As expected, the Portland Trail Blazers brought Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic back to their roster in 2022 in free agency. But there’s no doubt that Gary Payton II was the franchise’s biggest free agent addition.
Despite the former Oregon State Beaver’s unconventional run in the NBA, the 29-year-old ultimately came to prominence through his contributions to a dynastic championship-winning franchise.
But why did it take him so long to find a place in the NBA? The son of a nine-time All Star who shares his name, Payton II went undrafted in 2016, struggling in stints with the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards before joining the Golden State Warriors. 15 months ago.
He also spent time in the G-League, first with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, followed by the Wisconsin Herd, South Bay Lakers, Capital City Go-Go and Raptors 905.
So what happened last season? Well, as the 2021-22 season progressed, the number of minutes Warriors coach Steve Kerr felt comfortable keeping on the floor also increased. Perhaps the first time that a coach trusted him so much at this level.
And with that faith came production. He had figured out how to maximize his forces, through relentless, shrewd, stifling defense and opportunistic attack.
It probably didn’t hurt to play against elite scorers like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins. Payton II was a perfect add-on piece for a Warriors team that was able to turn the tables on the Boston Celtics midway through the NBA Finals.
So when we heard Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer allude to Portland potentially chasing Payton II on the first night of free agency, an almost forgotten emotion returned. Excitement. Blazers general manager Joe Cronin was actually looking for athletic and defensive players to round out this already talented roster offensively.
He eventually signed for nearly the entire mid-level exception, seemingly disappointing Warriors fans hoping to return back-to-back.
However, over the past few days, while browsing Blazers Twitter and some of the comments on Blazer’s Edge, my joy was stunted as many seemed disappointed with his return to Oregon.
I’ve read comments like “Awesome, another 6’3 guard”, “Why would Cronin have another guard”, “Blazers would all have undersized guards”, and “Cronin is like Olshey, he love the guards”, etc, etc.
I started to question my own exuberance. Am I missing something here? Streamlining myself, I said “Sure Payton II is 6’3, but the Blazers, at least during the Olshey era, have never paid a player who offers so much defensive prowess or rotational flexibility” .
To confirm that my first instinct made sense, I reconsidered his good faith.
It’s true that Payton II is 6’3 and spent six years bouncing between the NBA and the G-League, a true wanderer or NBA journeyman.
On the other hand, he also found himself playing critical minutes in an NBA Finals series alongside another 6’3 guard.
Payton II also has a 6’8 wingspan and a strong frame – he doesn’t get pushed around.
My confidence has returned. I continued.
The man boasts incredible leg speed, lateral movement and timing – just look at one of the many blocks he executed against crosses during the Playoffs – in this case the reigning two-time MVP of the NBA Nikola Jokic.
He can guard almost anyone, thanks to the skills above, a rare commodity in the modern game.
Perhaps some of that ability was passed down from his dad – the guy who won Defensive Player of the Year 1996 and a ridiculous nine-time All Defensive First Team winner – Gary II the also has above the shoulders.
While some might say defense is all about effort, it’s not. It’s innate, it’s instinctive. Believe it or not, healthy Damian Lillard sometimes tries to defend, but it’s clearly not something that comes naturally to him.
For Payton II, defense is as natural as an IPA in a Portland food truck.
But more than that, Payton II is an attacking point defender. Portland fans may have forgotten what it is. Remember Wes Matthews guarding James Harden in the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs, a bulldog, tenacious, someone who can guard the best players in the league and not get slammed for fouls. The Blazers haven’t had that type of player since Matthews and teammate Nicolas Batum played home games in Portland.
In attack, Payton II is obviously limited. But perhaps, through maturity and the hellish road he had to travel to succeed, he knows his limits well.
As the 2021-22 season progressed, Payton II became a reliable shooter from the corner, cutting, chopping and finishing plays from the dunker point, highlighted by his 82% shooting percentage from under one meter from the basket.
At the end of the season, he averaged 17.6 minutes, 7.1 points on 35% three-point shooting, 3.5 rebounds, 0.9 assists.
Production didn’t dwindle in the playoffs – where he also missed several games through injury – recording 16.9 minutes, 6.5 points on a ridiculous 53% three-point shot, 3.1 boards in 12 games.
What position does he play?
While modern basketball can be positionless for some, you still need to get five guys on the court in a way that helps you stop the other five guys on the court.
Payton II could comfortably start at small forward alongside Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons. “But, Adrian,” you might say, “wasn’t that the whole deal with last year’s edition of the Blazers that Norm Powell, at 6’3, was playing small forward?” Again, I’ll just say that if Powell was an OK defender, he’s nowhere near the same stratosphere as Payton II.
That said and unless something changes, Nassir Little will most likely get the starting small forward spot, but don’t be surprised if Payton II or even Justise Winslow fills that role depending on the matchups.
For those suggesting Josh Hart, there’s no doubt he could play all three in a pinch. But his natural position is at guard and from the sounds of things, you’re likely to see the former Pelican possessing a few backup playmaker minutes if his end-of-season interview was any indication.
Realistically, Payton II comes off the bench playing either wing position next to Hart and with either Lillard or Simons.
And given his role in the Warriors’ recent championship success, don’t be surprised to see him in the finishing lineups assisting a combination of Lillard, Simons and Jerami Grant, with Nurkic, Little or Hart occupying the latter spot. according to the situation. .
To all those fans screaming about the Blazers signing another undersized guard, all I will say is that Payton II is not Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, CJ McCollum or Norman Powell. He’s actually able to do things that Blazers fans haven’t seen from their own players in years.
Honestly, I’m just excited to see what this team can do with some real defensive talent. Payton II and Grant provide Coach Billups with great defensive versatility. If Payton II can complement Curry, Thompson and Wiggins, I can’t wait to see what he can do alongside Lillard, Simons and Grant.
I’m not saying Payton II is the piece that propels the Blazers to the Finals, that’s not the case. But this team will be far less predictable if they find themselves playing in late April next year.