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

Marreese Speights opts out of Clippers contract

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The Clippers are unraveling.

Of course, whether they can re-sign Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the big questions. But they also must deal with smaller matters in free agency – like Marreese Speights.

Speights will opt out, his agent tweeted:

The Clippers will hold Speights’ Non-Bird Rights (technically a form of Bird Rights), allowing them to give him a starting salary up to $2,540,346 without using cap space or the mid-level exception.

The 29-year-old Speights, a stretch five who takes charges, fits the modern NBA. He could probably get more if he seeks it.

The Clippers won’t have cap space unless they lose Paul and Griffin, and at that point, re-signing a veteran like Speights is of little use. So, it would likely require the taxpayer mid-level exception or Speights taking a discount to keep him.

Luc Mbah a Moute can and likely will also opt out, and he’ll fall in the same Non-Bird situation. The Clippers would likely prioritize their mid-level exception for him – if it’s enough for either player.

Keeping Paul and Griffin is of the utmost importance, but that’s not the Clippers’ only challenge. Even if they keep those two stars, assembling even a decent supporting cast will difficult. Possibly losing J.J. Redick is the main issue there, but handling Speights’ and Mbah a Moute’s roster spots will also be pivotal.

Warriors struggle to get Zaza Pachulia’s 2017 NBA Finals hat on his big head (video)

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Zaza Pachulia became the villain of the Western Conference finals when he injured Kawhi Leonard and torpedoed the Spurs chances of upsetting the Warriors.

But his teammates stood by him – then shared this fun moment with him after Golden State won the West.

Reporter asks Spanish-speaking Manu Ginobili whether he just announced retirement (video)

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Manu Ginobili received an emotional sendoff in the Spurs’ season-ending – and maybe Ginobili’s career-ending – loss to the Warriors last night.

The postgame press conference featured a lighthearted moment when, after the Argentinian guard answered a couple questions in Spanish, an American reporter – not wanting to miss big news – asked whether Ginobili had just announced his retirement.

No, Ginobili assured the reporter. He says he plans to take a few weeks to consider his options.

Warriors make most dominant playoff run ever to NBA Finals

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Moses Malone famously predicted the 76ers team would go “”Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” in the 1983 playoffs, sweeping all three rounds in four games. Philadelphia didn’t quite do it – sweeping the Knicks, beating the Bucks in five then sweeping the Lakers for the title.

Thirty-four years later, an NBA team went “”Fo’, Fo’, Fo'” for the first time.

Golden State swept the Trail Blazers, Jazz and Spurs in four-game series. But with an extra playoff round, the Warriors’ 12-0 run merely gets them to the Finals.

It’s the ninth undefeated run to the Finals, third since the league adopted four playoff rounds in 1984 and first since the first round became best-of-seven. The Lakers went 11-0 in the playoffs en route to the Finals in 2001 and 1989.

By winning an extra game and outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per game, Golden State now claims the most dominant postseason run to the NBA Finals ever.

Here are the top paths to the Finals, with Finals results, by playoff…

Record (point difference per game in parentheses):

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Point difference per game (record in parentheses):

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This doesn’t guarantee Golden State a championship. The Cavaliers (10-1, +11.9) are on track for an elite run to the Finals themselves, and they have LeBron James.

But the Warriors put ridiculous expectations on themselves by signing Kevin Durant to join a 73-win team featuring Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. I’m unsure a Golden State title this year will be properly appreciated, but so far, the Warriors are doing all they can to clear a bar set unreasonably high.