Bob Marlin was frustrated.
The University of Louisiana basketball coach spent the better part of a month in the spring of 2013 trying to get his star point guard, 6-foot-4 sophomore Elfrid Payton, into the Chris Paul Camp, but to no avail. Payton had been lightly recruited out of high school—UL Lafayette was the only Division I school that offered a scholarship. His name carried little weight outside Louisiana, or the Sun Belt Conference, even though the sophomore had averaged 16 points a game in the 2012-13 season and led the league in assists and steals.
“I called NBA general managers,” said Marlin, who thought Payton had next-level ability and wanted to help him showcase it. “I called people at ESPN. All kinds of my friends I thought could help me. One guy finally told me, ‘you know what, I don’t think Chris Paul can get anybody into Chris Paul’s camp. It’s that political.’ And we didn’t get invited.
“I told my assistant coaches that we missed the boat. We should have put Elfrid in the USA Basketball tryouts [for the U19 team that was competing in the 2013 FIBA World Championship in Prague, Czech Republic].”
Actually, that ship hadn’t yet sailed. But if might have had not fate intervened. Ask Payton if he believes things happen for a reason, or that, when one door closes, another one opens, and he nods his head. “Oh yeah,” Payton said. He speaks from experience.
Still disappointed over the CP3 camp rejection, Marlin received a call one day from old friend Tom Schuberth, the associate head coach at Jacksonville State. Schuberth was coaching a traveling team put together by Reach USA, and he needed a point guard for a barnstorming tour of China.
“I had never seen Elfrid play,” Schuberth said. “But I’d heard about him. I knew he’d made all conference in the Sun Belt, and that Lafayette didn’t have a good year. In the back of my mind, I thought this kid must be pretty good, if he made first-team all conference and his team didn’t have a good year.”
Payton was all in. He had to scramble around his hometown of New Orleans and get a passport, but soon he was on his way to China with a team that included D.J. Johnson from Kansas State and George Fant and T.J. Price from Western Kentucky. Payton made an impression.
“This kid was unheard of outside his conference,” said Robbie Speer, the longtime Reach USA director. “In China, he made big play after big play. We’ve had four of our kids go on to the NBA, so I think I know what it takes. And when we got back, I told everybody, ‘this kid’s got a shot to play in the league.’ ”
Schuberth thought the same thing.
“I remember coming back and telling my father about him,” Schuberth said. “Remember this name. He’s gonna play in the NBA one day.”
Encouraged by that feedback that echoed his own thoughts about Payton, Marlin picked up the phone one day and called another old friend, Florida coach Billy Donovan, who was coaching the USA U19 team along with Shaka Smart of VCU and Tony Bennett of Virginia. Donovan was in need of a point guard because Tyus Jones, who’s headed for Duke this fall, wasn’t able to attend the USA team tryouts.
Marlin used his best recruiting pitch on Donovan, asking him to call then-FIU coach Richard Pitino, a former Florida assistant and son of Donovan’s mentor, Louisville coach Rick Pitino. In Lafayette’s first game against FIU in 2012-13, Payton almost racked up a triple-double (13 points, nine rebounds, 10 assists) and in the second, he went for 22 points, five boards, seven assists and four steals.
Marlin also invited Donovan to call Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team had barely held off the Ragin’ Cajuns, 63-60, in East Lansing. Payton contributed 20 points, six rebounds, two assists and seven steals.
“I said, ‘look, Billy, I know it’s late, but I think Elfrid is a worthy guy to go to your trials. I think he can make your team,’ ” Marlin said.
Donovan was convinced without need of third-party input.
“We’ve been friends a long time,” Donovan told Marlin. “If you say this guy can play, I won’t question it.”
Donovan asked Marlin to call Sean Ford, USA Basketball’s men’s program director, who asked two questions. Was Payton 19 years old? Check. Did he have a passport? Thanks to that opportunity to play in China that fell in Payton’s lap, he just happened to have one. Payton’s spot in the U19 trials was set.
Payton was ready. “I had confidence that I could play with any of those guys at the trial,” he said. “I wasn’t going to back down from anyone.”
It didn’t take Donovan, Smart and Bennett long to realize Marlin was right. They had a player on their hands.
Payton’s calls to Marlin from the trials offered little in the way of self-promotion. “Nothing special,” was his succinct report after day one. “I did OK; I got into the paint,” was his description of day two.
Marlin needed more feedback, so he texted Mike DeCourcy, long-time Sporting News columnist and basketball scholar.
“Mike texted me right back,” Marlin said. “He said your guy is doing great. He’s getting into the paint at will and he’s giving [Duke guard] Rasheed Sulaimon fits. He can’t get around [Payton].”
Payton made the team, but Donovan was so concerned Payton might be satisfied with that accomplishment he called Marlin. “He’s not that kind of kid,” Marlin told Donovan. “You’ll see.”
Again, Marlin had his player pegged correctly. Playing both guards spots and small forward alongside Sulaimon, Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee), Michael Frazier (Florida), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville) and others, Payton started all nine games at the World Championships and averaged 6.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.3 steals. He shot .575 from the field and .900 from the free-throw line. Team USA won the gold medal.
“Great kid who I’ve enjoyed coaching, because he’s a competitor and he wants to win,” Donovan said after the tournament.
Marlin’s cell phone blew up even before Payton got back to the U.S. “I was getting all kinds of calls from NBA scouts,” Marlin said. “And they all said pretty much the same thing: How did you get that kid to come to Lafayette?”
Soon those scouts were beating a path to Louisiana. They got an eyeful.
Payton incorporated what he’d learned under Donovan, Smart and Bennett into his game and even imparted some wisdom on Marlin, who installed some elements of Smart’s “Havoc,” press. Payton became a more vocal leader, elevating his team in the process. Averaging 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals, Payton led the Ragin’ Cajuns to a 23-12 record and their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005.
Some of his numbers were off the charts, like his school record 302 free-throw attempts, second most in the nation behind the 357 taken by Niagara’s Antoine Mason. Payton finally bagged a triple-double (34 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists against ULM) and he was given the Lefty Driesell national defensive player of the year award.
When his season was over, Payton had a decision to make, and after careful consideration he decided to enter his name into the NBA Draft. Marlin hates to lose Payton a year prematurely, but he’s confident Payton will be on an NBA roster next season.
“There are two things I know he can do at the next level,” Marlin said. “One is getting into the paint. And the second is defend.”
None of the college coaches interviewed by NBA.com whose teams played UL Lafayette during Payton’s career would dispute that.
“Everybody wants to talk about him not being a great shooter,” Troy coach Phil Cunningham said. “But he’s so good at getting where he wants to go on the floor, he can overcome that. And defensively? This year he guarded our leading scorer. We might as well have just taken him off the court. Elfrid’s not only got good athleticism and technique, he’s got that fire about him that’s uncommon on the defensive end.”
Schuberth echoes Cunningham’s thoughts about Payton’s defense.
“Some kids look at defense as a chore,” Schuberth said. “Elfrid looks at it as an opportunity. He sees defense as a way to impact a game, to make a play and help his team win.”
Payton’s many advocates also talk about his character. That was in evidence last summer. After his U19 team exploits, Payton, obscure and unheralded no longer, finally received an invitation to Chris Paul’s camp. But UL Lafayette had a trip to Spain scheduled at the same time. Faced with a decision to help improve his own game or make his team better, Payton chose the team.
The way Payton sees it, a grand plan for his life and career has already been mapped out. The NBA is just the next step.
“I don’t want to jinx myself,” Payton said. “But [the NBA] was almost meant to happen. It was fate, basically. Coming from basically nothing. Having only two offers in college. Just an OK freshman year. Then I jump out to a great sophomore year and have a big summer after that, and then having a better junior year to possibly being a first-round pick. It’s incredible.”
Could it really all be chalked up to fate?
“Elfrid’s career took off because he didn’t get into Chris Paul’s camp,” Marlin said. “If he doesn’t get the offer to go to China, and he didn’t have a passport, he doesn’t get the invitation to the U19 trials. And then everything blew up from there.
“Fate? I do believe in it, I really do.”