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Phoenix Suns 2021-22 player previews: Elfrid Payton returns to a very different Suns team with a very different role

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
October 8, 2021

It’s been four years since Elfrid Payton last suited up for the Phoenix Suns. In the time that’s passed, a lot has changed — both for Payton and for the organization.

“Way different,” Payton said of the Suns at Media Day. “A lot more attention to detail. I don’t know if y’all seen the facility, just the amount of money, time, effort that they put into it, players don’t have a choice but to perform at a high level when they gettin’ that kind of support from the front office.”

Back in 2017-18, Payton joined the Suns for a 19-game stint after the Orlando Magic dumped him for a mere second-round pick. It was an end-of-season flier on a former 10th overall pick, and though he notched two triple-doubles and started every single game in that span, Phoenix lost 18 of the 19 games he played.

That’s just who Payton and the Suns were at that point.

Now, things have changed for both parties. The Suns are coming off a 51-win season and an NBA Finals run, while Payton himself finally got a taste of playoff basketball with the New York Knicks.

“I always thought of myself as a winner despite not being able to make the playoffs my first couple of years,” Payton said of that learning experience. “But actually finally being able to get over the hump, seeing the little attention to details that was needed to close a lot of close games out, not have any slip-ups, losing to teams that you shouldn’t lose to. So just really learning how to how to win at this level.”


Unfortunately for the 27-year-old, the start of the playoffs marked the end of his playing time. Despite starting in all 63 of his appearances for the Knicks last year, he only played in two postseason games, tallying a mere 13 minutes. In his limited action, Payton shot 7-for-25 from the floor and New York posted a -29.8 Net Rating.

Payton called the demotion “frustrating” but offered up some insight on a mindset that’s going to be critical for him now in the Valley.

“I felt like I helped a lot to get there and then I felt like I really could’ve helped,” he told PHNX. “But that was a coaching decision and I’ll roll with my team, whatever it is, however it goes down.”

Joining a Suns squad that already has Chris Paul in the starting role and Cameron Payne coming off the bench, Payton’s opportunities figure to be limited.

Last year, his numbers dipped to 10.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. He only played 23.6 minutes a night, despite being the starter in name. He shot just 28.6 percent from 3, his 47.8 true-shooting percentage was abysmal, and the Knicks were a whopping 8.9 points per 100 possessions worse when he was on the floor. None of that suggests a player ready to usurp either Suns guard in the rotation.


Even so, general manager James Jones is high on what Elfrid Payton can provide in terms of depth. Jones’ “3×5 index card” approach to roster-building (being three-deep at all five positions) has a place for the eighth-year veteran, especially now that he’ll be in a more appropriate third-string role.

“He’s really good player,” Jones said. “A great ball-handler, a floor general, a veteran. He started on a very good New York team. Underrated defender, he has tremendous size. More than anything, he loves to play the game of basketball and he competes. I don’t think you can ever have too many Elfrid Paytons on your team — guys that have played their entire lives and are just gym guys.”

In fact, Chris Paul played a part in the recruiting process that ultimately saw Payton sign a one-year, veteran minimum contract worth $2.2 million with the Suns. The two have had a friendship dating back years, and a conversation about his free-agency options opened the door to Phoenix.

“EP is like my family,” Paul said. “I done known Elfrid since before he came into the league, so for him, it was more so about finding the best situation for him. If that meant here, cool. But I’m excited about him being on the team, ’cause he’s so competitive. And I think that’s why me and him have been close for so long, ’cause no matter what the game is, he’s always gonna compete.”

For his part, Payton is saying all the right things about embracing a lesser role on a winning team. He expressed his excitement about playing with CP3 and for head coach Monty Williams, someone he called a great coach but a “great man too.”

Payton is well aware the times have changed since his last stint in Phoenix, and to that end, he’s ready to contribute with whatever opportunities he’s given.

“I just think it’s the same thing that I always try to do — come in and try and add value to where I’m at. Try and help as many people as possible. To what extent is that? I don’t really know. But I’m always trying to add value, always trying to help, always trying to leave a place better than I found it.”

How he’s able to do so remains to be seen. Paul is 36 years old, and maintaining his health for another deep playoff run will be crucial for a Suns team that already spent all of last season building the chemistry of its starting five. The Point God may resist the idea, but having Payne and Payton behind him gives Phoenix more leeway to cut down on his minutes or possibly even rest him here and there.

At 6-foot-3, Payton has the size to bother opponents on the defensive end and get to the rim on the other end. He wasn’t very effective there last year, shooting just 50 percent around the basket (league-average is 58 percent), but playing with rim-running bigs like Deandre Ayton and JaVale McGee should help everyone involved.

“He’s gonna come in here and be tremendously effective for us, because as you know, the way we play, we need ball-handlers who run high pick-and-roll with Deandre and JaVale,” Jones said. “You can’t have too many high-level pick-and-roll players in this game.”

“Just them rolling, not even necessarily having to throw the lob, but the pressure it puts on the backside of the defense, they’ve gotta make a decision whether they’re gonna tag it or not,” Payton added. “I think it’s gonna open up a lot of stuff.”

The Suns had better hope so, for Payton’s sake, since he’s a career 28.9 shooter from long range. Even his 3-point attempts were predictable last year, with 63 of his 87 attempts coming from the right side of the floor. He didn’t shoot well from the corners either, so when Payton is in, the ball will need to be in his hands, with a heavy dose of pick-and-roll, flanked by shooters.

Even so, Payton said he doesn’t feel any pressure to perform; just to add value and help push his younger teammates to the next level. He prioritized winning in his free-agency process and believes he’s found the right spot. His commitment to accepting a lesser role and making the most of limited opportunities will determine what kind of impact Elfrid Payton can have compared to the last time he donned the purple and orange.

“I think just my overall leadership, think when I came here last time, I wasn’t as vocal,” Payton said. “I was more of a ‘lead by example’ type person. I think just getting out there and saying what I know is right.”

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