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?
“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.”