Gobbled up as part of a free agent feeding frenzy this summer after the Knicks failed to meet with any of the most coveted free agents, Elfrid Payton has a chance to make waves during the 2019-20 season if he can win the point guard battle and build on a strong performance from last year.
Payton was one of multiple signings that elicited an initial reaction of ‘huh?’ The team already has two promising young point guards in Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr., so it was strange to see the front office bring in another young guy (he’s 25) who will eat up minutes at that position and obviously seek to start.
When you look slightly closer, however, the Payton situation begins to make some sense. Firstly, Knicks general manager Scott Perry was vice president of basketball operations for the Magic when Orlando traded for Payton on draft night in 2014. Secondly, Payton played in New Orleans last year with Julius Randle, the biggest signing the Knicks made this offseason.
The duo played 802 minutes over the course of 38 games together for the Pelicans in 2018-19, according to NBA.stats.com. In July, The Knicks Wall put together a piece looking at how Payton and Randle fared together on the court last year, and the results are definitely interesting, although quite frankly there isn’t really that much to be gleaned statistically considering the relatively small sample size of less than a single season. Still, chemistry is important, so there’s plenty of potential upside to reuniting Payton and Randle.
As a newcomer, Payton will have to prove why Knicks fans should root for him to earn minutes over the main guy the team got back in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, as well as a certain young Frenchman who won our hearts back when KP was still on the team. But fans are a fickle bunch. They want a winner, and whichever players can deliver the most victories will become the pieces considered to be indispensable.
Let’s discuss some things Payton should strive to accomplish during his first season as a New York Knickerbocker.
Remain healthy for the entire season
Before we even get into the likelihood of Payton prying the starting point guard position from Smith Jr./Ntilikina, we should acknowledge that in order to do so, he’ll have to be available to play.
Payton missed 40 games last year, which is almost half the season and equates to 1,920 minutes of possible playing time, or 32 hours. That’s a lot of time to not be playing. He missed action because of multiple injuries, including a broken pinky and a sprained ankle.
The season before that, when he split time with the Magic and Pelicans, Payton missed 19 games, which is better than missing 40 games, but is still a hefty amount of time in street clothes.
Excluding the last two seasons, however, Payton has shown the ability to stay healthy. In his rookie and third seasons, he played in all 82 games, and in his sophomore year he played in 72. Those are better numbers than the ones in the earlier paragraphs in this section.
Speaking of numbers, goal numero uno for Payton should be to get back to those first three seasons, when his health wasn’t an issue.
Win the starting gig, but do so convincingly
In 42 total games last year, Payton performed like a starting point guard, averaging 10.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. He’ll have “every opportunity” to win the starting position, according to SNY’s Ian Begley, but let’s hit the brakes on anointing him top dog just yet.
Payton must first battle it out against the team’s aforementioned youngsters, each of whom has made a case this summer that they should be the ones penciled in as the starting point guard. Dennis Smith Jr. is one of the internet darlings of the summer, and Frank Ntilikina is coming off an impressive showing at the FIBA World Cup in China, where he helped Team France defeat Team USA and ultimately earn a bronze medal. For many, Frank has already proven the Knicks should pick up his fourth year option.
Payton’s contract is for two years, $16 million, and the second year is a team option. He’s shown potential as a floor general in his young career, and could very well wrestle the starting position from his new teammates.
But he should be made to wrestle it from them. It shouldn’t be handed to him, like the time the Knicks got Emmanuel Mudiay and then Jeff Hornacek decided he immediately deserved to be handed the reins to the team.
At his introductory press conference, new #Knicks head coach David Fizdale thanks Emmanuel Mudiay, Kyle O'Quinn, Lance Thomas and Trey Burke for attending.— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) May 8, 2018
He tells Mudiay, "We're going to get you right."
(via @clippittv) pic.twitter.com/btZoYfkexE
Make that inconsistent jumper more consistent
In a perfect world, every player on the Knicks would hit 100 percent of their shots and the team would never lose a game. The world, however, is far from perfect. Thus, we’ll have to set some more modest goals. For Payton, one of those goals should be to improve his shooting percentages across the board.
Last season, Payton shot about 43 percent from the floor, including 31 percent from three, and he hit 74 percent of his free throws. Ideally, Payton would finish this season with percentages closer to 50, 40 and 80, although it’s unlikely he’ll make such a massive leap in all categories.
His career highs for a single season are 49 percent from the field, 33 percent from deep (2017-18), and 74 percent from the stripe (2018-19). For his career, Payton’s average percentages are 45, 30 and and 63.
Let’s aim for a nice middle ground. If Payton can string together a season where he shoots higher than 45 percent from the field, closer to 35 percent from three and over 75 percent from the free throw line then he’ll have proven he can continue to improve, and the Knicks would be smart to pick up that team option for year two.
If those numbers can continue creeping up, the team may have found themselves a piece of the puzzle going forward.
Grow eight inches and become Mitchell Robinson’s backup center
Payton is 6’4” and 195 pounds, and conventional wisdom says he’s probably not going to grow that much taller at this point in life. But the Knicks could certainly use a 7 footer who averages point guard-esque numbers, and if Payton were to grow tall enough then we wouldn’t have to worry about him pushing Smith Jr. or Ntilikina out of the rotation, or in Ntilikina’s case, possibly off the team.
Consider this: if Fievel Mousekewitz had listened to conventional wisdom in the 1986 animated film "An American Tale," he would have never found his family. Never say never!