It has been five years since Cameron Payne averaged as few of points, assists, rebounds and minutes per game as he’s averaging to begin the season. Yet, he’s filled his role with the Milwaukee Bucks perfectly.
Payne played the last four years with the Phoenix Suns and was a key cog off their bench. However, following the Suns trade for Bradley Beal, he was sent to the San Antonio Spurs in the middle of July in what was effectively a cost-saving move by the Suns.
The Spurs, in the midst of a youth movement, surprisingly waived him two months later in a move meant to open up playing time for their young guards. That made him a hot commodity for a slew of contending teams, with Milwaukee ultimately winning the sweepstakes.
Payne is never going to carry a team to the postseason, or even the second unit. However, Milwaukee had a gaping hole at their backup point guard position—one that Payne has filled seamlessly.
The Bucks point guard situation is set up in a unique way. As their starting point guard, Damian Lillard carries a heavy load when he’s on the court. He’s a dynamic playmaker with the rock in his hands and always seems to make the right play, threading the needle between unselfishness and getting his own shot.
There’s also Giannis Antetokounmpo who commands the ball at one of the highest rates in the NBA. When either of those two are off the court or playing off ball, it’s the Khris Middleton show. He too needs the ball in his hands quite often, rendering a true backup point guard in Milwaukee nearly useless. At least in the traditional sense.
All of that plays right into Payne’s hand. He’s struggled with inconsistency throughout his career, sometimes showing the ability to get hot and other times completely disappearing from the game. Milwaukee limits his usage rate where he’s tasked with creating shots for himself or others. He ends a Bucks possession by shooting, turning it over or assisting on less than 15 percent of the possessions when he’s on the court—the lowest of his career.
Instead of initiating the offense, he often plays off the ball. His primary purpose has shifted from creating for others to being created for. This has allowed him to thrive as a shooter. Among players to take at least 30 threes this season, he ranks first by knocking down 52.9 percent of them.
In the clip above, Lillard uses the threat of a Brook Lopez screen to beat his man off the dribble and get deep into the paint. This forces Bobby Portis’s defender to step up to stop the drive and Payne’s man to drop down to take away Portis. That chaos leaves Payne wide open in the right corner for a basic catch-and-shoot trey.
Although he’s making 40 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this year, the primary reason he’s leading the NBA in three-point percentage has been his “pull-up” shooting where he’s making 76.9 percent of them. He’s not often asked to create off the bounce, but most of his threes that end up in the pull-up category look like the below video.
With the Toronto Raptors in a zone, they have multiple eyes on Khris Middleton bringing the ball up the court. Lopez lumbers down and sets a simple back screen on Scottie Barnes who is tasked with guarding Payne’s side of the court. When Middleton throws the ball over the top, Payne has plenty of space to catch and fire away. However, he’s a rhythm shooter so he decides to jab step to his left, take one dribble to his right and step back behind the three-point line. Yak yak!
He’s not always going to shoot that well off the bounce, but the amount of space he’s working with is massive. He’s the fourth or fifth offensive weapon when he’s on the court, a spot in the pecking order he’s not used to.
If Payne is looking to turn his raw production into a multi-year deal worth a lot of money, the Bucks weren’t the team for him. However, he’s showing he wants more than individual recognition. He wants team success.
That’s a theme throughout the Bucks’ locker room, starting with Antetokounmpo and Lillard. The two stars are showing they’re willing to sacrifice individual production for the greater good of their team. If they’re taking that approach, it’s only natural it trickles down to the rest of the roster, including Payne who is completely bought in and thriving in his new role.