The position of point guard in the NBA is home to a vastly deep pool of talent, which is highlighted almost nightly in duels that are nothing short of spectacles. Progressively, the association has shifted to a point guard-driven league. Stephen Curry has reached a stratosphere that compares favorably to all and spacing has become the universal theme that teams have transitioned to.
As the NBA has evolved, Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton has failed to follow suit.
Inserted instantaneously into the starting lineup as a rookie, knowledgeable fans had an idea of what Payton brought to the table. Coming out as a junior out of Louisiana-Lafayette, his 6'4" frame, sans hair, allowed Payton to be a pest on the defensive end and his athleticism translated to easy baskets against Sun Belt competition.
He garnered Gary Payton comparisons from ESPN's Jalen Rose, the master of simple comps., as a point guard whose defense was on the verge of elite. Almost two years later, Payton's defensive prowess, or lack thereof, isn't salvaging his limited skill set on the offensive end.
Payton wasn't blessed with landing on a scoring machine and able to have a niche entering the league. His role far exceeded the "defensive stopper off the bench" label he could possibly end up with. Even with teammates like Nikola Vucevic, Victor Oladipo and Evan Fournier handling the bulk of the offensive load, Payton's struggles offensively have been accentuated.
Instead of finding ways to evolve his skill set offensively, Payton might be regressing to the point where Brandon Jennings could be clamoring for additional minutes. Averaging just 9.3 PPG and shooting 54.5 percent from the charity stripe over his last 10 games, Payton's stock is deflating and his rebounding numbers aren't enticing fans either during the span (3.3 RPG).
On the surface, Payton doesn't appear to be one the weakest options at starting point guard-sporting a 42.6 percent field-goal percentage. But delve into the film and advanced analytics, and Payton's hindrance to Orlando's offense becomes more evident. The aforementioned almost non-existent offensive skill set Payton owns limits what the Magic can do in terms of spacing, as defenders usually sag off of the second-year point guard.
Averaging 10.7 points per game, most of his scoring output comes from baskets from shot attempts 10 feet and in. Just more than 58 percent of his shots are in the aforementioned area, which sucks in defenders and clogs the paint on offense for Orlando. The shot chart below illustrates where Payton's wheelhouse on offense lies.
That's a frightening number of attempts near or at the basket, as head coach Scott Skiles has had to rely on Oladipo and Fournier to make up a decent portion of the three-point production in the backcourt. Without John Wall's finishing ability or Zach LaVine-like athleticism, Payton is finding it difficult to convert when he drives to the basket. Many of his elbow looks come off of floaters or one-handed attempts that rely on body control and adept post touch.
Creating offense is a major ordeal for Payton, but even in the pick-and-roll game, which initiates constant movement and defensive mismatches, the 22-year-old point guard is struggling.
Payton is abysmal running the point and having teammates throw a pick on his defender. Orlando has seven players that create more points per possession in the pick-and-roll game. That factors in both scoring and assists, which highlights Payton's lack of creativity and point purity in one of the more common half-court sets.
He's only shooting 35.8 percent when he's the ball handler in the situation, which could lead to Payton finding the screen setter on cuts or leak outs to the perimeter.
Here, Payton waits for Vucevic to set a high ball screen on Ish Smith then allows to Nerlens Noel to react. The Serb drives to the basket and Payton uses his vision to locate the rim running big. Luckily for Payton offensively, he has plus instincts passing the ball-which helps him locate teammates effectively and limit the amount of turnovers he issues.
Averaging 6.2 assists per game in his career, 5.8 assists per game this season, Payton could average more assists per game if his teammates made baskets after receiving his passes. Per nbastats.com, Payton could potentially average 13.7 assists per game if Orlando's offensive weapons scored after every pass Payton dished to them.
Additionally, Payton is usable in isolation sets. Shooting 51.4 percent, Payton excels in one-on-one offense, using his 6-4, 185-pound frame to absorb contact and bully defenders off of the dribble. He might not be the ideal finisher at the rim, but Payton creates mismatches when offensively matched up against a smaller, less bulky point guard.
It will be difficult to mesh one-on-one offense with operating as a pass-first point guard, but Payton has to develop a versatile offensive game that defenders have to acknowledge. Using his plus frame isn't going to translate into an evolved offensive approach, but it does allow Payton to have an advantage, physically, over his opponents.
Just having an athletic build isn't helping the point guard contain the opposition either on defense. Over the last three games, opposing point guards are scoring 25.6 PPG against the Magic-including Stephen Curry's 51-point spectacle. Oladipo actually was matched up with the reigning MVP, as Payton held Klay Thompson to just nine points on 4-of-10 shooting.
However, Payton's lack of lateral quickness was the culprit of being relegated to covering the wing instead of the point guard. Even when matched up against the offensive mismatch nightmare in the second half, Payton looked overwhelmed. This backdoor cut was just one, of many, times Curry lost Payton off-ball.
While it's unfair to shed light on Payton's defensive struggles against the tier zero of point guards, Payton's defense hasn't progressed in his sophomore campaign in the association. He's averaging 1.2 steals per game, which has decreased from his rookie season and isn't making an impact. In college, Payton was quick and used his hands to swipe the ball from defenders. However, the NBA hosts talent who have more polished handles and make far fewer mistakes.
Without the ability to statistically impact the game on the defensive end, he's had to lock on to whoever he's guarded and shut players down. However, Payton's failed to do that this season. Opponents are shooting 48.2 percent when Payton guards them, the highest among Magic starters. Only New Orleans' Norris Cole and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook allow the players they guard to shoot at a higher clip, as starting point guards.
Plenty of offensive weapons at the point guard position get away with playing mediocre defense because their offense will buoy their overall performance. Payton, unfortunately, doesn't have that going for him at this stage of his career. Unless he works with a Curry or Damian Lillard in the offseason, or even former Magic point guard Penny Hardaway, his offense will still be suboptimal and won't carry his surprisingly inefficient defensive numbers.
Payton has to time adjust on both ends of the floor, but in his second year in the association, the process must be expedited if Orlando wants to progress and make the playoffs this season.