Through brief stints with five teams and parts of five seasons in the G League, Gary Payton II has been trying to find a steady job in the NBA for the last half-decade. He's got one now. The son of NBA Hall of Famer Gary Payton has gone from the 15th rung on the Golden State Warriors' roster to a walking highlight factory and an integral part of arguably the best team in the league.
Payton's defense doesn't need any advertisement. If you've watched even a little bit of his work, you know. He must be a nightmare to go against. But what's kept him outside the league all these years has been his lacking offense. He shot just 27 percent from 3 in his G League career, but he's an almost cartoonish-level athlete that has been unlocked by the Warriors' movement and spacing to produce nightly highlights like these two alley-oops Wednesday night vs. Minnesota.
That second one was a designed play for Payton. The Warriors have run it several times since discovering the weapon that Payton can be as a finisher. Basically, Payton comes up to set a ball screen for Steph Curry, but it's only for appearances. Everyone knows the eyes of both defenders -- Steph's and Payton's -- are going to go with Curry, which leaves Payton the split second he needs to roll straight down an open lane for a backdoor lob.
Anthony Slater of The Athletic outlined it well here:
The Warriors have added a new play for Gary Payton II when bigs guard him.— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) November 8, 2021
-Payton comes up for fake ball screen, his defender is drawn toward Steph Curry double
-Payton spins into quick roll down the lane
-Curry passes it to the elbow
-Iguodala/Draymond lobs it over the top pic.twitter.com/orwoaW1dqE
There's a crucial element to pay attention to on these actions: Nemanja Bjelica is standing in the same place in every one of them, spacing the floor. Something the Warriors have lacked over the years is a shooting big man, and Bjelica, who entered Wednesday night hitting 58 percent of his 3-pointers, gives them that.
If Kevon Looney was in the game, these plays for Payton would be much harder to run because defenders don't have to vacate the paint to defend his shot. Bjelica forces bigs out of the lane, clearing the runway for a high-flyer like Payton to take off to the rim.
Golden State's collective floor spacing and ball and player movement have been perfect for Payton. His shooting isn't needed, but with all the attention Curry and Jordan Poole get both with and without the ball, and with Bjelica often taking rim protectors away from the paint, Payton is free to cut to the rim, and he has a great instinct for doing just that. Watch here as Bjelica spaces to the wing and Poole drags Daniel Theis out of the restricted area:
With plays like this, the Warriors are scoring 1.62 points per possession when Payton shoots (or dunks, more accurately) off a cut, per Synergy. Statistically speaking, that is the most efficient play in the Warriors' arsenal; far ahead of Curry off screens and Curry in isolation. Obviously, those play types aren't created equal, but you get the point.
There is no better team for a willing and good cutter to play for than the Warriors with all the eyes that get sidetracked by Curry, but not everyone is a willing and good cutter, They are, in fact, pretty rare. Payton and the Warriors are a perfect fit in the half-court and certainly in transition, where the Warriors play with great pace with a collective willingness to pass the ball ahead. Get Payton in the open floor, and this is how it ends:
These plays have made Payton an immediate fan favorite at the Chase Center and must-see TV around the league. His teammates come out of their seats, along with everyone in the crowd, the second he takes to flight. But Payton is proving to be far more than just a SportsCenter athlete. His impact is undeniable, on both ends. Look at his three previous games entering Wednesday night:
Entering play on Wednesday, Payton has played more than 10 minutes in five games. The Warriors are 5-0 in those games with an average margin of victory better than 20 points, with Payton averaging just under 11 points and better than two steals on 73-40-100 shooting splits.
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They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Over five seasons playing in the NBA's minor league, Payton stayed ready for his opportunity. Now that he's gotten it, after five organizations had him and let him go, it's the Warriors looking like the lucky ones.