Many of you devoted readers have probably never heard of Cameron Payne, and now is the time to start knowing who he is.
For the past few years, a common trend of the NBA Draft has been players from mid-major programs being selected in the first round and then doing incredibly well at the next level. In 2010, it was former Butler Bulldog Gordon Hayward, who went ninth overall to the Utah Jazz. In 2011, it was NCAA all-time leading rebounder and Morehead State alum Kenneth Faried, who was picked by the Denver Nuggets at No. 22. In 2012, Weber State point guard Damian Lillard was drafted sixth by the Portland Trail Blazers. The list goes on.
Today, each of those players is an incredibly valuable member of their respective team, so the question presents itself. Who will it be this year? The answer is Payne, who was an excellent scoring point guard for the Murray State racers last season.
Let’s talk about Murray State for a second. The basketball team plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, home to schools such as Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky, among others, and Murray State went 29-6 (16-0 OVC) before just barely missing on a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Losing to Belmont in the conference title game robbed them of that.
A big reason the team did lose was because Belmont was able to contain Payne, who finished with 20 points and 10 assists but shot just 7 of 22 from the field. The silver lining in the performance is that he showed his ability to get his teammates involved, as fellow Racer T.J. Sapp led the team with 28 points despite posting just 12.4 points per game during the regular season.
And that is why Payne is on the verge of being a lottery pick this year, with Draft Day taking place on June 27th. In the latest mock on NBADraft.net, that puts him ahead of bigger names like Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, and Duke’s Tyus Jones. To be placed ahead of the reigning National College Player of the Year, a recent NCAA champion and one of the strongest players in this year’s draft class, Payne is clearly something special.
His overall numbers this past season were very impressive. Payne led Murray State with 20.3 points and six assists per game, his left-handed shot continually throwing off opposing players. He shot 45.6 percent from the field and 38 percent from long range, and also proved to be a pesky defender to the tune of 1.9 steals per contest. At 6’2″, 180 pounds, he has all the makings of becoming a fine scoring and slashing point man, a la Lillard.
And yet, he is only projected as a late lottery pick. NBADraft.net sets his pro comparison as that of a combination of Indiana Pacers point man George Hill and Dallas Mavericks guard Devin Harris. The Harris comparison seems a bit unfair, as he was a scoring point guard out of Wisconsin who had a few good years in the NBA before just seeming to lose his touch overnight, but the Hill comparison is an interesting one.
Like Payne, Hill was a first-round pick out of a mid-major program, having been selected 26th overall out of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (of the Summit League) by the San Antonio Spurs in 2008. Since then, though he has played well, he has gained a reputation as a point guard who can score, but is primarily a three-point threat who is injury prone.
Now, let’s analyze Payne’s college numbers a little more deeply. Though his numbers from his sophomore year are indeed impressive, he did tend to get a little trigger happy with his three-point shot and jumper in general. Of his 15.3 field goal attempts per game in 2015, 6.4 came from beyond the arc. If he’s going to succeed in the NBA, he needs to learn how to create more separation and not rely simply on shooting the lights out.
But despite any flaws with his game, Payne still has a good head on his shoulders and doesn’t let the prospect of tougher competition intimidate him. In a game against Xavier on November 24, which Murray State lost 89-62, he had 23 points, four assists, two steals and even seven rebounds while shooting 9 of 18 from the floor. Bluntly speaking, this kid never gives up and doesn’t take a single possession off.
And Payne is going to have to go above and beyond to prove that in both the days leading up to and after the draft, as players like Lillard, Faried, Heyward and even former Davidson Wildcat and reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry continue to set the bar high for prospects out of little-known colleges. He’ll need to add some weight to his 6’2″, 180 pound frame to show that he can keep up with the physicality of the NBA, but this young man doesn’t know the meaning of not playing hard and has all the tools to succeed in the pros.
At that point, teams that chose to pass on him will wonder what on earth they were thinking.
*Featured Photo (above) credit to USA TODAY Sports