Can pass, defend, slash and score in the open court, but comes into the league having trouble making jumpers. Yep, that fits the new Phoenix Suns draft model to a T.

One of the late risers in this NBA Draft is a rangy point guard who can play both offense and defense, though he is quite rough around the edges and played only in the smaller Sun Belt Conference. Point guard Elfrid Payton has the size, athleticism and talent to be one of the best players in the Draft, but he is not a great scorer nor is he very aggressive on offense when his team needs him to score.

The basics

  • School: Louisiana-Lafayette
  • Height: 6'4" (but probably 6'8" with the hair)
  • Length: 6'7"
  • Weight: 185
  • Put up 19 points, 6 assists while grabbing nearly 3 steals per game
  • Strengths: fast breaks, passing, defense
  • Weaknesses: shooting, passive on offense, shooting
  • Just turned 21; despite being a junior, is only three weeks older than Kansas freshman Joel Embiid and two weeks older than Marcus Smart

Comparisons

A look at his strengths and weaknesses makes you think of Rajon Rondo or Ricky Rubio - guys with great athleticism who can get by in the NBA with passing and high level defense, but who cannot shoot with consistency no matter how open they are.

Even years into their careers, Rondo and Rubio cannot be counted on to make open shots and don't even want to try unless forced or they're feeling especially good about their game. And we're not talking jumpers from distance here. Rondo and Rubio both struggle to even make their open layups with consistency. But they can make up for their lack of shooting by hounding their opponent into a bad shooting night as well.

Payton is the same type of player in nearly every respect. Where Rubio and Rondo rank ahead of Payton is their incredible ability to find the open man even when the defense sags off. Those two can get 10 assists before they get 10 points. Payton has to prove he can do this too, or figure out how to score. He was second in the NCAA in assists per 40 minutes (6.7).

Two other point guards you might know came into the NBA with spotty shooting pedigrees who would rely on their playmaking and athleticism to succeed: Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe.

In many respects, Elfrid Payton is the "new Suns model" - great athleticism and basketball IQ that just needs to learn how to score (and make jumpers) consistently. His shooting form is awful, and will have to be completely remade. We'll see how that process works this season with Archie Goodwin, another young guard with everything going for him but shooting.

As rookie, Goran Dragic could not finish at the rim or make jumpers with any consistency. He got his points at the open court. As the years passed, Dragic figured out how to use his athleticism to create separation and score at the rim. Then he became a dead-eye shooter this past season.

Bledsoe couldn't shoot either, and still really struggles to make long jumpers with consistency. But he figured out how to score at the rim with his thick body, and he developed a short-range jumper in the paint as well.

On the Suns, Payton would be a supersized Ish Smith who could spend the next couple of years developing into the next great point guard prospect if he can learn how to score with consistency.

Scouting Reports

  • DraftExpress: Payton is a very good ball-handler, which makes him an excellent transition threat and allows him to get into the paint very effectively. He can create his own shot and break down defenders in pick and roll and one situations, showing good potential in this area as he continues to mature and polishes up his skill-level. Perhaps Payton's most attractive and likely also his most NBA-ready skill is his defense. He takes great pride in his work here, showing a high intensity level and extremely quick feet laterally, which allow him to get over the top of screens, and also stay in front of opponents on the perimeter.
  • NBADraft.net: Deadly first step and killer crossover allow him to get to the basket seemingly at will...Can play slightly out-of-control at times. Currently averaging 3.8 turnovers per game this year, although his assists have risen this season.
  • NBADraftInsider.com: There are very few basketball players that have the quickness Payton has with the ball in his hands. He turns the corner with the ball in his hands off the bounce or in a pick-and-roll setting as well as any point guard in the country. Last year he was in the 83rd percentile in pick-and-roll situations according to Synergy Sports Data scoring with a fairly low turnover percentage.

Suns Draft Potential

The Phoenix Suns have three picks from 14-27 and Payton could be taken with any of them. Payton would be a high end prospect as a good insurance policy in case Dragic or Bledsoe leaves in free agency or trade in the next year or so.

In the meantime, Payton is young enough and comes from a small-enough background to slide right into Ish Smith's third point guard role and the Suns wouldn't miss a beat, while Payton has a much higher ceiling than Smith. Payton is bigger and has a much better game at the rim than Ish.

GM Ryan McDonough is credited with drafting similar players in Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, and last year took Archie Goodwin. All players with similar prospect profiles to Elfrid Payton.

Years ago, a Suns coach couldn't imagine rotation time for a point guard who couldn't shoot (Rondo), no matter how talented he was in every other area. Think Jeff Hornacek feels the same?

Elfrid Payton and Archie Goodwin could be the back court of the future for the Suns IF either or both can figure out how to make consistent jump shots.

Video Profile - DraftExpress

Poll
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After years of proving himself as an assistant on the sideline, Phoenix Suns' Mike Longabardi is one step away from taking over an NBA team as their new head coach.

The Phoenix Suns turnaround last season was credited to rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek and rookie GM Ryan McDonough. Any mention of the work of assistant coaches toward the Suns' success was offered unprompted from Hornacek himself.

But you cannot look at the Suns season - 48 wins, 8th in offensive efficiency, 15th in defensive efficiency - and give credit to so few people.

Assistant coach and defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi is one person who should get a lot more credit for the Suns' success last season.

"I would say the big success on that team is actually Mike Longabardi, the assistant coach from the Boston Celtics. He's the defensive coordinator. He's just an incredible defensive coordinator. He gets his team ready for every game and I think the success of the team, a lot goes to him. He knows how to win the games."

-- former Suns center Marcin Gortat, last November

Gortat spent three years with the Suns after leaving Orlando, often commenting about the lack of discipline on defense the Suns exhibited during his tenure. He was treated to a single training camp with Longabardi as the defensive coordinator before being shipped to Washington before the season started.

The Suns shot out of the gate with nearly a month of top-10 NBA defense, as astounding feat considering that nearly the entire roster was new to the team and none of them had used this system before.

"The Suns have really shined on the other side, where they're fifth in points allowed per possession [through mid-November, 2013]. Mike Longabardi, an assistant coach who worked under Tom Thibodeau in Boston, has Phoenix playing a standard Thibodeau system with shocking success. Everyone is following the rules, Bledsoe is a freaking menace, and opponents are shooting only about 40 percent on close-range shots when Channing Frye, Morris, or Miles Plumlee is near the rim, per SportVU. That's not quite Roy Hibbert-level intimidation, but Tyson Chandler-level work is a giant surprise for this frisky bunch."

--Zach Lowe, Grantland, last November

Sadly, it was at this point people stopped talking about the Suns defense, instead focusing on the players (Dragic, Bledsoe), the offense and the rookie coach.

But while the Suns didn't quite maintain that top-5 defense, they did finish the season in the top half of the league for the first time since the mid-2000s.

Last fall, Bright Side got an exclusive interview with Mike. And just like our interview with Hornacek, a look back at the Longabardi interview shows that he followed through with everything he said he would do, and then some.

"Teaching defensive values will be a day-to-day effort," Longabardi told Sreekar. "There's no magic wand to immediately get there. That goes for offense too because both sides of the court are connected. If you don't take a good shot on offense, it's going to hurt you on defense. Likewise, if you don't play good defense, you're going to get a worse shot on offense. We're going to have to get consistent effort. We know that there are going to be some nights that we might lose because we're overmatched with talent. But the important thing is to give effort and see progress."

Values. Day-to-day effort. Consistent effort. Give effort and see progress.

Anyone who watched the Suns last season saw a team displaying those principles on a nightly basis. Every single player was bought into the system. Every one of them.

Mike talked about the pairing of Dragic and Bledsoe in particular, due to their relative lack of size at the 2-guard position.

"Hopefully, their quickness and talent makes up for it. Those guys will learn to be prepared defensively and I will help them prepare. If for some reason we find that the pairing isn't working defensively at some point, it's our job to find a fix. And that goes for every player. Every man will have to be prepared defensively and will have to help cover guys on defense. But the hope with this backcourt is that their quickness and speed provide an advantage for us, making the other team adjust first."

He found a way to make Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo effective in Boston. Before that, the Celtics made Ray Allen look like a quality defender thanks to team defense that supports each other on every play.

And as we saw, he made Dragic and Bledsoe highly effective on defense as well as offense - just as he predicted before the season began.

What's next

The Suns have a keeper in Mike Longabardi as the Suns defensive coordinator. He helped a team devoid of a real "stopper" become a solid defensive team that won games by holding the other team to fewer points per possession than any Suns team in nearly a decade.

Another year under their belts can only help the Suns' returning players improve from where they left off, and help teach the new players acquired this summer how to execute the rotations.

Coach Jeff Hornacek talked at the end of the season how the Suns need to progress on defense next season, and Mike is at the center of that progression.

"We have to really be more solid on the rotations," Hornacek said in the closing press conference. "Not having the breakdowns, especially defensively. To beat the big teams, you can't have 20% of the time going ‘oh yeah I forgot my rotation' or ‘my bad'. It's got to be in that 95-100% you're doing the right thing. You look at these top teams, they are in the right rotation all of the time."

Longabardi said before the season it would be a work in progress. I'm not sure if he expected a building block of a 15th rating in year one, but that's what he got.

Next year should be even better. Longabardi had the Celtics ranked 6th and 2nd in his two seasons as the lead defensive coordinator - at that was with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen (for one of them) and Paul Pierce aging less than gracefully, while Kendrick Perkins was no longer manning the middle and Rajon Rondo was hurt a lot.

Will he stay?

The only question is whether Longabardi will make that next step and become someone's head coach. So far, he has not been named as a candidate at any of the spots currently open.

Screen_shot_2014-05-25_at_7.01.25_am_medium

There is conjecture that his name will appear on some lists, and certainly he's got the pedigree. Lately, NBA teams have promoted assistant coaches to their first head coaching spot with success: Tom Thibodeau and Erik Spoelstra started it. Frank Vogel, Indiana, continued it. Last year, nine rookie coaches took to the sidelines and four of them made the playoffs (Dave Joerger, Jason Kidd, Steve Clifford, Mike Budenholzer). Our own coach Hornacek won 48 games but barely missed the cut on the playoffs.

Now Joerger is looking to jump to Minnesota just a year after taking over Memphis' sideline, and other current assistants are getting looks (Tyronne Lue, among others).

Will Longabardi get the call?

We can only wait and see. And hope, selfishly, that he's on the Phoenix sideline again in September when training camp opens.

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