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In Phoenix, Elfrid Payton has a chance to prove himself again

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As questions linger about why Elfrid Payton could never lead the Magic to success, his debut in Phoenix offered hints of what he can bring to other teams.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Elfrid Payton’s career in Orlando was a constant source of consternation. Few players have been more polarizing during the Magic’s rebuild, in terms of his contributions to winning. Can a team win with a point guard that can’t shoot? How much did his defense hurt the team? What kind of players would fit around him? Even as his individual stats continued to improve, faith in his ability to lead the team seemed to wane. Ultimately, the new front office—a group that was not responsible for drafting him and therefore was less invested in his success—decided that he was not the point guard of the future.

In Phoenix, Payton has another chance to demonstrate that he’s a starting-caliber guard, even in a modern NBA that increasingly seems to demand skills he does not yet possess. While the Suns’ 123-113 loss to the Denver Nuggets was not the most auspicious way to debut with his new team, Suns coach Jay Triano was impressed by the performance.

“The pace of play was better, getting the ball up and down the court, getting into the lane when he needed to, and making passes. He made the guys on the floor with him better.”

Much was made of Payton’s lack of time with the team, with Triano noting that his playbook was more or less cut in half with a brand new starting point guard. Still, he seemed unconcerned: “We’ll get better as we play with him more.”

His stat line mimicked the box scores he assembled on his good nights in Orlando: 19 points on 8-13 shooting, 9 assists, and 4 rebounds in 35 minutes. Media members and players alike also gave Payton some credit for the performances of Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender, each of whom played some of their basketball of the season.

Payton said he plans to bring his trademark skills to the Suns to make them better. “I’ll try to get people the ball in their spots, try to get into the paint, kick to shooters, things like that.”

Jackson spoke after the game about Payton’s contributions to the pace of play and finding guys who were open. “I feel like that’s when I’m at my best, when we’re able to run in transition. He did a really good job of finding me when I was running. I think I’m faster than most of the guys guarding me most of the time, so I can outrun them, and he understood that today.”

In several ways, Payton flashed some of his most intriguing abilities for Phoenix faithful. Starting right from the first quarter, he fired several bullet passes into the paint, often catching his own teammates off guard. He didn’t score in his first stint on the floor, but as the game went on he played more aggressively, scoring 15 points in the second and third quarters, almost entirely on shots in the paint.

At the same time, he demonstrated his weaknesses. While he did make a few defensive plays in the fourth quarter, he shaded off WIlson Chandler in the corner a little too far, leaving the wing open to make the first of what would be 8 straight points to seal the game for Denver. His pick-and-roll defensive continues to be suspect. He attempted zero three-pointers.

Still, people on and around the team were encouraged by the performance, especially compared to some of the other point guards they’ve employed in recent years. What remains to be seen is whether Payton can continue playing at this level, and whether those contributions in the box score spill over into wins.

His history in Orlando suggests he may not be able to lead a team as their starting point guard, but the history of other members finding success elsewhere suggests that the Magic often suppress the true talents of their players. With the last three months of the season, with the Phoenix Suns, Elfrid Payton will have an opportunity to prove the Magic wrong once again.