Cameron Payne was thrilled for the new opportunity.
Selected with the 14th overall pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2014 NBA Draft, the highly-touted 6’3″ point guard from Murray State University never quite found a foothold in the rotation playing spot minutes behind the tireless, indestructible league MVP Russell Westbrook.
So, buried on the depth chart, Cam was better known for his pre-game dance routines with Westbrook than his actual play. So when he got the call that he’d been traded to the Chicago Bulls for Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson, and a second round pick, he couldn’t have been more anxious and eager to prove himself on his new team.
The Thunder were looking to win now, and needed veteran reinforcements that could step in and make their mark in the playoffs. Minutes after the trade became official, Payne retweeted observations from ESPN insider and Thunder beat writer Royce Young, who nicely summed up Cam’s dilemma:
The Thunder believe Payne is going to be a big time player, but playing behind Westbrook, wouldn't develop into the player he's capable of.
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) February 23, 2017
In Thunder GM Sam Presti’s words, “We know Cameron Payne is going to be a very, very good player. And I think having more opportunity in front of him is going to really allow that to happen. I think the Bulls got a great young player in Cameron. But we felt like this was a thing we had to do to try to give our team our best chance to maximize itself.“
But once Cam arrived in Chicago, he would find that opportunity to be fleeting. The Bulls traded for Payne with one eye toward the future, but also found themselves immersed in a playoff hunt of their own. At the time the Bulls dealt for Payne, they clung to a one-game lead for the seventh-seed, and only two games out of the playoffs entirely. Likely at the instruction of Bulls’ brass, Hoiberg and his coaching staff force-fed the newcomer minutes for 11 games.
But in the midst of a postseason chase, Hoiberg had no patience for his players learning on the job; Payne was given a short leash, and his confidence suffered. In only 13 minutes per game, he averaged an underwhelming 5 points, 1 assist, and 1 rebound. In the Bulls’ six-game playoff loss to the top-seeded Boston Celtics, Payne would only register four minutes total.
“It was awkward”, Payne said. “With the team we had, they were already going into a playoff run, and…getting thrown in there, it was tough for me”
Likely pressing and overeager to prove himself after a disappointing 2016-2017 season, Payne struggled in two games during the 2018 Summer League, shooting a dismal 9-for-26 with 7 turnovers before cutting his summer short for personal reasons. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Payne went under the knife in September for a broken fifth metatarsal on his right foot. His surgery would sideline him until February, drawing the exasperation and ire of Bulls fans. With his stock and confidence at all-time lows, fans assigned him the nickname “Tank Commander” for his poor play that would theoretically contribute to losses and a greater chance at a higher pick in the draft.
This season, though, would finally prove to be different.
In a rebuilding year and under no pressure to compete for the playoffs, Payne at last was allowed significant minutes to play through his mistakes without constantly looking over his shoulder, expecting to be yanked. What followed were promising signs of growth and confidence in the 23-year old Memphis native.
After his return from surgery, Payne reminded fans why he was a first round pick, and Bulls’ management why they dealt for him a year ago. While his 9 points and 5 assists per game this season don’t pop off the screen, Payne’s skill-set is nearly perfectly tailored to run Fred Hoiberg‘s offense, which demands fast pace, rapid ball movement, quick decisions, and plenty of threes.
“I like to play fast”, he said.“In college, I played fast. OKC, we played real fast. I feel like this scheme we have going fits me perfectly. Just be a good play-maker, get my teammates and involved and flow into the offense”.
Payne is constantly looking up, eager to spray the ball ahead and get streaking teammates involved for either layups or uncontested transition threes:
Cameron Payne Nice Pass To Denzel Valentine pic.twitter.com/bbJSMz3XlZ
— Gustavo Vega (@iamvega1982) July 8, 2017
Cam Payne pra Denzel Valentine For three! pic.twitter.com/TbglThLcvO
— See Red Brasil (@SeeRed_Br) March 18, 2018
His willingness to spread the wealth translates to the half court game as well, where his ability to penetrate and collapse a defense creates seams and exploitable passing lanes. Cam will never be the best athlete on the court, but the lefty is crafty and decisive in his movements. Confidence is essential in a floor general, and Payne finally is showing it in spades:
Cam Payne with the no-look assist! 💪 pic.twitter.com/UPz63oTIGg
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) March 24, 2018
The numbers back up the eye test with Cam, too. His assist percentage, which estimates the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he was on the floor, clocked in at an outstanding 29.9 percent, good for 25th in the entire league among players who logged at least 300 minutes. His high mark placed him ahead of noted and accomplished distributors such as Lonzo Ball, Ricky Rubio, and Goran Dragic.
But while Payne is eager to create for others, he has all the tools to be an impactful scorer. His growing confidence is no better demonstrated than in his 3-point shot, which he knocked down at an above-average 38 percent clip this season. Watch him rise up from distance to tie the game late against the Cavaliers:
Cam Payne Ties It Up pic.twitter.com/rrRdD9YzAg
— Gustavo Vega (@iamvega1982) March 18, 2018
But Payne is at his best when he’s attacking the defense and breaking down opponents. Slow-footed Kanter has no chance here out on an island against Payne, who wisely uses his ball fake once in the paint to ward off the second wave of defenders.
Cam Payne brings out the fancy feet early against the Knicks: pic.twitter.com/1Gx1cShKNQ
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) March 19, 2018
With a well-above average wingspan at 6’7″, Payne is no slouch on defense, either. He competes with bigger and stronger players, and his active hands make him a pest for any ball-handler:
Cam Payne Steal And Layup pic.twitter.com/iouQocrSaD
— Gustavo Vega (@iamvega1982) March 14, 2018
To grow as a point guard and floor general, Payne must continue to hone his decision making and avoid trying to make the home run play at all times. While Payne’s pace is an asset, too often he’d turn the ball over trying to force a long-distance pass:
— Gustavo Vega (@iamvega1982) March 10, 2018
But in the grand scheme of this season, Payne proved his worth to an organization in serious need of a point guard to take control and lead the second team. He made a clear impression on Bulls’ management, too. During his end-of-season press conference on April 12th, Paxson reiterated his faith in Payne as a rotation piece moving forward.
After a long and winding process, Payne finally seems to have established himself as a strong contributor. From Tank Commander to 2nd Unit Commander, he’s finally found his groove.
Hit it, Cam.
Feature Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune