The best-known NBA contribution from Phoenix Suns backup point guard Cameron Payne technically happened on a basketball court. He was the spry, warmup-donning teammate – er, dance partner of one Russell Westbrook when he was an end-of-the-bench youngster with the OKC Thunder. There was always something lovable about that, wasn’t there? That the endlessly intense Westbrook could find it deep within his determined, pull-up jumper-obsessed heart to make this rookie’s day and dance with him. It was cute. It was memorable even if it was forgettable in the grand scheme of it all.

And Payne never stopped dancing. Well, figuratively speaking. He took two (years) and tangoed in Oklahoma City, both with their NBA squad and with the Blue, their affiliate in what was then the D-League. He jazzed and jived his way through the Chicago Bulls – again, making pit stops in the pros and the developmental level. He hit up the Cleveland Cavaliers, then skipped over to China, and line danced with the G-League’s Texas Legends. He nabbed 10-day contracts with Cleveland and the Toronto Raptors, too.

Then, he landed with the Phoenix Suns, yet another stop; another chance, ideally. A Google Images search of Payne is like a makeshift game of “Who He Play For?”. The answer – finally – isn’t so hard.

With Chris Paul in and out of his typical form and the Phoenix Suns lineup due to an injured shoulder, super-backup Cameron Payne is carrying the load

Picking one storyline to attach to the Suns’ 2020-21 season is as hard as it often is for Charles Barkley to name “who he play for,” but even if they do end up beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, it will be hard to note that they did it without bringing up Payne. In a series marred by an injury to Chris Paul, shooting woes for three of the team’s most stalwart, efficient shooters, and incessant uncertainty as to whether or not LeBron James or Anthony Davis would explode for 40 at any moment, Payne has been reliable. He’s been better than reliable. He’s been the perfect backup, a lightning rod when the power went out.

Let’s start at the currently unfolding climax, as all the best stories do. In these playoffs, he’s averaging 13.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game on 45.6/43.5/100 percent shooting splits. He’s seen an increase in minutes (from 18.0 to 23.2) and an epic hike in shot attempts (6.6 to 11.4) while maintaining an efficient 57.4 effective field goal percentage (62nd percentile amongst those playing the point guard position, solid company in a postseason stacked with elite talent running their shows).

What is perhaps the most encouraging metric moving forward, should the Suns keep him around for a good bit (and they should) is where he’s electing to take his shots. Per Cleaning the Glass, Payne’s contributions haven’t just been streaky bombs from three or convenient, streaking fast-break rim runs. He’s taken 38 percent of his shots at the rim (Cleaning The Glass paywall), 85th percentile amongst point guards, and though he’s shooting just 60 percent on those attempts, the fact that he’s getting there and creating his own shots often is the primary positive.

He has minimal fear. Or maybe it’s maximum confidence. Or maybe he just recognizes his opportunities when he sees them, a recurring theme with Payne.

What’s actually been the most encouraging piece of his playoff performance thus far is the fact that he’s kept the team’s spokes welded firmly to their wheels while Chris Paul has been anything but himself with the shoulder injury he suffered in Game 1 (and has continued to reaggravate since). In a Game 2 where Paul was largely ineffective – he scored just six points in 23 minutes, from which he was precautionarily subbed out – Payne played 33 vital minutes and scored 19 equally vital points. In Game 3, he offered 15 while the hampered Paul could only tally seven. Though the Lakers won both of those games, 109-102 and 109-95, respectively, it’d be hard to leave either game feeling at least a bit less hopeless than you otherwise would with the Point God periodically sitting out.

Now let’s track back a bit, to why Payne’s adversity hasn’t merely been a point of pride, but a must. This time last year, Payne was at home, his NBA future uncertain, having stopped in China, the G-League, the D-League – not necessarily in that order, but all places no NBA player wants to be. His non-guaranteed training camp invite to Toronto ended with his release, which he told SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun, “It was just like where do I go from here? … I kinda felt like that was my last opportunity.”

Evidently, it wasn’t, and he’s made the most of this “next” opportunity, no matter if it possibly feels like his millionth. You could be an NBA player, a writer, a substitute teacher or a bank teller; that type of relentless ambiguity is no doubt a reason for gratitude when all ends up breaking right, but also one for exhaustion through the process, where your backbone gets tested like it hasn’t been before.

Remember — you might — that this was a player whose college career was mightily impressive, though short. He averaged 16.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game as a freshman at Murray State. He made First-Team All-Ohio Valley Conference that season and was its Player of the Year the next. He declared for the NBA Draft after his sophomore season, went 14th overall to the Thunder, and spent more time dancing with Russell Westbrook than he did shimmying after a game-winning shot. He’s one of the lucky ones, of course, to make it to the NBA from a school like that (Ja Morant, of note, is another). But to collapse from the jump, never breaking out like you always planned and dreamt to do? By all accounts, Payne is still a human being, and a pill like that is brutally hard to swallow for those with that anatomic title.

Sometimes, breaking out late is just part of the journey, though. Payne’s likely won’t be that of a superstar nor a throne-charging legend, but as far as origin stories go, his is pretty Odyssean, altogether remarkably epic. To go from what, for many, is often seen as the peak to the brink, to inching away from the brink, only to be pushed back again and again… it would break some most others. But there’s something to appreciate about the adversity it takes to fight off those odds, cliches and tired adages be damned.

Never mind the fact that it’s all being done, even occasionally, in the place of Chris Paul. Efficiently, too. Epic is the only proper feeling word.

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