Before his senior year of high school, Elfrid Payton's teachers were more likely to peg him as one of their future peers than an NBA lottery pick. Now he's a starting point guard on a playoff hopeful in only his second season. Payton was an under-recruited, sub-6-foot math whiz who only chose hoops as his solo sports focus because his New Orleans-area youth football team disbanded after Hurricane Katrina.
His family relocated to Texas, and Payton ditched football -- the sport in which his father starred as a manic, trash-talking defender for multiple Canadian Football League teams. Payton's growth spurt came too late in the high school recruiting cycle, so he developed into a two-way star outside the national spotlight at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
On Friday in Brooklyn, New York, Payton sat down with ESPN.com to talk about his unconventional game, the Scott Skiles regime, his hair, and his favorite things to do in Orlando, Florida.
What was your reaction when you heard the Orlando Magic hired Scott Skiles? He has a reputation as a tough guy.
Hey, everything's always positive with me. I'm always coming in with a positive outlook. Nothing negative. I just wanted to see what I could learn. It's pretty simple. That stuff is not really my job.
But the margin for error is smaller now, right? He is not afraid to make a full hockey line change right away if guys aren't bringing it.
Oh, yeah. Definitely. He's hard on us. He holds us accountable. You better be on your game.
What's the meanest thing he's ever said in the huddle?
No way it can be repeated.
There will be F-bombs involved?
Why did the lineup change work for you guys, with Victor [Oladipo] going to the bench.
It just gave us a little more balance on that second unit. Vic is able to come in and provide us with a lot of scoring, a lot of energy.
Spacing is a lot better for you, right, now that you and Vic don't play quite as much together?
Yeah, Channing [Frye] coming in -- guys respect his 3-ball. They gotta stay home, and that opens up the paint a lot for someone like me.
Where is your jump shot on the scale between where it was when you came into the league, and where you want it to be?
It's better. But I'm not where I want to be, obviously. It's something I'm gonna continue to work on. But it's definitely better. And that's just work.
You've worked with Dave Love, the team's shooting coach, and I know he talks about rebuilding a shot from the ground up -- starting with a player's feet. Has he had to change your footwork at all, or is it other stuff?
Nah, he said my footwork was fine. It was one of the things he was actually impressed with. It's just a bunch of little things other than my footwork -- just making sure I land the right way, things like that.
I assume you still wear contacts during games.
They ever fall out during a game?
I have had that happen. I actually had to play in a game without contacts.
Really? An NBA game?
It was just a miscommunication. One fell out, and we didn't have a backup. It didn't make sense to play with one.
How well could you see?
Oh, man. It was tough. Somehow, I still had a good game.
How'd you compensate?
I just played. I didn't really worry about. It was blurry, but I just played through it. It was in Boston.
Guys go under screens against you, just like with Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio. Everyone makes a big deal about that, and maybe it's not ideal. But there are ways around it, right? Like, set another screen, or I've noticed you like to use the extra distance to just kind of drive full-speed right at your guy's chest -- really get him back-pedaling.
Exactly. Hey, if guys go under, that gives me a full head of steam to come downhill right at 'em. The re-screen, like you said, [it's] something that's very effective. It's just really hard to go under two screens right in a row, and stay with me. Honestly, I don't mind guys going under. And I feel like I can hit that jump shot now, too.
Lately, you've even been shooting 3s without as much hesitation -- especially from the corners. Have you kind of decided, at least sometimes, "If you're giving me this shot, I'm taking it"?
The game presents you with shots, and you've got to take those shots. It's about the flow of the game. You can't disrupt that flow. Certain things are supposed to happen at certain times. I try to live by that.
You and Vic both came into the NBA as elite college defenders -- guys who can get steals when you sort of gamble a bit, and move around. But in the NBA, players can hurt you so much more if you gamble and lose. Have you had to re-learn the balance of when you can do that, and when you have to stay in the scheme?
A little bit. You definitely have to be more thought out in the chances you take at this level. But I try to stay as aggressive as possible.
Do you feel like your hair helps your draw fouls -- like if you flail you head back a little bit, your hair flies around, and the refs think someone hit you?
I wish! I wish it was like that. I have been getting a few more foul calls this year, but I don't think it's because of that. I wish, though.
Is Jeremy Lin making a run at your "point guard with strange hair" throne?
I don't think so, but maybe that's what he's going for with that high mohawk.
Yeah, the gelled mohawk. You're shaking your head already.
I wasn't really rolling with that look.
Did you see a couple of weeks ago he brought it down, de-gelled it , and parted it in the middle -- so it was kind of floppy?
I didn't see it, but I'm sure it looked nice. Whatever makes you happy.
What do you think of his hybrid mohawk/mullet trend -- like what Danilo Gallinari, Jared Sullinger and Allen Crabbe have going? I think maybe Aaron Gordon flirted with it for a bit.
If you like it, hey. People want to express themselves with their haircuts. If they're happy, I say go with it.
I'm not a fan.
You're not rolling with that, huh?
I don't think so. What position did you play in football?
I played wide receiver, cornerback. Even a little bit of defensive end.
If you have kids, would you let them play football?
Oh, yeah. Of course.
All the head injury news doesn't concern you?
That doesn't scare me. Every sport is gonna have the possibility for injury.
So, you're a point guard with a jumper in progress, who was awesome at math in high school. Have you ever talked about any of this with Rondo?
You know what? I've never talked to him about any of that. When we talk, it's not really about that. It's just basketball, and really just when I see him at games.
Since you were good at math, are you into any of the advanced stats in the NBA -- the analytics movement, all of that?
Nah. I'm done with all that. Until I go back to school.
To get your degree, you mean?
Yeah. I wanna coach somewhere.
I've seen you say you might want to coach high school and teach at the same time. You still think you'd ever do that, even after banking all the NBA money?
I want to coach, for sure. I don't know so much about teaching high school.
Have you ever googled Evan Fournier's last name?
Do you know that you're not supposed to?
Let's just say one of his nicknames is "Never Google."
I'm sorry I brought this up.
Man, I never knew this.
Let's do a 180-degree turn. What's your favorite Orlando-area theme park?
Wow. Hmm. Well, Disney World is always nice. That's cool. Especially when I have nieces and nephews in town, and my little sisters -- they like that stuff.
What's the best ride or attraction at Disney?
I think just the characters, honestly -- that you get to walk around and interact with the characters, and take pictures with them.
I've been told to ask you what your favorite Will Ferrell movie is, and why. I've also been assured this is not a setup related to the movie "Elf."
Ha! It has to be "Step Brothers."
Of course you picked one of the only ones I haven't seen. I guess I need to see it?
Oh, you gotta see "Step Brothers."
Off the top of my head, I might pick "Anchorman" as my favorite. Does that meet your standard?
"Anchorman" is definitely good. But "Step Brothers" is funnier.
Is this a playoffs or bust season for you? Like, if you don't make the playoffs, is the season a failure?
Yeah, definitely. No question about that.