked by more consistency, efficiency, and a bigger overall impact – is indicative of what the team is aiming for as a whole, and it looks like it’s hitting the mark. Beyond Payton’s much improved individual performance, Orlando is 6-2 in its last eight games, after starting the season 6-8. Make of that what you will.

Payton’s been much better with the ball in his hands more often, showing his potential, and what the Magic’s front office saw in him when he was drafted.

Now his fate – well, that’s in his hands too.