New Suns guard Cameron Payne thankful for second NBA shot

After a year spent playing in China and the G League, the former lottery draft pick does not “want to see myself outside of this league again."

Monty Williams pulled Cameron Payne aside for a blunt conversation during his rookie season in Oklahoma City.

Williams, then the Thunder’s associate head coach, stressed the importance of arriving at the facility early; that small, controllable actions could help Payne stick in the NBA. Though Payne acknowledges he did not quite understand the purpose of the chat — “Why’s he telling me that? I’m always here on time,” he thought to himself — Williams believed Payne took the guidance well. 

A few weeks ago, Williams asked Payne if he remembered that exchange from the 2015-16 season. Payne responded with an emphatic “absolutely.” That the lesson stuck with Payne, combined with his receptiveness to hear it in the moment, confirmed Williams’ opinion of Payne the player and man. 

“That played into … my talks with James (Jones about signing him),” Williams said. “I saw a young man who’s really talented, comes from a really good family and he takes coaching well.” 

Payne now has a chance to shift a tumultuous early-career narrative, going from 2015 lottery draft pick to out of the NBA in early 2019. He has been reunited with Williams and Phoenix assistants Darko Rajakovic and Mark Bryant, who all worked with Payne in Oklahoma City. He is playing for a team that has searched all season for stability and production at backup point guard. 

For more than a year, all Payne has wanted is this second shot at the NBA. 

“I don’t want to see myself outside of this league again,” Payne said. “And the biggest way for me to do that is to be consistent, be on time and outwork the next guy. My whole thing is I want to leave on the court that I played my hardest. I gave my all. 

“I never want to take no shortcuts anymore, because it’s not worth it. It’s not worth being on the outside looking in when you feel like you should be in there.”

Payne’s brother, Tony, still bristles at how some outsiders have mocked Cam’s career. How some might know him best for his elaborate pregame dance routines with then-teammate Russell Westbrook. 

Payne’s career, though, has already featured its share of twists — and stumbles — over 154 career NBA games and multiple G League stints. 

He battled foot injuries that required multiple surgeries. He was traded from Oklahoma City to Chicago midway through his second season, then was waived by the Bulls in January of 2019. He latched on with Cleveland for two 10-day contracts, but did not receive a full rest-of-the-season deal once those expired. He averaged six points and 2.5 assists in 16 minutes per game over four seasons.

But when Toronto released Payne before the 2019-20 season began, he felt particularly shocked. 

“I was just kind of thrown off,” Payne said, “and was like, ‘Man, what’s going on?’” 

He surveyed his overseas options, choosing the Shanxi Loongs of the Chinese Basketball Association because it was a successful team that would pay him a solid salary, brother Tony said. Payne focused on “reinventing” his habits, from eating right to spending extra time in the gym to ensuring he stayed injury-free.  

“It gave him that drive,” Tony said. “Like, all this talk … it just made him want to shut everybody up, honestly.”  

But Payne did not get much opportunity to prove himself on the floor. 

CBA rules permit only two international players on each team’s roster. The Loongs’ included Jamaal Franklin, who tied for the league lead in assists (10.1 per game) and averaged 30.1 points per game. Tony Payne said there were times he thought Franklin might leave the team earlier, but that Shanxi “had to roll with him.” 

After waiting about two months, Payne played in two games for the Loongs. But as coronavirus began spreading across China, Payne decided to come back to the United States. He signed with the G League’s Texas Legends in late January. 

Legends assistant coach Eric Snow, a 13-year NBA veteran, was immediately impressed with how quickly Payne picked up the team’s system with minimal practice time. In his fourth game, Payne totaled 13 assists against Austin. Two games after that, he dropped 43 points on 17-of-24 shooting against Iowa. He averaged 23.2 points on 48.3 percent shooting, 8.1 assists, 4,8 rebounds and 2.3 assists over 15 games.  

Had the NBA season proceeded as scheduled, Snow said, “I would have been surprised … if he actually would have finished the season with us.” 

“I thought he was definitely gonna get a call-up,” Snow added. “ … You know the guys that are truly NBA players. You know them right away. … Just some of the plays that he made and some of the things he’s seen, you would know that he’s the guy that should be at the next level.”  

While the NBA season was on hiatus, Williams dove into recent film of Payne. He noticed Payne’s body had matured. Payne also had a burst with the ball in his hands, and a passing feel that could fit in Williams’ “0.5” offense predicated on quick decision-making. 

“He’s still in that age group in his journey where he’s still learning,” Williams said. “And he’s been humbled. Sometimes, you can grab guys like that and put them in a situation and they perform well.” 

While lounging in the pool a few weeks ago, Payne unexpectedly received a call from Williams. 

“I jumped out of that pool so fast,” Payne recently recalled with a smile. 

They spoke about their time together in Oklahoma City, and about how much Williams values consistency, maturity and practicing gratitude. The Suns offered Payne a two-year contract, which covers the Orlando restart and includes a $2 million team option for the 2020-21 season (per HoopsHype’s database). 

“It was almost like a weight lifted off my back,” Payne said, “because the only thing I wanted to do is be back in the NBA. …

“I don’t know what it is, but (Williams) always has the right things to say to me. And for whatever reason, it triggers me to just turn into a different mode. I appreciate that (phone call) from him.” 

Though Payne called his first few days in Orlando a “big learning curve,” new teammate Dario Saric said it feels like Payne has been with the Suns all season. Payne made extra trips to the gym at night to learn new plays. And the Disney World “bubble” environment, where the Suns are constantly around each other, has helped Payne learn personalities and tendencies on and off the court — an important intangible for a point guard.  

Payne impressed in the Suns’ first scrimmage against Utah, scoring 11 points on a combination of nifty moves to the basket and outside shooting. Even with Phoenix’s full complement of guards available, Payne was Ricky Rubio’s backup for Tuesday’s final scrimmage against Toronto and Friday’s first “seeding” game against Washington. 

His plus/minus against the Wizards was plus-21, second only to All-Star Devin Booker. He finished with nine points on 4-of-7 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, two steals and one turnover in 19 minutes of Phoenix’s 125-112 victory. 

“It’s not an easy job, because you know you can’t make too many mistakes,” Payne said of the backup point guard role. “It’s all about being consistent and knowing what the coach wants on the court. It’s a big-time role. 

“I know it’s a backup point guard. But as a backup point guard, you really gotta be a starter in a sense. … You have to be solid, and you have to be consistent every day.” 

Williams emphasized before the Suns departed for Orlando that nothing will be handed to Payne. But the coach knows he can be direct with his critiques, because he knows how Payne will respond. 

Now, Payne gets a second shot at the NBA, and at shifting the narrative of his career.

“I just want people to know he’s not a bust,” brother Tony said. “He’s not this meme that everybody tries to portray. Regardless of the positives, they always find negatives. 

“I just want people to give him a chance, and don’t judge him on the dancing and judge him on stuff from the past.”