There is no ceiling for Cameron Payne. I’m not the first person to say this. The Thunder came out of the 2015 NBA Draft with what could potentially be a vital piece of a championship-caliber core. Payne’s strengths and weaknesses have been dissected and put back together many times over, but undeniable is the fact that – especially according to Payne – the Thunder have added a player who has the potential to contribute very quickly to the second unit and potentially in situational lineups with the stars. Basically, Cameron Payne can be everything Reggie Jackson should have grown into, and everything Jeremy Lamb never did. That much is clear. Let us rejoice.
What will be a major storyline throughout the regular season, however, is not only how quickly coach Billy Donovan is willing to let Payne live up to his own billing, but in which lineups. The Thunder roster is fairly stacked from top to bottom, with logjams for minutes at virtually every position. Payne will have to develop quickly to become a key part of the rotation. The good news? Donovan’s final season at Florida demonstrated a willingness to explore different guard combinations. On a team with Russell Westbrook and a top tier backup in D.J. Augustin, Payne’s ability to share ball handling and playmaking duties with other point guards on the floor will be essential to his early development.
Gator fans with even the shortest memories will be quick to point out the success Donovan squeezed out of a dual-point guard starting lineup for stretches of the 2014-15 season. During a disappointing campaign that began with a #7 preseason ranking but ended with a record of only 16-17, the Gators were 6-3 when point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza were both in the starting lineup – with two of those losses coming against Kentucky. The numbers were far from eye popping; Hill and Chiozzo combined to average a shade under 12 points and 7 assists while turning the ball over close to 4 times in these contests, but Donovan’s willingness to embrace the mismatches created by a dual point guard lineup is worth noting.
This is not to say that we will be seeing a Payne/Westbrook combo playing 30 minutes in Game 1 or Game 71, or even Game 1 of 2016-17. But on the right night, after the wrong 21-foot step-back fade away by the wrong 6th man, Donovan just may be enticed to give Payne some run with D.J. Augustin and the rest of the second unit. A second team curveball of Augustin/Payne/Singler/McGary/Kanter would be a nightmare for any team to defend. Donovan will also have the option to close out certain quarters with something like Payne/Westbrook/Huestis/Collison/Kanter, a lineup with an embarrassment of offensive riches plus a slightly larger commitment to defense (save for, of course, Kanter).
Much of this, obviously, still ultimately comes down to how quickly Donovan trusts Payne, and to what extent. Payne may get quality minutes early, but they might only come in one of the aforementioned dual-point guard lineups. Running the show as the lone ball handler during key stretches with the second team will be a huge benchmark for Payne. It might take a while, but when it happens we will know he has gained Donovan’s trust. It’s worth noting that two Gator freshman got key minutes last year: the aforementioned Chiozza and forward Devin Robinson, who produced 6.4 points and 2.8 rebounds in 19 minutes per outing. Giving minutes to freshmen was nothing new for Donovan. In 2013- 14, Hill was given 22 minutes per game at point guard, and in 2012-13 Michael Frazier II got 18 minutes a night. While there are obvious differences in the challenges faced by talented recruits coming into the SEC and a mid-major point guard joining an NBA contender, Donovan is clearly willing to trust young players who earn it.
Luckily, Donovan can afford to be patient with Cameron Payne. Even when Payne sees the floor, he’ll rarely have to carry much of the scoring burden at all. Thunder fans shouldn’t let the sour memory of this past season cloud the idea that, come opening night, KD will be there to put up an effortless 40 points, Westbrook will be there to be Westbrook, and the superstar duo will get to play for the first time with Enes Kanter – already the best low-post scoring option in Thunder history. And even if all of those guys get stuck in traffic or miss the team flight, they’ll still have Dion Waiters to handle the shooting. If Cameron Payne learns one thing, it will be that Dion Waiters is always open. And he’s always feeling it.