Chris Paul, the future Hall-of-Fame point guard, pulls Cameron Payne aside during the first Phoenix Suns scrimmage of training camp.
“Hey! You have to help JaVale [McGee] more,” he shouts.
Hesitation is visible on Payne’s face for only a moment—and who can blame him? The “team leader” role has never been one for him to fill during his professional career, let alone for an organization like the Suns, fresh off an NBA Finals appearance.
It took a few beats for him to process CP3’s words, but Payne responded.
“Yeah, I do got to build that relationship with JaVale,” he said.
With this disconnection between him and McGee, it became clear that even though Phoenix’s roster looked relatively similar to last year’s, some significant changes still occurred over the last two months. Payne would need to adjust.
Before joining the Suns himself, Payne’s career was a far cry from where he is today. His NBA journey started in Oklahoma City, where he was better known for hyping up teammate Russell Westbrook with some dance moves, rather than playing on the court.
From an injury-riddled tenure on non-competitive Chicago Bulls team to a few “pitstop” contracts with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors, Payne eventually left the league to keep his basketball career alive outside the United States. Unfortunately, his time in the Chinese Basketball Association did little to improve his luck, as the Shanxi Loongs replaced him on the roster after just over two months there and with two games played.
When Chicago originally traded for Payne a few years back, an anonymous source within the organization told a Bulls writer, “We knew the second practice [after he was acquired] that he couldn’t play at [an NBA] level.”
With Payne’s chances to return on an NBA roster so bleak at this time, those words felt painfully true.
However, Payne ended up going to the NBA G-League with the Texas Legends during the 2019-20 season—still an unexpected career turn after his 14th overall selection in the 2015 NBA Draft. His success in the G-League, where at one point he earned NBA G-League Player of the Week honors, turned into a two season deal with the Suns, eventually allowing him to make his triumphant return in the NBA’s “Bubble” restart.
After that came his “breakout year” in the league this, where he played in a career high 60 games this past season. Payne also averaged 8.4 points, 3.6 assists, and shot 48.4 percent from the field, far and away his best marks across a full NBA season.
His contributions to a Suns team that took the Milwaukee Bucks six games during the 2021 NBA Finals pushed the Phoenix front office to re-sign him this summer, inking a 3-year, $19 million deal.
What a difference a year makes—from scrapping to get only a look from an NBA team, to receiving long-term financial commitment from one.
Fighting for his own opportunity is what Payne is best known for, so to think from more of a team-building standpoint is a new perspective for him. Payne told the media:
"“I would probably say last year I was kind of more focused on me trying to pick the plays up. Trying to do all the things I can to get on the court. And now it’s a little opposite where I’m kind of teaching a little bit cause I know the plays.”"
The Suns need Payne’s leadership and similar on-court production this year to continue having “shorter breaks” in the offseason, which Payne seems content with.
"“I was cool with the short break because we made it that far,” he said. “That’s what we’re playing for. Can’t complain about it. Happy for the opportunity. Just grateful that I was playing.”"
Although the return to a normal regular season and playoff format will make Phoenix’s offseason longer this time around even if they move further and win the NBA Finals, you can bet the Payne will be up for anything.