Nov 20, 2016; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Cameron Payne (22) on the court prior to game against the Indiana Pacers at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Underdog. (noun) – a competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest.
Everyone loves an underdog, am I right? You would probably call me crazy if I told you a lottery pick in the NBA was the one being considered a dark horse, but Cameron Payne is the true story of an underdog.
Coming out of high school, Payne was massively undersized. He started his freshman year at a mere 5-foot-5. He ended up growing into a flashy 6-foot point guard who led his school, Lausanne Collegiate School, to a state championship. It just was’t enough. Payne struggled to gauge interest from high profile colleges as he couldn’t jump in to the top 10 player rankings in Tennessee.
“I played on a pretty good AAU team,” Payne said. “I played with Nick King (now at Alabama) and Johnathan Williams. I came off the bench, so I really didn’t get that much exposure like they did.”
Payne was dubbed a three-star recruit by Rivals and ESPN. He wasn’t in the top 100. He wasn’t a candidate for the McDonald’s all-american game. Payne ended up choosing Murray State over several other low-profile colleges including Ohio and College of Charleston.
Cameron Payne stepped onto the campus of Murray State and began his career as a third string point guard. Former Murray State head coach Steve Prohm was in need of someone at that position to step up, as they had just lost arguably the schools best player in their history as a program in Isaiah Canaan. Payne had big shoes to fill, if he would ever get the chance to fill them.
“It’s not even close,” Prohm said. “Payne’s got the best IQ of any kid I’ve coached.”
After injuries, and solid play from the freshman point guard, Payne worked his way into the starting lineup where he continued to impress. He finished the year averaging nearly 17 points to go along with five assists and two steals per game. The next year, Payne was even more impressive as he managed 20.2 points , 6.0 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. Yet, even after these great years and fantastic numbers, Payne still has naysayers.
“Payne is just not a great finisher inside the paint. On defense Payne is a mixed bag. He is often caught standing straight up. He needs to get stronger, and much more physical if he wants to hold his own in the NBA.”
Those words are just a little part from one of Payne’s draft profiles. On top of the negatives, there were a lot of positives from teams viewing Payne. A lot of general managers viewed him as a knock down shooter, a great passer, and a polished all-around offensive game, with length on the defensive end.
Draft day came, and the Oklahoma City Thunder nabbed him with the 14th selection. Payne had to work his way up yet again after falling in and out of the rotation. Right when it felt like Payne was finding his groove, the Thunder acquired Randy Foye, who seemingly jumped him in the rotation.
When playoff time came around, Thunder head coach Billy Donovan had started trusting him with more minutes. In five April appearances, Payne averaged 18.1 minutes while totaling 7.4 points and 3.0 assists per game. After his up and down rookie year Cameron Payne new he still had a lot to learn.
“I’ve gotta get bigger, first off. I know I look 12 (years old) every game,” Payne said in his exit interview.
Payne is a guy who pays attention to details and spends time perfecting his craft, and fans should expect him to improve every year.
When summer league came around and the Thunder looked to Payne as their leader, he responded.
He led the league in points per game averaging nearly 19, to go along with 4.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists. Payne looked ready to make the jump and be a game in and game out contributor for the Thunder. Then, in the Blue-White scrimmage, Payne suffered a fracture in his foot. This came as a pretty devastating blow to him, as the fracture he had could be viewed as fairly tricky, and hard to pinpoint a return date.
Never the less, Payne worked hard and has managed to step back on the court. In his first game back, he only got to play 12 minutes, but he sure did make the most of those minutes. Payne put up 12 points, two rebounds and one assist. He muffed a pass from Enes Kanter on his first play on the court, and you could tell that he was a bit nervous. After he got in his rhythm, all the nerves were settled.
“It went away after I hit my first shot,” Payne said. “But I was cool all the way up to the four-minute mark. Then, it was like, I’m about to go in the game. But once I got out there, everything went away.”
Payne’s return can potentially help the Thunder in a variety of different ways. Floor spacing being at the top of the list, as he can really stroke it from deep. He proved that in his first game back, shooting 2-of-3 from downtown. He can also create match up issues for opposing teams. Billy Donovan can use him in so many different ways, including maybe a two guard look of him and Russell Westbrook on the court together. This creates mismatches for opposing guards who maybe aren’t as quick.
His return also boosts an already improving second unit who has been on fire as of late. Payne works well in the pick and roll, which should open up more looks for Kanter and Joffrey Lauvergne.
The second unit can finally run an offense. Payne has the ability to not only make teams step out and cover him, but he can also dish it out and find other people. Payne has great court vision and quickness which should greatly improve the second unit’s sometimes stagnant offense.
We can only hope that Cameron Payne’s return brings more wins, and better offense. He is no stranger to having to battle back, and regain his way. He’s had to prove people wrong his whole life, and now he has to prove that he can help the Thunder, and come back even stronger from his injury.
Russ has his dance partner back.