Elfrid Payton

So who exactly is Elfrid Payton?

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NEW YORK – There was a point in time when Elfrid Payton was actually an unknown person. He was just another small school point guard who looked like he was destined to wind up in the second round of the NBA Draft, which we all know is more of a graveyard than a sanctuary.

The hype surrounding Payton’s ability to play college level basketball was essentially non-existent. It obviously didn’t help that he looked the part of just another high school level talent. He was just above six-feet tall by the time colleges were in their full blown recruiting mode. He only received offers from two schools, Xavier and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Payton ultimately decided to head down to Louisiana and play for the Ragin’ Cajuns.

His freshman year was a wash, but he developed almost overnight into a 16-6-5 guy while averaging just over two steals a game during his sophomore campaign and yet he still didn’t receive any sort of national attention.

Payton’s fate changed last summer when he was surprisingly added to the USA U19 team that ended up winning a gold medal at the FIBA World Championships. Payton’s addition to the team was a big surprise, but he quickly became more than just another face on the roster, or the guy all the way at the end of the bench. Florida head coach Billy Donovan, who along with VCU head coach Shaka Smart and Virginia head coach Tony Bennett coach the U19 team, quickly fell in love with Payton’s ability to be a floor general.

Payton eventually was named the starting point guard of the team. It was at this point that Payton realized that it didn’t matter if he was at a small school; he could still make his way to the first round of the draft because he knew that he belonged on the floor with lottery level talent.

“As soon as I stepped on the floor [with the U19 team] I always thought I belonged there,” Payton said on Wednesday during the pre-draft media availability.

After stepping out onto the national stage last summer, Payton improved yet again during his junior season as his scoring bumped up to just over 19 points per game. This was mainly due to the fact that Payton led the entire country in free throw attempts (302). More importantly, he led the University of Louisiana-Lafayette to the NCAA Tournament. In doing so, Payton started to comprehend that he would likely be drafted in the first round even though he played his college ball at the exact opposite of a powerhouse. During the run to the tournament however, Payton didn’t think about how it was positively affecting his draft stock.

“I didn’t try to think about it like that, I was all about my team, I was all about winning,” Payton said.

If this sounds like a familiar story, it’s similar to the tale of a point guard who went to a small school called Weber State who evolved his game each season, while leading his team to the NCAA Tournament. He’s turned out to be a pretty decent addition to the NBA.

“My coach [Bob Marlin] gave me a lot of articles about Damian Lillard, we watched some workout videos of Damian,” Payton said “I learned how hard he worked and about some of the things he went through coming from a small school.”

So what did Payton learn about the process of coming from a smaller school?

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“It means nothing at this point. We’re all no longer in college so we’re all on an even playing field,” he said.

But what happens now for Elfrid Payton? He’s risen from the likes of the unknown, into a sleeper, into someone who isn’t a sleeper, but someone who isn’t a household name. If he were to immediately succeed, it wouldn’t be a surprise to the people who have been paying attention to the draft process, but it would stun a group of people who have no idea who he is.

Payton is quietly confident, after listening to him speak for a few minutes it’s easy to walk away believing that one day he’ll be a leader on the team that selects him. If you think Payton is satisfied with his rise to the lottery, think again.

“[There is] a sense of accomplishment, but at the same time you know it [being drafted] hasn’t happened yet, so I mean anything can happen,” Payton said. “But it’s just a draft you know, it’s just a number.”

Twitter: @Scottdargis

The time Kobe Bryant tried to recruit Dirk Nowitzki to the Lakers

DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 05:  Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks greets Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers after a game at American Airlines Center on November 5, 2013 in Dallas, Texas.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant has been loyal to the Lakers for 20 seasons (if you ignore some “trade me” tantrums along the way). He’s also been über competitive.

Those same qualities are what he most appreciates about Dirk Nowitzki.

Kobe talked a little Dirk during his All-Star media availability Friday.

“Dirk and I have always had a great relationship because we’re both extremely competitive. Also both extremely loyal to our teams,” Bryant said.

“I’ll tell you a story about Dirk. He was up for free agency, and I knew what his response was going to be. But out of respect, everybody’s looking around at all these free agents, I felt I’d shoot you a text, if you want to come to L.A. He goes, ‘I would love to play with you, but Dallas is my home. This is my team. I’m not leaving here.’ So he and I think a lot alike in that regard.”

Nowitzki’s last couple free agencies have been mere formalities, nobody around the league thought he would leave Mark Cuban or Dallas. The only questions were money and years — in 2014 the Lakers reportedly offered the max to Nowitzki, who took three-years, $25 million from Dallas so the Mavs could rebuild their roster. It’s all part of that loyalty — and it’s worked out, Nowitzki and Cuban have a ring.

Kobe’s respect for Nowitzki was clear when Dirk nailed a game winner against the Lakers this season, Kobe just nodded his approval from the bench.

One of the best things the past couple seasons about Kobe, and especially this season with just about to retire Kobe, is that he is giving honest answers. He doesn’t care what people think. That leads to honest moments and great stories.

Watch Kristaps Porzingis drop 30 at Rising Stars Challenge (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Knicks’ fans were in full throat at the Air Canada Centre Friday night. Kristaps Porzingis was the second most popular player in the Rising Stars Challenge (behind Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins).

Porzingis didn’t disappoint, dropping 30 and sparking a World Team comeback against the USA that just fell just short, with the USA winning 157-154.

“Not great defense, but it’s about having fun, I guess” Porzingis said. “And I think we had fun out there. In the second half we got more competitive, as both teams wanted to get the win, and we fell a little short.”

Kobe Bryant basks in All-Star spotlight one final time

Kobe Bryant All-Star
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant is the center of attention one last time.

To get to his final All-Star Game in his final season in the NBA, Kobe received more fan votes than Stephen Curry or LeBron James or any other player. Now that he’s at the 2016 All-Star Game, more people want a piece of his time. More media were crowded around him on Friday than any other player at the NBA’s equivalent of media day. Even the other All-Stars could count on getting peppered with Kobe questions (to their annoyance at times).

Kobe is at peace with his decision to walk away from the game. This weekend he wants to savor being in the All-Star spotlight one final time.

“I’m happy,” Kobe said. “This is pretty cool. I’m looking around the room and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It’s true. I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all. I mean, I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”

Does that mean Kobe has plans to chase the All-Star MVP one last time?

“Zero…” Kobe said. “But, no, I’m really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practicing and enjoying that moment in the game and enjoying that moment. So competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something, that’s gone.”

What is Kobe’s best All-Star memory?

“My first one in Cleveland was pretty special because you had all the top 50 players,” Bryant said. “I think in ’98 (it was), it was pretty special too, being in my first All-Star Game and being in the locker room with greats, like [John] Stockton and [Clyde] Drexler and all those guys, that was pretty cool too.”

Kobe has a hectic schedule for his final weekend, but much as he has since he announced his retirement he is trying to soak in and fully enjoy this last go around in the NBA. He understands that the life he has known for two decades is about to change. He hasn’t given much thought to his first day of retirement.

“I’ll probably wake up and have some coffee and go back to sleep,” Bryant said.

I don’t think he understands why you drink coffee, but he’s got all of his retirement to figure that out. For now, he just wants to bask in the spotlight one last time.

Zach LaVine wins MVP, Kristaps Porzingis puts on show in Rising Stars Challenge

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TORONTO — Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins was the rock star of the night. “An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few dunks) leading a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

“An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few huge dunks), sparking a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

His Minnesota teammate Karl-Anthony Towns was going to have none of that.

“I gotta see Andrew Wiggins for a long time and I want to rub this in,” Towns said.

He got his wish, the USA beat the World Team 157-154.

It was a glorified pickup game for three quarters, and the level of defensive intensity will make Sunday’s All-Star game look like Tom Thibodeau teams are playing. That led to a lot of high scorers.

Zach LaVine — the other teammate of Wiggins and Towns — led the USA with 30 points and was named the game’s MVP, and said he wanted to steal Wiggins’ thunder at home.

“That’s what I was going for,” LaVine said.

Also from the USA, Jordan Clarkson (Lakers) had 25, Devon Booker (Suns) had 23 and was 5-of-8 from three, D'Angelo Russell (Lakers) had 22, and Towns chipped in 18 points and 7 boards.

Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis was the second most popular player in the building, and he had 30 for the World team.

“Not great defense, but it’s about having fun, I guess,” Porzingis said. “And I think we had fun out there. In the second half we got more competitive, as both teams wanted to get the win, and we fell a little short.”

Also for the World Emmanuel Mudiay (Nuggets) had 30 points, Wiggins had 29, and Mario Hezonja (Magic) had 19.

The intensity and defense did pick up in the end, although one wouldn’t call it a thing of beauty. What matters is the crowd in the Air Canada Centre enjoyed it, even if their team didn’t win. It’s an exhibition, and they got a show.