Obviously the titular question of this article isn’t posed to Orlando Magic general manager Rob Hennigan; we already know what his answer is. As one of my readers eloquently noted last week, Hennigan has a "bizarre fixation to die on Elfrid Payton Hill."
However, while it is true that Hennigan has passed on opportunities to bring in other point guards, perhaps condemning the GM to figurative death is a bit too presumptuous, because it assumes that Payton is condemned, too.
For all his faults on offense—namely, awful shooting from all areas—Payton is still an above-average point guard. Last season, Payton finished 10th among point guards with 6.4 Assists-per-Game and ranked 13th in Assist-to-Turnover ratio with 2.64, which bested All-Star guards like John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry. Granted, those guards possess the ball significantly more than Elfrid, but the fact remains that Payton can distribute and protect the ball at a sufficient, if not elite level— and isn’t that a point guard’s greatest responsibility? Perhaps most importantly, Payton finished eighth among point guards in Assists-per-48 Minutes with 10.8, suggesting that more playing time would improve his assists numbers drastically.
Surprisingly, Payton, known for his tenacity on the defensive end, has defensive numbers that are more middle-of-the-pack. Despite his obvious energy on defense—Elfrid must lead the league in face-guarding opponents the full length of the court—Payton finished 15th among point guards in Steals-per-Game with 1.22, 22nd in Steals-per-48 Minutes with 1.99, and 16th in Steals-to-Turnover ratio with .50.
Most alarmingly, Payton’s total number of steals dropped off from 142 in his rookie campaign to 89 in 2015/16. Again, though, some context is needed here. Payton not only played 9 fewer games in 15/16, but struggled to win the approval of the infamously hard-headed Scott Skiles, whose abrupt resignation from the Magic was apparently the result of a disagreement with Hennigan about Payton’s potential. Under new coach Frank Vogel, Payton’s minutes should rise drastically from the 29.4 per game he averaged under Skiles, providing the young guard with more opportunities not only for assists, but steals and overall defensive improvement as well.
Still, this article’s titular question remains, and largely because of Elfrid’s shooting woes. While Payton's .436 Field Goal Percentage ranked 15th among point guards last season, his adjusted FG%, which accounts for the amount of points accrued per field goal attempt, was a relatively paltry 46% -- good enough for 27th among all point guards.This is partly due to Payton's atrocious three-point shooting.
Last season, Payton tied for 59th among point guards in Three-Point FG% (3P%) at .326, and 66th in Three-Pointers Attempted (3PA), at just 92 all season. In short, Payton cannot make threes, so he does not take threes. Hey, at least he’s responsible in that sense.
But now a new question needs to be asked: What is a point guard’s greatest responsibility in today’s small-ball, shoot-first NBA? Earlier I said it was distribution and ball protection, but maybe that isn’t the case. When you consider that today’s widely heralded point guards take threes and make threes, perhaps Elfrid’s case as "Point Guard of the Future" becomes weaker. Putting Steph Curry aside, whose 886 3PA and .454 3P% last season are simply otherworldly, it is impossible to ignore the importance of shooting—and especially three-point shooting—in accounting for the success of modern NBA point guards and their teams.
Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, and Chris Paul are all considered All-Star-caliber PGs. Respectively, they spent last season putting up 610, 547, 465, and 329 three-point attempts. In that same order, those "elite" point guards averaged .375, .388, .359, and .371 percent from deep. Most importantly, each of their teams finished the regular season at least fifth in their respective conferences.
Sure, there are point guards who are considered "elite," but who shoot poorly from three-point land. John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and Russell Westbrook shot 35, 32, and 30 percent from deep last year, respectively. However, Westbrook and Irving each have adjusted FG percentages in the top 16 among point guards, and each is bolstered (or in Westbrook’s case, was bolstered) by the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Furthermore, Payton simply hasn’t shown the flashes of brilliance that make Irving and Westbrook elite players. While the Louisiana-Lafayette product has shown that he can handle the ball and finish at the rim, he’s no Uncle Drew, and if Payton’s intensity is a double-shot of espresso, Westbrook’s intensity is a keg of Surge.
Wall probably represents a more realistic ceiling for Payton to reach, but his Wizards squad failed to make the playoffs last year, and his hold on the "All-Star-caliber" moniker is tenuous at best. In other words, Payton could be Wall, but would that be enough to push the Magic over the hump?
Like it or not, taking and making three pointers is the new greatest responsibility of a point guard in today’s NBA, and if one doesn’t sport elite numbers from deep, they need an elite teammate beside them who can bear some of that burden. While this might not sound like news—after all, it’s obvious that good shooters with good teammates are generally successful—it suggests that Elfrid might not be the kind of point guard that this Magic roster needs to lead it to the Promised Land.
For some Magic fans (or at least one), Elfrid’s presence on the team also represents the absence of other players who might have helped Orlando. By refusing to offer Elfrid up as a trade chip, or at least by refusing to bring in a point guard who could challenge Payton for starter’s minutes (clearly the Magic never intended to keep Brandon Jennings), Hennigan passed on the likes of Jimmy Butler, Michael Conley, and Jeff Teague. Depending on which rumors you believe, the Magic could have swung a deal for Jimmy Butler by offering Elfrid and others to the Chicago Bulls, pursued the Memphis Grizzlies’ Conley more seriously in free agency, or traded their No. 11 draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Teague (who went to the Indiana Pacers for their No. 12).
While these scenarios are all admittedly speculative, it can be frustrating for some fans to watch Elfrid struggle to shoot the ball, hear news that a disagreement over his talent was serious enough to create a divide between coach and GM, and still see the front office proceed to build a team with him firmly entrenched as its starter and "Point Guard of the Future."
What is not speculative is the fact that the Magic could be opening their season with a potential "Power Forward of the Future." Dario Saric, who the Magic traded to Philadelphia for Payton on draft night in 2014, looks to be exactly what the 76ers need. If his international play is any indication, Saric is a long, lean, quick stretch-four who can shoot threes, handle the ball, and drive to the basket with ease. In the recent Rio Olympics, Saric not only looked confident going against NBA players, but he was clearly the leader of his Croatian team, which bodes well for his potential to hit the ground running in 2016/17.
Granted, the Magic’s current roster has a logjam at the power forward spot, but perhaps the team would have been constructed differently if Orlando kept Saric. Regardless, if Saric looks at all impressive during his rookie year, and especially if he has a Kristaps Porzingis-like impact, it could make Elfrid look all the worse.
Unfortunately, the admittedly anticlimactic answer to this article’s titular question is: there is no answer…yet.
Elfrid does not have elite shooters around him, save perhaps for Evan Fournier. Frankly, he does not have elite scorers around him, either—Nikola Vucevic’s scoring numbers should drop with the presence of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, and Fournier has yet to average above 16 PPG in his career. If Payton is to remain the Magic’s "Point Guard of the Future," then he’ll have to do it through sheer improvement of his own abilities—especially shooting from range—and he’ll have to do it now. But if he does not improve, or even if he improves only slightly, Elfrid Payton Hill might turn into a Central Florida sinkhole, swallowing Hennigan in with it.