Phoenix Suns find playoff hopes boosted by an under-the-radar guard from the Devin Booker draft class
Most Suns fans know Devin Booker was the steal of the 2015 draft and perhaps the best player from that draft class (the top five: Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis and Mario Hezonja).
The Suns connections run deeper than just Booker, though.
Surrounding Booker was Frank Kaminsky at No. 9 and former Suns fan-favorite Kelly Oubre Jr. at No. 15. But it was the guy at No. 14, Cameron Payne, who is proving to be a big-time bargain for the Suns.
Payne, selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder, never really found his footing — or many minutes behind Russell Westbrook — during his rookie year and, in his second season, was traded to Chicago.
During his three seasons with the Bulls, Payne played only 18.8 minutes per game, contributing 6.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
He was waived in January 2019 and signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a pair of 10-day contracts. That opportunity was short-lived because the Cavs were planning to add players at the trade deadline.
Payne was finding his game and gaining confidence — but running out of opportunities.
“I feel really good about how I played here,” Payne told cleveland.com at the time. “It’s understandable that they want the roster spot.”
The nomad life continued as Payne signed with the Chinese Basketball Association, playing only briefly before joining the Texas Legends in the G-League. While with Texas for 15 games, Payne showed continuing flashes, putting up 23.2 points, 8.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game.
The Suns proved to be visionaries when they signed Payne in late June last year, and have seen Payne provide starter-quality minutes since he began his Suns career with the Orlando bubble games.
Payne has cultivated a loyal social media following in his short time in Arizona, and frequently takes advantage of his access with opinion and by asking for culinary advice from his nearly 23,000 Twitter followers.
In 17 games over two seasons with Phoenix, Payne, now 26, is converting 49.2 percent of his field-goal tries and has hit 24 of his 50 attempts from 3-point range. An improving floor leader, the 6-3, 190-pound Murray State product has recorded 63 assists to only 24 turnovers with the Suns.
A major benefit has been his defense, too.
According to Basketball Reference, Payne would be in or near the top 10 in Defensive Box Plus/Minus were he qualified. And he knows the impact his defense has on the team’s trajectory.
“Everything all comes back to stops,” Payne said after a Jan. 6 win over Toronto. “Us just getting stops on the defensive end.”
Before the Suns’ games vs. Atlanta on Wednesday and Golden State on Friday were postponed, Payne was dealing with a right-ankle sprain and was unlikely to play against the Hawks. The rest days offer a little more time to heal, and that has to be good news for Phoenix.
That production is a welcome sight for veteran starter Chris Paul, whose presence has helped raise expectations for this team — Phoenix last tasted the NBA playoffs in 2010 and the Paul-Payne combo is helping the dream of returning to the postseason become more of a reality.