Magic rookies hint at rising fortunes

Updated: July 8, 2014, 1:28 AM ET
By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

Aaron GordonFernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesAaron Gordon, the fourth pick in the NBA Draft and still just 18, gives the Magic superior athleticism.
ORLANDO, Florida -- Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon and the majority of the lottery picks in this past month's NBA draft have long been household names to many basketball fans.

There's clearly one outlier in that group.

He's the point guard with the funky hairstyle and unique first name who many scouts and league executives at the Orlando Pro Summer League believe could be the steal of one of the deepest drafts in a decade. The first step in getting to know Magic point guard Elfrid Payton and understanding what's driven him from a relative unknown to the No. 10 pick in the draft starts with grasping the story behind his hair.

First, the locks, twists and dreads are as relentless as his game.

And it's a style four years in the making.

"Me and my teammates in high school agreed we wouldn't cut our hair the entire season until we won a state championship," Payton said Monday after Orlando's 87-69 win over Houston. "We wound up losing in the semifinals. But I liked what it was doing and just let it keep growing and growing. As the years went on after high school, it just got higher and higher and more curly."

[+] EnlargeElfrid Payton
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith his hair quite apparent, Elfrid Payton aims to point the Magic in a winning direction.
Payton was clearly in a groove -- much like he was on the court when he made all five of his shots. And just like his performance, Payton's story was leading to a much larger point about his approach.

"A lot of people look at the hair and think I'm probably some crazy [guy], but I'm laid back, man," the Gretna, Louisiana, native said. "So it's like total opposites. I guess it gives me a little balance."

Balance also happens to be one of the best descriptions for Payton's game. His versatility, athleticism and length as a 6-foot-4 point guard are characteristics that could help ease his transition from unheralded star at mid-major Louisiana-Lafayette to a potential impact player at the NBA's toughest position.

After struggling Saturday in his summer league debut, with just two points and four turnovers off the bench, Payton started Monday and showed the kind of all-around skills that allowed him to shoot to the top of many teams' boards at his position entering the draft.

Payton had 12 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in 29 minutes. Multiple league scouts compared Payton to a budding version of Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo because of his ability to get to any spot on the court and impact every aspect of the game. The comparison also sticks because there are questions about Payton's range and ability to stretch the floor to 3-point range.

But the Magic are enamored with his potential, and two league executives suggested Payton would adjust more quickly to the NBA game than Gordon, the uber-athletic forward out of the University of Arizona who was taken fourth overall by Orlando.

Payton and Gordon are primary pieces of a roster overhaul and youth movement the Magic began two years ago when they traded franchise cornerstone Dwight Howard. In a recent wave of turnover, Orlando released Glen Davis in the middle of this past season, traded veteran guard Arron Afflalo before June's draft and waived long-time starting point guard Jameer Nelson and forward Jason Maxiell this past week. The moves essentially purged the older players from a team that won 23 games in the 2013-14 season.

Orlando agreed this week to deals to sign free agents Channing Frye and Ben Gordon to fill the 3-point shooting void on a team anchored by the youth of this year's two lottery picks, 2013 No. 2 overall pick Victor Oladipo, promising center Nikola Vucevic and third-year forward Tobias Harris.

Aaron Gordon, Payton, Oladipo, Vucevic and Harris are all younger than 23 years old. The goal is for Orlando to start to see some progress amid all the promise and potential.

"I told those guys just to have fun and play these games like they're your last," Oladipo said of the message he relayed to Gordon and Payton when he played the summer league opener with them on Saturday. "They probably couldn't even ask me questions without me [offering advice] first anyway."

Oladipo and Payton give the Magic two prospects capable of playing either guard position. Gordon said during his draft news conference that his position would be whatever coach Jacque Vaughn asked him to play on a given night. Gordon, 18, is expected to settle in at power forward once his body fills out.

Projecting his upside, scouts have compared Gordon to Blake Griffin because of the way he runs, attacks the rim and finishes with emphatic dunks. But there are also similarities between Gordon and a younger Shawn Marion because of their length, build and ability to defend multiple positions.

Gordon was projected to be taken in the middle of the lottery, but Orlando surprised many teams by drafting him in the slot after Wiggins, Parker and Joel Embiid.

"Once he figures out what he's doing out there, Gordon has a chance to be a hell of a player in this league," an Eastern Conference executive in Orlando said. "He's a guy that has a tremendously high ceiling, with all the talk about Blake Griffin. But there's also a chance there's a very low floor."

Considering his age and lack of a defined position, Gordon knows there's a downside to his upside. But this week in Summer League gives him a chance to take his NBA transition all in stride. Gordon said his best NBA skill set at the moment are his motor and relentless energy on the court.

"I'm going to keep trusting my skill, and eventually it will all come together," said Gordon, who had nine points and seven rebounds Monday. "My motor, I feel like I can just go and go and go and go. Regardless of what I'm doing out there, I can just keep going."

Gordon and Payton already have come a long way together.

They were teammates on the USA Under-19 national team that went 9-0 and won gold this past summer in the FIBA World Championships in Europe. Gordon was essentially a lock for that team after beating out Wiggins and Parker for MVP honors in the 2013 McDonald's All-American game.

Payton, meanwhile, was still trying to make a name for himself at a relatively small school. That opportunity came during his sophomore season, when he had 20 points, seven steals and six rebounds during a 63-60 loss at Michigan State. Payton's college coach later sent the tape from that game to University of Florida coach Billy Donovan, who was in charge of leading the Under-19 national team.

Payton said his performance against Michigan State in that Nov. 25, 2012, setback gave him the confidence that he belonged at an elite level and would eventually make it to the NBA.

"I think that showed I belonged," Payton said Monday. "It's about self-confidence and a dream. You start chasing your dream, and here it is."

Payton landed his college scholarship in pretty much the same fashion. During that senior season in high school, with his hair just starting to grow, his team advanced far enough into the state tournament to play the final rounds of the playoffs at the arena on Louisiana-Lafayette's campus.

The Ragin' Cajuns' staff attended the game primarily to scout another prep player. But Payton dominated the game with 23 points that night and ended up with a scholarship offer.

Consider it the Damian Lillard path to recognition. Payton is inspired by the path the Portland Trail Blazers guard took from being an overlooked prep prospect who had to attend a lower-profile college at Weber State to getting his breakthrough to NBA stardom.

"The odds were stacked against him, and he just continued to work hard," Payton said of Lillard. "It pays off. You can see it. He's one of the best in the game right now. Seeing that, it just makes you want to work harder. Just because I'm here, I can't get satisfied."

Payton's hunger to make an impact in the league continues to grow and grow each day.

Just like his signature hairstyle.

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