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In the five years since the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted him 14th overall, Cameron Payne has played for three different NBA teams, three G League squads and one team in China. Unable to live up to his billing as a lottery pick to this point, however, the Murray State product is getting another chance in the unlikeliest of circumstances: With the lucky-to-be-here Phoenix Suns, in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando, amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic.
And yet, despite being signed only nine days ago, joining a new set of teammates and having to cope with the risks of coronavirus that come with life in the bubble, Payne couldn’t be more grateful.
“Just the fact that I got this opportunity, it’s a blessing,” he said Thursday on a media call over Zoom.
As it turns out, one random phone call from an old assistant head coach can change everything. Payne says he was relaxing in the pool when he got a call from Monty Williams, head coach of the Suns and a former OKC assistant during Payne’s time there.
“We talked about things from OKC, we didn’t speak too much about the Suns,” Payne said. “We just had a regular conversation about our relationship and the things he wanted to see out of me. One of the main things we talked about was maturity and consistency. It was huge to get that call from him and man, I jumped outta that pool so fast. Got on that call and it was almost like a weight was lifted off my back, ’cause the only thing I wanted to do was be back in the NBA and now I got that opportunity.”
It’s been a bumpy road for the former Racer, who spent one-and-a-half seasons in Oklahoma City before being surprisingly dumped to the Chicago Bulls. Injuries continued to plague him in the Windy City for two years, and once the Bulls waived him, he played out two 10-day contracts with the Cleveland Cavaliers before they let him walk. He signed with the Toronto Raptors in July of 2019, but didn’t make it on the final roster. From there, he played two games in China during the 2019-20 season before being replaced and returning to the G League.
And then, one month before the NBA’s scheduled restart date in Orlando, he was officially signed by the Suns. Only 25 years old, Payne is already quite an NBA journeyman, but to keep that journey going, he’s hoping to apply what he’s learned at each stop.
“I’ve grown up, I’ve matured more,” he explained. “So I feel I can bring a great amount of consistency to the team and just do whatever coach needs me to do. I’m a dog and I’m a road warrior, so anything he asks me, I’m gonna go get it done. Just try to put my stamp back in the league and let people know that I should be here.”
Doing so may prove difficult for a guy who hasn’t been in the NBA all season, especially since Payne has never averaged better than 8.8 points and 4.5 assists per game, never shot better than 43 percent from the floor and has only made 33.1 percent of his 3-pointers for his career.
However, now on his fourth NBA team, Payne has a fairly advantageous opening awaiting him. The Suns’ backup point guard situation has been a mess all season, vacillating aimlessly between three underwhelming options.
Jevon Carter has proven himself a bullish defender and surprisingly accurate 3-point shooter at 39.3 percent, but he too frequently pounds the air out of the ball and his shot selection can be suspect. Elie Okobo, another second-year backup, has struggled heavily with turnovers and poor decisions this year. And Ty Jerome, whom the Suns drafted to be their solution to this very problem, had problems overcoming a sprained ankle and has struggled with his confidence ever since.
With Ricky Rubio on the court, the Suns boast a Net Rating of 3.8 (highest on the team). Whenever he sits, that number plummets to minus-6.5 (lowest on the team). The on-court Net Ratings of Okobo (minus-3.3), Carter (minus-3.8), Jerome (minus-14.9) and Tyler Johnson (minus-8.1) exacerbated that problem. If he can help fix it, Payne has a window to playing time.
“Certainly he’s not in a position where he’s earned anything with us, but he’s got an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation,” Monty Williams said last week over Zoom.
Carter (or just playing Devin Booker at the 1) is probably the Suns’ most reliable option for the backup point guard spot, but this sad fact gives Payne a real chance to earn spot minutes — especially under a coach who knows him well.
“With Monty in OKC, we had a real, real close relationship,” Payne said. “Monty’s a great, great coach. Even off the court, he’s a great guy. I don’t know what it is, but he always says the right things to say to me. For whatever reason it triggers me to just turn into a different mode, and I appreciate that from him.”
While there’s obviously a learning curve with memorizing new sets and player tendencies on the fly, Phoenix’s new arrival said the transition has been fairly smooth so far. The Suns may not have high expectations heading into Orlando, but now we’ll see if Cameron Payne can restake his claim as a legitimate NBA player.
“He’s got a burst, got a feel for the game that’s hard to teach, and he’s still in that age group where he’s still learning and he’s been humbled,” Williams said last week. “Sometimes you can grab guys like that and put them in a situation and they perform well.”
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