Is Cameron Payne this year’s Elfrid Payton?

Murray State assistant basketball coach William Small was in his office in the fall of 2012 when his phone rang. The caller was Damon Stoudamire, then a Memphis assistant, who had just come from a high school game in the city, where he watched Skal Labissiere, a future five-star recruit and Kentucky signee who was then playing for Evangelical Christian School. But a player on the other team caught Stoudamire’s eye, thus his call to Small.

“He said, ‘man, I made a bad mistake,’ ” Small said. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’ And he said, ‘I learned a valuable lesson.’ ”

The lesson Stoudamire learned was to pay better attention during summer AAU competition, not to focus just on the stars, the known commodities, but reserves, too. If he had, Stoudamire said, he might have spotted Cameron Payne far sooner than he did.

“I should have been watching him,” Stoudamire told Small. “Cameron Payne’s got a chance to be a pro.”

Recall that Stoudamire, who starred at Arizona, was the seventh pick in the 1995 NBA Draft by the Toronto Raptors, won the 1995-96 Rookie of the Year Award and played 15 seasons in the league. It’s fair to speculate that Stoudamire would know a future pro when he saw one. The problem as it related to Payne was that Stoudamire hadn’t seen him soon enough.

Small chuckles as he continues his story.

“Damon kept going on about Cameron,” Small said. “ ‘Dude’s gonna be good. Really good. Trust me on that.’ He said if he’d seen Cam play on his high school team, and not just AAU ball, we’d never have gotten him.”

On that call, Stoudamire might have underestimated Payne, because he didn’t know him well enough as a person. There was no way Memphis could have pried Payne loose from Murray State. Because it was the Racers, most particularly Small, who first noticed the scrawny Payne, who played for Lausanne Collegiate School. Other mid-major schools would later realize what Small knew, that Payne was a player with the rare gift of making those around him better, but it was too late by then. As good as Payne is as a player, he’s an even better person. One of his character traits is loyalty.

“I try to be trustworthy, so it was an easy decision to stay with the school that recruited me before anyone else did” said Payne, who’s bidding to become the 2015 NBA Draft’s version of Elfrid Payne, in other words, a previously unheralded point guard from a mid-major school that rockets up the draft board, into the first round. Can he become a lottery pick like Payne was in 2014? Those who know Payne best wouldn’t bet against it, especially after NBA general managers start sitting down and talking with him.

Those conversations will reveal a young man of high character, of faith, who was brought up by loving parents who instilled in him the value of hard work. It didn’t hurt Payne’s basketball career that his father Tony had played point guard in high school and had been an AAU coach for years. Realizing his son would probably play the point too, Tony Payne had one piece of advice, words that were at once simple, yet profound.

“He always told me that I should always keep my teammates happy,” Payne said, “get them involved. I grew up on that, and I never forgot it.”

There’s another thing Payne never forgot—being snubbed by power conference schools. Small and Murray State coach Steve Prohm, interviewed independent of one another, both said that beyond the obvious skills Payne possesses, his biggest strength is his competitive nature, fueled by a redwood-sized chip on his shoulder.

“That’s the thing I like most about him,” Small said. “It puts him in good positions sometimes, and it puts him in bad situations sometimes. He’s overly competitive, and sometimes that causes him to make a bad play. But that chip on his shoulder, that’s what makes him who he is.”

Payne, who declared for the Draft after just two seasons at Murray, doesn’t deny that a little bit of resentment flavors his game.

“I do play with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “That’s coming from not being noticed. From always being small. From people saying he’s not big enough, or he’s not strong enough. I just use that as fuel. There’s nothing wrong with being an underdog.”

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Payne put up impressive numbers as a sophomore. Not many players in the country are capable of leading their conference—in this case, the Ohio Valley—in scoring (20.2 ppg) and assists (6.0 apg), as Payne did. But even though Prohm thought Payne had a future in the NBA, no one expected him to be gone after just two years.

It took an uncanny sequence of events for Payne to even become a starter as a freshman.

The job of replacing Isaiah Canaan, a second-round pick of the Houston Rockets in the 2013 Draft, as the Racers’ starting point guard was supposed to fall to Zay Jackson, who had been suspended in 2012-13 for an off-the-court incident but reinstated in time for fall practice in 2013. But Jackson tore an ACL before the season began and later left the program. Another potential point guard, T.J. Sapp, had transferred from Clemson, but wouldn’t be eligible until the second semester.

That left the job for Payne to claim. His debut, on Nov. 8, 2013, was auspicious. In a three-point loss to perennial mid-major power Valparaiso, Payne hoisted 24 shots. He wound up scoring 21 points and handing out four assists against just two turnovers.

Prohm saw that performance as a sign of things to come.

“I looked at that box score from Valparaiso,” Prohm said, “and I realized Isaiah Canaan never took 24 shots in a game until he was a senior. There may not have been many made shots [Payne was 6 of 24 from the field, but four of 10 from 3], but there was an ease in creating offense. His offensive skill level is as good as I’ve seen. Such a great IQ and feel.”

Payne’s freshman year was only a couple of months along when Prohm realized the inevitable.

“The kid was a pro,” Prohm said. “I just had the backdrop of coaching Canaan, so it wasn’t that hard to spot. You look and say ‘this kid’s got even more [than Canaan]. He’s longer. He’s taller. The experience of having coached Isaiah helped me realize right away what I had in Cam.”

Just as Prohm thought, Payne got better and better. He was chosen first-team All-OVC and the league’s freshman of the year in 2013-14 and then helped the Racers win the CIT, earning tournament MVP honors.

This season, Payne led the Racers to an undefeated conference record and was voted OVC Player of the Year. A last-second shot by Belmont in the league tournament title game bumped Murray State out of the NCAA Tournament, but Payne kept the Racers moving forward, to within a game of the NIT’s final four at Madison Square Garden.

In Murray State’s first NIT win, over UTEP, Payne clearly demonstrated his gift for scoring and facilitating offense for others.

“It was amazing,” Prohm said. “They were running a triangle and two and face-guarding Cam the whole game, and he still ends up with 14 points on 50-percent shooting, 10 assists and one turnover.”

Payne followed that performance with 20 points and seven assists in a game at Tulsa and 23 points and six assists in a season-ending three-point loss at Old Dominion.

NBA scouts took note of Payne’s NIT handiwork, but they had long before begun filling their notebooks with his exploits. That attention from the next level didn’t surprise William Small, who saw some of the same traits in Payne as he did Courtney Lee, whom Small recruited when he was an assistant at Western. Kentucky. Lee has put together a solid eight-year career in the NBA, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

So how does a college coach know when a player has pro potential?

“The game slows down for him,” Small said. “When the game gets tight, when it’s on the line, he steps up and establishes himself as the best player on the floor. Ain’t no doubt. Both teams know he’s the man.

“Courtney had that. I never saw him take a bad shot. Early on, you could see Cam had the gift. Even in AAU ball, where he played on a good team and had to come off the bench, you could tell he made such a difference in the flow of the game. His team just picked up and went to another level. Once the game slowed down for Cam in college, he started to dominate. We played some really good teams in the CIT, and it looked like he was just toying with guys. Everything was so easy for him.”

Payne realizes he’s about to start at ground zero again, but he’s ready.

“I’ve always had the goal of playing in the NBA, just so I could play my best,” he said. “Now it’s actually at my door, and all I’ve got to do is open that door and walk through it. God has blessed me beyond measure.

“But I’m not done yet. I’m not there. I’m still working every day, and I’ve still got that chip on my shoulder. I’m right back down at the bottom of the spectrum, but I’m going to work my way back up.”


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