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NBA Draft Notebook: Meet Cameron Payne, America's Most Overlooked Prospect

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 9, 2015

USA Today

It almost took the entire year, but the buzz surrounding Murray State sophomore point guard Cameron Payne has slowly snowballed into NBA draft chatter. 

The numbers he's put up alone should have sparked conversation and intrigue from scouting departments.

2014-15 Averages
FG PctPointsReboundsAssists3PT Made3PT Pct.Steals
.45520.33.75.82.3.3722.0
Sports-Reference.com
Evan Daniels @EvanDaniels

There are double digit NBA scouts in Nashville at the OVC Tournament to check out Murray State's Cameron Payne.

He's on a short list of college players, including Stephen Curry, Jay Williams, Jameer Nelson and Jason Terry, to average at least 20 points, five assists, two steals and two made threes per game in a season, via Sports-Reference.com.

Payne was recently the main attraction at his conference tournament. And despite Murray State suffering a devastating loss to Belmont in the final, the Ohio Valley Player of the Year continued to build up his image.

Payne's skinny, 180-pound frame is no reflection of his style of play or approach. He's fearless. And he has a killer instinct that ultimately helps fuel his overall likability as a player and prospect. 

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Tied up Friday night in the conference semifinal with just over one minute left on the clock, Payne answered a go-ahead Morehead State bucket with a game-winning three-pointer off of a confident pull-up.

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It marked his 11th point in the final eight minutes. 

Payne activated takeover mode once again Saturday night, scoring 15 points during the game's final 11 minutes. And each basket or free throw he made either tied the game or gave Murray State the lead. 

A last-second, off-balance, 25-foot heave ultimately allowed Belmont to prevail, but not before another eye-opening performance from Payne (20 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, three steals), whose NBA sales pitch looks stronger than ever. 

While it's still unclear as to whether Payne will declare for the draft, he's certainly entered the conversation as a potential 2015 sleeper. 

The Scouting Report

Payne won't win over any general managers with his physical tools or explosiveness. While a lack of strength is evident, he isn't a jump-out-of-the-gym type of athlete, either. 

However, his 6'2" size is adequate for a next-level ball-handler, as is his quickness and shiftiness off the dribble, particularly in the open floor. Payne picks up nearly half (49.1 percent) of his assists within the first 10 seconds of a Murray State possession, per Hoop-Math.com, the most of any potential first-round NCAA point guard. 

More than anything else, it's a stat that should paint a picture of Payne's preference and comfort level running and gunning. 

With the ability to weave through traffic yet maintain vision on the move, you'll often see Payne look to push the tempo and find his teammates before the defense can set. 

In the half court, he's dangerous operating out of pick-and-rolls, which Murray State likes to use. He'll occasionally try to make the hero pass, but he's flashed sharp timing and the accuracy to thread the needle:

Payne will ultimately need to tighten up his decision-making and shot selection, though he is used in a whopping 31.6 percent of Murray State's possessions as its top scoring and playmaking option, according to Sports-Reference.com. For what it's worth, he ranks No. 1 in the country in points produced and No. 3 in offensive win shares, per Sports-Reference.com.

Still, he tends to get trigger-happy from time to time. Moving forward, scouts will likely hope to see Payne make the simple pass instead of taking the low-percentage shot. 

Limited burst also forces Payne into attempting some tough shots away from the basket. In the half court (final 24 seconds of a shot clock), he's made just 25 buckets at the rim all season. 

Having said that, his most appealing skill from an NBA standpoint might actually be his ability to shoot and finish off the dribble. 

He's making an excellent 46.2 percent of his two-point jumpers, 83.7 percent of which are unassisted, per Hoop-Math.com. Payne can stop-and-pop from anywhere, while his floater game is strong. These are ultimately key shots for a point guard to have in the arsenal, specifically in an offense that frequently uses ball screens.

Though it's come against mid-major competition, compared to the other top point guard prospects, Payne is by far the most efficient and potent with the pull-up, floater and runner inside the arc. 

He's also shooting a respectable 37.2 percent from downtown on 74 made threes in 32 games. Payne has deep range as well as the shot-making confidence to connect with defenders in his face.

One of Payne's biggest challenges making the jump will be defending the perimeter, where his light, thin body can be vulnerable to getting caught up in picks and clutter. He is averaging two steals per game, flashing quick hands and reaction time, but there could be questions concerning his ability to deny penetration against NBA-level ball-handlers.

Payne's Future, Draft Outlook

Regardless of whether Murray State earns an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, Payne's production and eye-test results are too compelling for general managers not to look into.  

At 20 years old, he led the Racers to an undefeated conference season. And given how tough it would be to improve upon this year's success in 2015-16, it wouldn't be unreasonable for Payne to declare and strike while the iron is hot. 

“It’s really crazy. I’ve never been a part of something like this," Payne told One-Bid Wonders' Ari Kramer late in February.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

He ranks No. 22 overall on ESPN analytics guru Kevin Pelton's statistical big board, which projects prospects' WARP (wins above replacement player) over their first five NBA seasons.

According to ESPN's Chad Ford:

He is drawing praise from scouts as one of the most intelligent point guards in the draft. Payne isn't the strongest or most athletic point guard in the draft, but he is quick, is shooting the ball much better as a sophomore, and has a very advanced feel for the game. He probably isn't a first-round pick right now, but some teams are taking a very close look.

While it's tough to call Payne anything more than a fringe first-round option right now, it's pretty clear his performance is no longer being viewed as a result of a weak schedule and green light from the bench. 

Even if Murray State fails to secure a bid to the NCAA tournament, keep an eye out for Payne, who's suddenly emerged as a legitimate talking point in the 2015 draft discussion. 

Notables

  • Make that three out of four games Kentucky freshman forward Trey Lyles has recorded at least 14 points. His skill level and versatility continue to shine. From mid-range shooting and low-post scoring to attacking, finishing and passing, you almost forget sometimes that Lyles is actually 6'10". At the very least, I suspect he'll get looks from teams drafting late in the lottery.
  • North Carolina sophomore big man Kennedy Meeks might have had a chance to move the needle against Duke on Saturday. But a 1-of-7, two-point showing doesn't usually do the trick. He's totaled just 14 points over the Tar Heels' last three games. Meeks will probably have a better shot at drawing first-round interest in 2016.
  • Syracuse actually received some good news for a change. Freshman power forward Chris McCullough, who tore his ACL earlier in the year, announced he'll return for his sophomore season, according to Syracuse.com's Donna Ditota. Athletic and versatile, McCullough looked like a first-rounder prior to going down. Assuming he can get back to full strength, he'll have a good shot at restoring his credibility as a desirable prospect with Rakeem Christmas graduating.
  • Senior wing Anthony Brown has been a bright spot this season for a disappointing Stanford team. He's shooting a scorching 44.6 percent from downtown (made 45.3 percent last year) on 2.2 three-point makes per game. At 6'7", he has a pro body, athleticism and a lights-out jumper. That could be enough to trigger looks late in the first round or early in the second. 
  • Utah freshman center Jakob Poeltl finished 8-for-8 from the floor for 18 points against Washington on Saturday. He had scored just 19 points combined over his previous five games. However, it's worth noting that his performance came against a Washington team that didn't have Robert Upshaw (dismissed from the team), who held Poeltl to just 2-of-5 shooting for six points and seven boards back in January. 
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