For the most part, Elfrid Payton’s NBA career is coming along just great. As an intelligent, defense-first point guard, Payton was given huge responsibilities in his 2014-15 rookie season, appearing in every Orlando Magic game and averaging over 30 minutes per contest. With 533 assists and 203 turnovers over last season, Payton had a stellar assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6. To be a rookie with that much playing time, taking care of the ball so well is a pretty rare thing: the last four rookies with the same statistical profile are Trey Burke, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Rose, and Chris Paul.
Still, consistent watchers of the Magic will not be surprised to learn that Payton is perilously close to the very worst in the league at one specific but important statistical category: points per possession as a the ballhandler on the pick and roll.
According to stats from NBA.com, Payton has had 55 such plays this season and has managed just 0.40 points per possession on those plays. Of the 102 NBA players who had at least 20 such plays (going into Thursday night’s games), that scoring rate ranks 100th, ahead of only the aging Steve Blake and the struggling-to-adjust Ty Lawson. How inefficient is that? On these plays, Payton has turned the ball over more times (12 times — or 21.8% of the possessions) than he has shots made (11).
Let’s look at one of Payton’s worst games of the year to see what went awry, and then we’ll look at one of his better efforts so that we can see what it could look like when he improves this skill.
November 11 v. Los Angeles Lakers / 1-for-13 / Watch the shots here
It feels to me like Payton’s primary mistake as he drives and attacks the rim is shying away from contact. It’s entirely possible that Payton has been intentionally working on a Tony Parker-esque floater with Orlando coaches. Really, though, the end effect is that Payton will settle for a low-percentage look from the middle of the key instead of going strong all the way to the rim.
For instance, in this second-quarter shot against the Lakers, Payton has at least an extra half-step on his man, D’Angelo Russell, but elects to leave his feet from well outside the restricted arc:
It seems like the best play in this situation would be a kick out to Channing Frye in the left (far) corner, away from the collapsing Lakers’ defense. Since Payton did compensate for his poor shooting night with eight assists to just one turnover, we’ll forgive him for missing this one.
Even though the Lakers are not a strong defensive team, it felt like Payton was intimidated by the shot-blocking presence of Roy Hibbert, who rejected the guard’s first attempt of the night. A whole half later, and it looks like Payton is still intimidated by Hibbert’s presence. In this third quarter play, Payton leaves his feet darn near close to the free throw line, and Hibbert actually turns to crash the boards upon release:
While avoiding getting hit or shoved is a positive thing in just about every other human endeavor, the reality is that the Magic rank near the last in the league in free throws per shot attempt.
November 7 v. Philadelphia 76ers / 8-for-10 / Watch the shots here
Even though Payton’s box score line looked incredible in this game, it’s also hard to say that it was a sustainable type of performance: the floaters happened to be sinking that night, for lack of more incisive analysis. Still, Payton collected at least a couple of well-earned buckets by going all the way to the rim when the opportunity presented itself.
On this second-quarter drive, Payton successfully eludes his man (T.J. McConnell) and uses a tremendous box-out from teammate Aaron Gordon to go all the way to the basket:
Even if Payton was cowed by playing against Hibbert, Payton is at least incredibly aware of the situational personnel. In the closing moments of the tight game (Orlando would win — of course, as Philadelphia has yet to register their first victory), Payton once again gets by McConnell and directly challenges rookie big man Jahlil Okafor. Okafor does not provide help in time, and Payton probes through the paint until he is dropping the ball in the basket:
While these shot-creating struggles are realer than ever in Payton’s second season, I don’t think this is a reason to be concerned about Payton’s overall development or efficiency as a player. After all, if creating successful shots was easy, every NBA player would be doing it.