How Suns’ Cameron Payne Saved his Season with Paul and Booker Out

Phoenix Suns, Cameron Payne (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns, Cameron Payne (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Returning last Wednesday, Cameron Payne immediately injected both energy and joy into the Phoenix Suns rotation—which had dealt with a variety of relevant absences since coming out of the All-Star break.

Having at least one of the team’s primary ball handlers available is apparently a lot for the Suns to ask for right now, as Phoenix also learned last Wednesday that Devin Booker would taken off the floor and placed into league health and safety protocols.

That made re-gaining the services of “Haboob” about as well-timed as one could imagine.

At the same time though, the combined unavailability of Paul and Booker certainly ramped up Payne’s reintegration process. However, he’s been up to task—actually enjoying some of his best play this season.

Prior to his 15-game absence following a right wrist sprain, Payne saw a high variance in his impact. He averaged 10.5 points, 3.6 assists, and 2.8 rebounds per game across his 40 contest played before the break.

While those numbers might look solid, Payne was shooting just 40.4 percent from the field and 33.6 percent from deep during that stretch—both being marks far below the league average. In all, it was rather clear that he was not quite clicking for a sustained period of time, which came as a surprise following his decent playoff showing last season.

He is no Chris Paul, and honestly, no other point guard in NBA history is, but Payne’s contrast in pace and rim pressure remains an important cog in Phoenix’s system. Seemingly recognizing that though, he’s turned it around, with all his numbers now on the rise. Since returning, Payne finds himself averaging 15.8 points, 11.0 assists, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game.

Payne’s “juice” effectiveness resurfacing has been a revelation for this Suns team. He looks almost been reborn in a sense. His efficiency keeps ascending with each passing game, and along with that, his volume in shots has followed.

Then as a playmaker, the most important and impressive role that he fills, Payne’s compiled 44 assists and just 10 turnovers, making for an efficient 4.4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. That includes a career-high 16 assists on Friday in a comeback win vs the New York Knicks.

Payne also has an astronomical assist percentage at 49.2 percent in this window. For reference, players in “heliocentric” systems like Trae Young and Luka Doncic are consistently above 42.0 percent for that same stat, as their passes give way to such a high amount of their team’s made field goals.

That makes this number that much more impressive for Payne, as the Suns run an offense where they share the ball collectively, rather than focusing on just him guy to create everything. He’s even surpassing Paul in that regard, who’s assist percentage sits at 42.9 percent.

Everything just keeps to coming together for him over this stretch. Payne continues to wear the “floor general” hat within set plays, in transition, and off-script as he generates valued rim pressure via his touches in the paint. From there, his impact grows to its highest level, as he navigates smoothly around defenses.

In recognizing his effectiveness, the Suns have even tinkered with their offense in subtle ways to better-equip Payne. Little things like setting their screens higher and allowing him to attack downhill more often represent the clearest examples of this.

To be fair, this all stems from a small sample size, but it represents a sign of Payne’s play finally turning the corner after an elongated stretch of lackluster play. It too appears to be coming at the aptest of times with players out and the finish line nearing.

The now eight-game lead amassed by Phoenix, which is a larger cushion than what the two-seeded Grizzlies currently have between themselves and the play-in tournament, gives the Suns room to be diligent in making sure all their pieces are clicking ahead the big dance.

Will Paul's Injury Mess with Monty's COTY Odds?. dark. Next

The Suns need Payne to sustain this level of play as they grow back whole and prepare for the postseason. His contributions behind Paul will once again play a huge part in whether they can return to the NBA Finals—and bring “Larry” to The Valley. But rest assured, from what we’ve seen, he looks on track to do just that.