Cameron Payne brings the ball down the court, stops at the top of the key and lets the play he called develop. A steady number of dribbles in his left as he awaits the arrival of an Enes Kanter pick. Once Kanter is set, he takes a quicker dribble with his left hand before crossing over across his body and exploding to his right around the screen.
JaVale McGee lags back in the paint defensively, but Payne continues around McGee effortlessly with the ball in his right hand. The lane is open – Kevin Durant is positioned on the wing and Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters are awaiting the ball on the weakside. McGee is in no man's land, not wanting to fully commit to Payne and get beat to the rim, forcing Payne to make a move before he commits.
In rhythm, Payne suddenly halts himself and fakes towards the rim. McGee is quickly off the ground thinking he has drawn the rookie into an ill-advised shot. Yet, Payne merely collects himself, pivots back to the middle of the lane – as McGee flies by – then jumps off two feet and extends his left arm in the air as the ball rainbows into the bottom of the net.
The Thunder are up big against the Dallas Mavericks as time dwindles in the fourth quarter, but for Payne these moments are glimpses into what looks to be a bright future.
Payne's suit was a dead giveaway. A double-breasted navy jacket, light beige slacks, off yellow plaid button down, navy loafers with no socks, and a deeper navy tie all screamed Oklahoma City Thunder.
There had been rumors floating early in the pre-draft process that Payne had received a promise from the Thunder that they would select him with the 14th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Looking back now to the suit he wore to the Barclay's Center on June 25th, the quiet confidence he exuded, the smile that danced across his face, and his mom with selfie stick in hand as his name was called, it's easy to make the assumption that a promise had been given to Payne by Thunder general manager Sam Presti.
With the Thunder back in the lottery for the first time since drafting Steven Adams 12th overall in 2013, Presti knew that he wouldn't get a shot at drafting this high again for awhile (yes, I know Durant/Westbrook free agency, yada, yada, yada).
Presti had quickly zeroed in on the guard out of Murray State. The former Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year was one of the best prospects at executing the pick-and-roll, and with the recent success of mid-major stars in the NBA (Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum), Payne not playing in a Power Five conference was not a hindrance for Presti.
Presti envisioned a guard that could eventually be groomed into the Thunder's latest version of James Harden and Reggie Jackson. Another ball handler capable of sharing the floor with Russell Westbrook while being a perimeter threat. However, it would take awhile before the casual fan would see Payne show that potential.
It's an early summer morning day in Orlando, Florida. The sun is out and shinning, the beaches are at capacity, Disney World is filled with the joyous screams of children, but Cam Payne is upset.
He sits next to Thunder assistant coach Mo Cheeks on the bench in the Orlando Magic's practice facility gym watching his teammates compete. With a splint on his right hand, Payne is being held out of Summer League.
He suffered a broken finger during one of his pre-draft workouts and has been sidelined ever since. With veteran players like Durant, Waiters and Anthony Morrow taking in the summer league action, Payne wants nothing more than to be out on the court showcasing his talent.
Despite not suiting up for any game, Payne learned a lot in summer league. Having Cheeks, a former NBA point guard himself, right next to him ready to give him suggestions, advice or answer any question Payne asked was invaluable for the rookie. Often times, taking a step away from the action is the best way to see faults and errors in oneself.
Those days in Orlando were crucial to Payne's development. With the splint now off Payne was ready to put it all together as training camp opened. He went toe-to-toe with Westbrook and D.J. Augustin and displayed his silky smooth floater, perimeter jumper and playmaking ability. Like any rookie he had good and bad days, but he was showing the Thunder what he was capable of.
However, as the year started, Payne was back on the bench as Billy Donovan elected to go with the steady hand of Augustin as Westbrook's backup to begin the season.
The fact that Payne was sent to the Oklahoma City Blue only twice – and then immediately recalled the following day – shows just how fast Payne's trajectory was taking off. On November 1st, he would get his first NBA experience; playing the last four minutes of what would be a 24-point victory, he dished out three assists. The patience from Payne's summer was starting to show off.
On December 27th against the Denver Nuggets, Payne scored a then-career high six points in 12 minutes of play. He immediately followed that up by pouring in 16 points (his career-high to date) in 16 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks, including a memorable three pointer to end the first quarter.
Payne had arrived. From January to the All-Star break, he replaced Augustin as the back-up point guard. He had also developed a nice chemistry and rapport with Durant on the court.
His emergence into the rotation breathed life into an otherwise mundane – in the sense that the team was playing to expectation – year for the Thunder. While the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs were winning at a never before seen pace, Payne was the shiny new toy under the Christmas tree.
As the All-Star festivities rolled around, it looked like Payne had played his way into a role on a championship contender, but then came Randy Foye. Payne's play had made Augustin redundant, and the Thunder shipped him and Steve Novak off to bring Foye into the fold.
Most assumed that Foye was an attempt by management to add another body to the carousel that is the Thunder shooting guard position. However, a switch to staggering the minutes of the team's two superstars turned things upside down once more for Payne.
As part of the staggered rotation, Durant has become the team's de facto backup point guard. Donovan has so far chosen to give Foye Payne's spot in the rotation, and the results have not been too pleasing. Durant has turned into a turnover machine (averaging 7.3 turnovers in the last three games) and Foye hasn't proven to be an upgrade over Payne (Foye 0.18 WS/48 compared to .145 WS/48 for Payne).
This season, Payne is caught between development and title aspirations.
The Thunder are one of the four best teams in the NBA and while Payne has shown he is talented the team can't wait for him if he's going to suffer through rookie mistakes or hit the fabled rookie wall. At the moment it seems like that wall has been built by Donovan himself and no amount of cool handshakes and dances can get him admittance back into the rotation.
When given the opportunity and minutes, Payne has shown that he is a quality reserve player. Every now and again he'll hit a smooth stepback jumper or thread a pass through the thick of the defense or catch fire from deep and you'll see the player that he can potentially be. Someone you can run your offense through and also be confident in his ability to set up his fellow teammates for easy looks.
The player he is now, though, is something that the Thunder needs to make sure it explores to the fullest extent before the playoffs begin. With just 19 games left, Billy Donovan and the team need to know what they can expect from Payne if he is given regular minutes in the postseason. Instilling the confidence in him now could be the difference between him having a breakout campaign a la Reggie Jackson against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2014 or completely disappearing like James Harden in the 2012 NBA Finals.
I firmly believe that the more reliable options OKC can have in the playoffs the better, which is why I am at the front line of the #FreeCamPayne movement.