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2019-20 Knicks Player Review: Elfrid Payton

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He’s fine, but not the most magical Elf in the realm.

New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Elfrid Payton is the latest in a series of point guards brought in to eat up playing time from recent lottery pick Frank Ntilikina, and in 2019-20 he feasted on almost 28 minutes a game while putting up solid counting stats but providing little inspiration.

Payton, signed as part of the Summer 2020 Free Agent Extravaganza™, has an $8 million team option for next season. He’s a capable ball-handler who can’t shoot and never seemed to contribute directly to much winning. Then again, the Knicks didn’t win too often this year, so can you really blame Payton for the team’s lack of success? It’s probably just a coincidence that the 26-year-old is well below .500 for his career with an overall win-loss record of 134-253 across six seasons, only one of which was with the Knicks.

Then again, again, This League is all about circumstance. On the right team, in the right role, with the right mix of teammates around him, perhaps Payton contributes to a winner. In 45 games with the Knicks this season, including 36 starts, Payton put up 10 points (44% shooting, 20% from three, 57% from the free throw line), 7.2 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals. The Knicks were 17-28 in games he played in.

Those stats don’t look so bad. Is Payton good?

The truth is that Payton is pretty good at playing basketball. He just might already be what he is: a poor-shooting point guard who can run a mediocre offense and has some touch when it comes to super close shots. Payton connected on just over 51% of his shots within 10 feet of the rim and was bad from everywhere else, according to stats.nba.com.

Let’s be totally clear about what it means to say he was ‘bad from everywhere else.’ Payton’s three-point shooting (14-69 overall) was the worst on the team aside from rookie Ignas Brazdeikis, who only shot from long range nine times all year. His free throw shooting was third worst on the team (quick, one guess who led the Knicks in free throw shooting - OMG, it’s Frank at 86.4%!).

Quick sidebar for a Fun Fact: Frank Ntilikina’s free throw shooting has improved every year he’s been in the league.

Despite Payton’s shooting struggles, he displayed an ability to run the show and rarely looked completely out of sorts, as evidenced by a career best 2.1 turnovers per game. A starting point guard who averages pretty close to a double double is solid, and if the rest of the starting lineup was filled with knockdown marksmen then Payton’s poor shooting wouldn’t stand out as much. Alas.

Does he fit in with next year’s Knicks?

It’s difficult to say with any certainty who will or won’t be on the roster when the Knicks suit up again many months from now (the NBA is hoping to start the 2020-21 season on Dec. 1, but who knows?), but Payton’s fate hinges on a few factors:

  • What does Leon Rose think of Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr.?

We know Rose knows Frank since he used to represent the Frenchman, and Ntilikina played really well in the short timeframe in-between Rose being formally hired and the season being put on hold. But there’s been no indication that Rose sees Ntilikina as a starting caliber point guard at this juncture, and maybe Frank would be best served as a combo guard with less overall offensive responsibility anyway.

As for the prize of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, Rose called DSJ a “special talent” in that one interview he did. Smith Jr. has not impressed during his time in New York, but his contract goes through 2021-22 (the final season is a team option), so unless the Knicks can make like Harry Houdini and escape that contract somehow, they’ll be forced to suffer the gut punch of keeping him for a little bit. Barring significant changes in DSJ’s performance, he’s not a starting point guard.

  • What will the Knicks do in the draft?

The Knicks notched the eighth pick in this year’s draft, which means anything is possible. It might be time to wake up from those dreams of LaMelo Ball or Killian Hayes coming in to provide a steady presence at point guard.

Could Ball fall? Might the Knicks trade up? Will they trade both of their first round picks to get Raymond Felton back on the squad? These are all questions, you can’t argue against that.

It stands to reason that the Knicks still view the starting point guard position as a hole to be filled, although it feels risky to go into next season with Ntilikina, DSJ and another rookie as the only three options.

  • What’s the deal with Scott Perry?

Rumor has it that the Sacramento Kings are feeling nostalgic for the old days, when Perry served as the team’s vice president of basketball operations for about three months before being traded to the Knicks in July 2017.

Perry drafted Payton back in 2014 when he still worked for the Orlando Magic. If Perry goes, perhaps Payton will also be sent packing.

Notable facts and stats from Payton’s first season as a Knick

> Despite averaging fairly close to a double double, Payton only achieved that mark six times.

> It’s not all about double doubles, however. Payton often posts the sort of box scores we wish for Frank’s future. Here are a few examples, along with highlights when applicable.

— In his first regular season game as a Knick, Payton had 11 points, 8 assists and 5 steals (plus 5 turnovers) in a nine-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Not too shabby, minus the whole turnovers and loss thing.

— In mid December, he had three straight strong showings, and the Knicks went 2-1. First, he had 14 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 steal in a win over the defending Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors. Then, he notched 16 points, 4 dimes, 4 boards and 1 swipe in a victory against the Kings. Finally, he finished with 10 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds and 1 steal in a loss to the Denver Nuggets.

— Over the course of six games in late January and early February, he averaged 15 points, 10 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 3 steals, including a 7-steal effort in a win over the Orlando Magic and his only triple double of the season (17 points, 15 assists, 11 rebounds) in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.

— He finished the season with 11 points, 12 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals and 1 block in a victory against the Atlanta Hawks. Here, enjoy the full highlights from the game so we can sprinkle in some Mitchell Robinson and R.J. Barrett and whatnot:

> In March, Payton pushed Jae Crowder because he was showboating by taking a three-pointer in the waning minutes of a blowout win for the Memphis Grizzlies at Madison Square Garden. It was a low point in a season filled with low points. There’s a time and place to act tough, and it’s not when your own team is mostly to blame for the frustration you’re feeling.