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Cam Payne Was Out Of The League. Now He’s Out Of This World.

In a Western Conference finals featuring huge performances from unheralded players, arguably no role player has had a greater impact on this series than backup point guard Cam Payne. And the path he’s taken to get here has made his playoff performance all the more remarkable.

Just a few years ago, Payne had washed out of the NBA. After being drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015, Payne bounced to Chicago, Cleveland and Toronto. When the Chicago Bulls traded him, an anonymous source told a Bulls writer that “we knew the second practice [after he was acquired] that he couldn’t play at [an NBA] level.’’ After not making it past the preseason in Toronto, Payne spent time in China and the G League. He would have walked a road well traveled had he never returned to the NBA.

But the Phoenix Suns took a chance in signing him before heading to Orlando when play resumed last summer. Payne’s games in the bubble were his first in the NBA since January 2019, and he looked like a new player, shooting 51.7 percent from deep after never before cracking 40 percent in a season. The Suns, of course, went 8-0, though they failed to qualify for the playoffs. Not all was lost; Phoenix had discovered Payne, who hasn’t left the rotation since.

With usual starter Chris Paul in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols to start the series against the Los Angeles Clippers, Payne had his opportunity in the spotlight. He exceeded the moment. The Suns won both games without Paul, with Payne primarily filling the void in Game 2: He put together 29 points and nine assists with zero turnovers, hitting difficult catch-and-shoot threes and free-throw-line floaters. It was the most Payne has ever scored in the regular season or playoffs.

But Payne has exceeded the moment consistently with Phoenix. He has elevated his offensive game, going from out of the league to out of this world. 

Cam Payne has found success with Phoenix

Team points per chance with Cam Payne as the ballhandler, by play type and period of his career

Time frame Pick & roll Isolation Drive
Before 2019-20 0.89 0.85 0.86
Orlando bubble 1.21 1.33 1.03
2020-21 regular season 1.06 1.13 1.07
In the Clippers series 1.09 0.90 1.00

Through June 28, 2021.

Source: Second Spectrum

Payne has reinvented himself as a point guard fit for the modern era. He thrives in the pick and roll and in isolation, and he’s more than comfortable creating for himself with pull-ups behind the arc or floaters inside of it. He can initiate or drive to attack rotations when teammates — such as scoring phenom Devin Booker — compromise the defense. Per Second Spectrum, the Suns scored more efficiently with Payne attacking a closeout than any other player during the regular season.1 He’s thrived in diverse ways on offense since arriving in Phoenix, but none of those skills were developed during the first half of his career. 

Payne’s transformation has paid dividends on Phoenix’s bottom line. In the regular season, Payne had the second-largest offensive impact on the Suns by on/off points per 100 possessions, behind only Booker, and he’s offered the largest in the playoffs. They’ve been at their best with him on the court — even without Paul.

There’s been no drop-off when Payne replaces Paul

Phoenix Suns splits for the 2020-21 season with Cam Payne and Chris Paul on or off the court

Regular season Playoffs
Minutes Net Rating Minutes Net Rating
Payne and Paul on 84 16.02 67 10.91
Payne on, Paul off 995 7.45 242 6.59
Payne off, Paul on 2115 6.28 358 5.98
Payne and Paul off 302 -6.32 54 -5.28

Through June 28.

Source: PBP Stats

With Paul once again available against the Clippers, Payne has moved back to the bench. Though he injured his left ankle in the first quarter of Game 3, he returned to lead the Suns in minutes off the bench in Game 4. As has been the case in most of Phoenix’s playoff games, the Suns outscored their opponents in the minutes that Payne played. That steadiness has been a foundation of the team’s success; Payne is fourth among playoff bench players in raw plus/minus. When he’s on the floor, the Suns have been mauling opponents, which is all the more impressive considering the player he sends to the bench is usually either Paul or Booker. 

Payne’s ability to shepherd Phoenix when substituting for an All Star is likely why FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric — which uses play-by-play, box-score and tracking data to measure player contributions — ranks Payne as the most effective Sun over the playoffs and regular season on a per-possession basis. There have been super subs in the past who lift their teams upon entering the game,2 but rarely are such players behind All-Stars on the depth chart. Payne actually holds his own as an initiator when compared with Paul and Booker; the Suns scored more efficiently in the regular season with Payne isolating than either All-Star, per Second Spectrum. Similarly, they scored more efficiently with Payne handling in the pick and roll than Point God Paul

Payne’s success is all the more surprising considering the first act of his career. Former players don’t usually return to the league after the phone stops ringing. But Payne learned to shoot. He shot 33.1 percent from deep in the NBA before going overseas. He shot 28.6 percent from three in two games with the Shanxi Loongs. He reached 36.5 percent in his final G League season, which was still a far cry from the heights to which he’s soared in Phoenix. Payne shot 44.0 percent from three in the regular season, which was the 10th-highest mark in the league.3 Before evolving into his present form, he was a non-shooter who didn’t offer enough elsewhere to make up for it. His teams were consistently worse with him on the floor during his years in Oklahoma City and Chicago. 

Payne has regressed from the 3-point line against the Clippers, currently hitting only 29.4 percent of his triples. Yet he remains one of the Suns’ more valuable players. That’s an indication of how much his game has grown. He consistently boosts his team when he steps on the court midway through each first quarter. Though Payne didn’t have a noteworthy individual game in the Suns’ Game 5 loss, Phoenix still won his minutes by 4 points, and he was one of only two players on the roster to have finished in the black. This super sub is more than capable now of playing “at an NBA level.” 

It’s tempting to praise Paul alone for the Suns’ turnaround this season, and his contributions can’t be overstated. But Payne also joined the Suns precisely at their turning point, and they’re now one win away from the Finals and a shot at the franchise’s first championship. Payne’s early career turbulence stands in stark opposition to the solidity he now offers his team during the resurgence of his career. 

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Footnotes

  1. Among those with 200 or more attempts.

  2. Manu Ginóbili is perhaps the most famous example, but recent bench players like Alex Caruso on the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers have also led their teams’ rotation players in net rating.

  3. Among those with 2.5 attempts per game or more.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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