Sun Belt to Team USA: Payton's rapid rise

June, 19, 2013
06/19/13
1:04
PM ET
If Elfrid Payton ends up in the first round of the NBA draft at some point in the next two years, he can thank Louisiana-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin.

The number of advocates for Payton was zero before Marlin pushed. The junior-to-be was known in the Sun Belt, but was hardly noticed by Marlin's coaching peers, USA basketball or national media outlets.

None of that matters now. If Payton makes himself known in Prague during the FIBA U-19 World Championships, he won't have to worry about sending out a cheat sheet on his college career.

Payton was the surprise addition to the FIBA team that will compete for gold next week in the Czech Republic. He was placed on the roster due to his length, defense and overall activity.

Providence's Kris Dunn, Texas' Javan Felix, Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono, Oregon's Damyean Dotson and Pitt's James Robinson didn't make the 12-player cut.

"He can play multiple positions," Marlin said. "You don't have to be at a big school to be a hard worker. He's in the gym all the time. He studies the game."

Payton averaged 15.9 points and 5.5 assists a game last season for a middling Sun Belt team that finished 13-20 overall, 8-12 in league play.

Yet, throughout the season, Payton would compare himself to Trey Burke (Michigan), Aaron Craft (Ohio State), Isaiah Canaan (Murray State), Damian Lillard (who was a lottery pick in 2012 and ended up being the NBA Rookie of the Year with Portland) and Norris Cole (the former Cleveland State guard who is playing for Miami in the NBA Finals).

"His quickness, length and feel for the game have been impressive," USA assistant coach Shaka Smart said. "Friday was the first time I've seen him play. But after seeing him the first session, I'm not surprised he made the team."

Rewind a few years ago, though, and it would've been a huge surprise.

"He wasn't even the best guard on his team in New Orleans," Marlin said of the John Ehret High graduate. "But he took his team to the last game in the Cajundome where we played. I went over the next week to his school, met with his parents at the principal's office and then signed him on an unofficial visit.

"You could tell he was going to be special when he got here. We pushed him to be a better defender. He is long, can steal the ball and has a good feel for the game."

Two years later he's representing the U.S. -- a season after leading the Sun Belt in assists and steals.

Marlin didn't have to push too hard in his campaign for Payton. He simply had to call. And his relationships helped tremendously.

Marlin wanted to get Payton exposure after the season. He tried to get him in the Nike skills camps with Chris Paul and Deron Williams, but he whiffed.

Then he got word there was a team going to China for a tournament. Marlin called and got Payton on the team coached by Jacksonville State assistant Tom Schuberth. The eight-game, 18-day tour, sponsored by a sports ministry in Kentucky called Sports Reach, got him valuable playing time.

After Payton returned, Marlin called Florida coach Billy Donovan, who is coaching the USA U-19 team.

"I told him I've got a guy for you that is really special," Marlin said. "I told him he would help his team. Billy told me they could use another guard to try out."

Sean Ford, who manages the USA basketball teams, got in contact with Marlin and made sure Payton was of age and had an updated passport, which he did for the China trip.

"Sean called some guys in their league and everyone said he's a really good player,'' Donovan said. '"When Tyus Jones scratched late, I told Sean we were better off bringing in another point guard. I left it ultimately up to him and [junior national team committee chair] Jim Boeheim.

One phone call and Payton was in -- the rest was up to him. Right on cue, he impressed the committee and the coaching staff so much at the tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo., that it was a clear decision to add him to the roster.

"[Payton] is not a household name," Donovan said. "But he's a good player and has been in college for two years. He's a team guy and competitive. He plays the right way. Now playing on this team people will take a look at him to play at the next level.''

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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