The greatest Murray State Racer never played a game in the NBA. In 1966 the Knicks selected Stew Johnson in the draft's first round, but Johnson went to the ABA and averaged 16 points a game over nine seasons, making Stew the original cookin' soupster. Honorable mention for Racer GOAT: Popeye Jones...but if Popeye Jones is ever the answer to GOAT, you're asking the wrong question. He ain't even the greatest Popeye.
This year, point guard Cameron Payne could eclipse Stew in the Racer pantheon. Initially Payne was likely landing late in the lottery, linked to Phoenix's mad dream of a roster made up entirely of point guards, then maybe mid-lottery to Sacramento, and now he has workouts scheduled with the Knicks and Lakers. Last year he won the Lute Olson Award as the nation's top non-freshman and was voted Third Team All-American. Combine the brains-over-brawness of one elite point guard prospect and the relative anonymity of the other and you've got Payne. He's 6'2", 180 pounds. He's gregarious. His elbow sleeve has its own Twitter page. His headband used to. Get to know him. He's a "really cool guy"!
Payne's considered an excellent passer out of pick-and-rolls and in transition, particularly finding guys ahead of the field. Last year's Knicks ran a relatively low number of pick-and-rolls for most of the year, but that picked up as the season progressed and in late-game situations. Hardly the Showtime Lakers in the open floor, they could get out on the break more and score more easy buckets with less Jose Calderon and more Payne plus some twentysomething free agents.
(graph thanks to Jonathan Wasserman at Bleacher Report)
He also excels off screen action. Nearly 10% of Murray State's offense was Payne coming off a screen. I don't know if that's a lot, but it sounds like a lot - roughly once every five minutes he played, the Racers went to him off screens. His athleticism appears neither above average nor sub-par. It's par. He's at his best using changes of pace and shifts to get defenders off-balance, in body or mind; with a few years of added strength and wisdom, his game could share a similar foundation to Carmelo Anthony's. Melo is considerably bigger and stronger than Payne, but he didn't win a scoring title from out-quicking or out-leaping dudes. The subatomica of his game are little jukes and feints that free just enough room to get him what he wants. Anthony sets defenders up the way boxers do. Payne has a touch of that, too.
Payne looks like a playmaker. He does a lot of things a professional point guard should, i.e. stuff no one on the current Knicks does; none offer the same capacity for both swishing and dishing that he possesses. I can't see them taking him ahead of D'Angelo Russell, but if Emmanuel Mudiay's not New York's man, they could trade down and land Payne plus another young, inexpensive building block. Rome wasn't built in a day 'cuz it took a lot of stuff to build Rome, and a lot of stuff takes a lot of time to accumulate. Landing a single transcendent talent is sexy. Patience isn't. Payne doesn't look like a transcendent talent. It's true he's smaller than Russell, smaller and less athletic than Mudiay. It's also true he's had his moments.
As the Ohio Valley Conference tournament semifinal hit the last minute, Morehead State was leading Murray State. Payne hit a pull-up three to give the Racers the lead for good and give him 11 points in the last eight minutes. In the conference final, Payne scored 15 over the final 11 minutes, only to fall to Belmont on a buzzer beater. Still, every one of his field goals and free throws tied the game or gave Murray State the lead. He finished with 20 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, and three steals.
When someone's shooting's described as both streaky and unorthodox, that raises flags. Streaky plus unorthodox over time sometimes equals "can't shoot." But Payne's numbers appear to reflect an awareness of what's a good shot for him versus a poor one, since his FG% on twos improved from 46% to 51% and on threes from 34% to 38%, a not-insignificant bump from slightly below average to slightly above. His true shooting % rose from 53% to 57%. When he was on the floor he assisted on 40% of his teammates' buckets. If he's not a shooter, he's also not some myopic chucker.
It's hard to project where a legal minor will be defensively in 5-7 years. Mark Jackson was once Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Whoop-de-damn-do. Some of the concerning traits in Payne's defense could result from how much responsibility he had at Murray State. Sometimes a player who ball-watches and helps too often is a lost cause; sometimes it's because he's the best player on his team by a mile and they scheme to involve him in as much of the action as possible. In the video below, most of the shots his ball-watching/helping yielded were long threes, which might be the shots his team was willing to concede. Sometimes a player whose effort comes and goes on defense is plain old unreliable; sometimes that inconsistency stems from shouldering so much of the offensive burden. Payne hit 46% of his two-point jumpers, a shade under 84% of which were unassisted. If you've seen Lebron in the Finals, you've seen a glimpse of Payne's 2015.
Payne only shot 53% at the rim, worth keeping in mind considering rim protection in the Ohio Valley Conference is never confused at parties for NBA-grade rim protection. This stat, in conjunction with him apparently shying away from contact and settling for off-balance floaters, could foreshadow struggles in the pros. But bear in mind he won't be 21 until August. Are these three purported weakness the many sides of one flawed face? Or, if viewed as process rather than product, might they indicate the growing pains of a developing strength? The teardrop is strong with this one. Phil Jackson's said he wants penetrators. In the Triangle offense, the teardrop is a handy riposte versus defenses whose focus at times last year grew evermore mid-range-centric. If Payne's muscle memory converts all those failed off-balance college floaters into successful NBA floaters, he could be the Knick locksmith.
On the other hand, Payne only played three games against BCS schools. The leap from college to the pros is chasmic for all draftees; for Payne it could seem astronomic. Which part of the sentence do you emphasize: "He dominated amateurs" or "He dominated amateurs"?
Deliberate, yet decisive...
Dauntless, yet discerning...
Player comparisons are like cancer: inevitable irregularities that bloom to the point they overwhelm their point of origin. Consider: Payne's one of only 13 collegians ever to average at least 20 points, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 2 three-pointers per game for a whole season. One was Steph Curry. Eight never played in the NBA. The best after Curry? Jason Terry. Drafting a Steph Curry's unlikely, but not unheard of (as Knick fans know all too well). Curry dominated lower-level competition, then dominated some more in the NBA; so did Damian Lillard. Those are Payne's best-case scenarios. Jason Terry's been a fine pro and is a perfectly acceptable first round pick - if you're the 2015 Hawks. If the Knicks end up with Terry 2.0, I'm Frank Pentangeli'ing myself a warm bath and some open veins.