The Bulls got more than a good dancer when they traded Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson for Cameron Payne and two others at Thursday's trade deadline. Though the 6-foot-3 point guard has been known more for his pregame dance routines with Russell Westbrook than his play on the court through two seasons, he’s still a 22-year-old two years removed from being a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Payne was a relative unknown to the casual NBA fan coming out of Murray State in 2015. Payne won the Ohio Valley Player of the Year as a sophomore, averaging 20.2 points, 6.0 assists and 1.9 steals, and ultimately became the lone mid-major selected in the lottery that year. He said at the 2015 Combine in Chicago that he wanted to be the next Steph Curry, going from an unknown at a mid-major to NBA stardom.
The Oklahoma City Thunder selected Payne that June over fellow point guards Terry Rozier, Delon Wright, Tys Jones and Jerian Grant, the last of whom the Bulls traded for this past offseason.
Payne’s biggest struggle in the NBA through two seasons backing up Westbrook has been his shooting. Though he shot nearly 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from deep as a college sophomore, Payne has been among the worst shooters in the league this season. In fact, among 295 players averaging at least 16 minutes per game, Payne’s 40.2 true shooting percentage is second worst in the league, in front of only Justise Winslow (39.7 percent).
Part of his lackluster shooting may be attributed to rust, as Payne missed the first 37 games of the season while recovering from a broken foot suffered in the preseason. He’s appeared in each of the Thunder’s last 20 games running the second unit, but with Westbrook putting up historic numbers there hasn’t been much of a need for him – he and Westbrook have shared the court for just 59 minutes this season.
The Thunder bench has produced the eighth worst net rating in the NBA this season, which could be part of the reason general manager Sam Presti made the move to acquire Doug McDermott and Taj Gibson. Payne’s shooting woes have attributed to that, as the Thunder are more than 8 points per 100 possessions worse offensively with him on the floor.
But Payne has provided value on the other end of the court; he has a positive net rating and his defensive RPM is 20th among point guards. Put in layman’s terms, Payne has been a solid defender, which has allowed him playing time despite his shooting.
He hasn’t shown a knack for being a great passer, as his assist ratio (Thunder possessions that end in a Payne assist) of 21.3 percent is 67th among 96 qualified point guards. He has improved on taking care of the ball, with his turnover ratio shrinking this season despite a slight uptick in minutes from his rookie season. It’s not uncommon to see a reserve point guard take a backseat, so the verdict is still out on how good a passer he can become.
Where he fits into the Bulls’ equation is another story. Fred Hoiberg’s group now touts five point guards, with Grant the only real player who can move off the ball – Rajon Rondo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Payne are strictly point guards, and Isaiah Canaan is simply an end-of-the-bench option.
The Bulls liked Grant enough to include him in last summer’s trade for Derrick Rose, and he’s under contract for two more seasons. Rondo and Carter-Williams are likely playing their final seasons in Chicago, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Gar Forman and John Paxson go after a floor general in a loaded point guard draft class.
All told, Payne projects as a nice second unit guard capable of playing solid defense. He’s under contract for two more seasons on a rookie deal and, given that he was playing behind Ironman in Westbrook, still has room to grow. He and Grant will challenge each other in practice and only be better for it, but the long-term solution at the point is not currently on the team’s roster.
Receiving Payne – as well as Anthony Morrow and Joffrey Lauvergne – wasn’t a terrible haul given Gibson’s impending free agency and Doug McDermott’s defensive limitations. But the trade certainly wasn’t the splash Bulls fans were hoping to see at the trade deadline, either.