With the Orlando Magic struggling through yet another losing season, any glimmer of hope has to come from the team's collection of young talent. And while Nik Vučević and Victor Oladipo have established themselves as ones to watch, it's their promising rookie point guard that's been grabbing the attention lately.
Elfrid Payton is starting to enter the spotlight, and this time it's not just because of that hair. Payton leads all rookies in assists and steals per game, and he's slowly but surely developed into one of the most productive and promising rookies in the entire league.
Payton is in the middle of the best stretch of his young career, averaging 16 points, 7.4 assists, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals in his last five games. He's scored in double figures in his last six games, and he nearly had a triple-double (13 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds) in Sunday's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. His strong play hasn't translated to wins, as the Magic are currently riding a four-game losing streak, but that's OK for now. He looks confident and he's been productive across the board.
Payton is a skilled and crafty passer, and he's looked about as comfortable as you could expect a rookie point guard running point for a lottery team to be. Given the Magic's lack of shooting, it's actually impressive that he's managed to pile up as many assists as he has. He's developed a nice rapport with Vučević, assisting him on 121 field goals, and he's created some good looks for Tobias Harris and Oladipo, who's stepped up his own offensive game lately. Payton's vision, poise, and distributing skills are impressive for a 21 year old kid, and they should only look better as the Magic's offense continues to grow and take shape. On the other end of the court, Payton plays energetic and occasionally disruptive defense, and he's already a strong rebounder for his position.
The one glaring hole that remains in Payton's game is his shooting, and it doesn't look like that problem is going away anytime soon. That's hardly a surprise, as that was the biggest knock on Payton coming out of college, but it's clear that those issues have translated to the NBA. Payton's true shooting percentage of 44.3 is among the worst in the league. He really struggles on any attempts that don't come right around the rim; he's shooting 32% on attempts further than 10 feet from the basket.
Payton doesn't just struggle from the field, unfortunately, as his free-throw shooting has been pretty abysmal for much of the season. Look no further than his cringe-inducing, 4-of-15 performance from the line in Friday's brutal loss to the Boston Celtics. As a guard who likes to attack the rim, Payton is going to get fouled a lot. He needs to start making foul shots at more than a 52 percent clip, or Hack-A-Elfrid may actually become a real, viable strategy for opponents.
The good news is that Payton seems to realize his limitations, and he's made smart shot selections that have helped minimize his weaknesses. The vast majority of Payton's shots have come less than five feet from the basket, where he shoots 47 percent. That figure is still well below average, but for him it's still much more efficient than mid-range. He doesn't shoot from mid-range often, and even though teams often leave him open from three, he's only attempted 27 shots from beyond the arc all season. While his shooting woes are still an issue for a poor offensive team like the Magic, he's helping to mitigate the impact by playing smart and not jacking up a ton of 17 footers every night.
The most obvious player comparison for Payton is a young Rajon Rondo, and while that comp was initially seen as a bit lazy, it might not be that far off. Like a young Rondo, Payton projects as a smart, crafty facilitator and excellent defender, and while he'll never be a great scorer, he can use his explosive first step and finishing ability to get buckets around the rim. Payton may not become quite the player that Rondo was at his peak, but Magic fans can reasonably expect similar well-rounded production. Factor in Payton's high motor, character, age, and some of the best hair in the business, and it looks like the Magic found a keeper.