ORLANDO — It was early in the second quarter of a loss to the Grizzlies when Elfrid Payton picked off a pass at one end of the floor, took off up the court, picked his way though traffic in the lane and then jammed home a dunk.
A short time later, just when 6-foot-11 Grizzlies center Jerrid Famous gathered in an offensive rebound and went up for a putback, the rail-thin Payton slipped up from behind and swatted the shot away with authority.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Payton glided across the mid-court line and delivered a slick, no-look pass to teammate Dewayne Dedmon for a dunk.
The first thing you notice about the 6-foot-3 point guard as he gets his baptism with the Magic in the Orlando Pro Summer League is that he can get just about anywhere he chooses on the court and do whatever he wants.
OK, maybe that’s the second thing. The first is that mop of hair that seems to be wildly growing in a head full of different directions.
Turns out it was part of a promise by his high school teammates back in Louisiana not to cut their hair until they won the state championship back in 2011. That dream was cut short in the semifinals of the state tournament, but the hairstyle lives on with the No. 10 pick in the 2014 as he embarks on his NBA career.
The point guard spent three years in college climbing up out of obscurity at Louisiana-Lafayette and now has the Magic feeling that he and second-year guard Victor Oladipo can be a backcourt combination that takes them to great places going forward.
While Orlando made power forward Aaron Gordon the No. 4 pick in the Draft, the 18-year-old is raw, unsure of himself and likely at least a season or two away from making a significant contribution.
That’s not the case with Payton, who says he takes inspiration from the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, who went from a below-the-radar college program at Weber State to winning NBA Rookie of the Year honors in 2013 and an All-Star berth last season.
“The odds were stacked against him, and he just continued to work hard,” said Payton. “It pays off. He’s one of the best in the game right now. Seeing that just makes you want to work harder. Just because I’m here, I can’t get satisfied.”
It was a breakout performance in his sophomore year in college when Payton scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds in a near upset of Michigan State that first got him noticed. His coach sent video of that performance to Florida’s Billy Donovan in a bid to get him a tryout for the Team USA Under-19 roster. Even on a team that included the well-known and highly-rated Marcus Smart, Payton earned the starting berth at the point.
Gordon also played on that team and remembered being shocked at the showing of the unheralded guard from Louisiana-Lafayette.
“He was just cooking and killing on both ends of the court,” Gordon said. “I was like, ‘This guy is the real deal.’ “
Payton was cooking again on Monday in leading a win over the Rockets, finishing with a near-triple-double of 12 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. In Tuesday’s loss to the Grizzlies, he had just six points and three assists, but did a better job avoiding turnovers. While playing just under 22 minutes per through three games, he’s averaging 6.7 points, 5.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds and shooting 72.7 percent from the field.
“It happened because of my self confidence and me having a dream,” Payton said. “You’re not supposed to stop chasing your dream and here it is for me.”