It was a Friday night, only minutes after Golden State's last preseason game, when Warriors head coach Steve Kerr delivered a familiar fate for Gary Payton II.
Even though he'd spent the final portion of the 2020-21 season in Golden State and the entire offseason in the Warriors' player development program, Payton was being waived.
The fifth time since going undrafted in 2016, Hall of Fame father be damned.
For a moment, it seemed the five-man battle for the Warriors' 15th roster spot had no winner. Not Mychal Mulder, not Langston Galloway. Throughout training camp, veteran players and several coaches had started to favor swingman Avery Bradley, yet he was cut too.
Still, Golden State needed Payton’s previous contract off the books for greater flexibility, operating within the NBA’s razor-thin tax margins.
"It was what it was," Payton tells B/R. "I've been through it multiple times, trying to find the next spot. If I didn't get picked up off waivers, I was probably going to go back to the G League and just grind it out until another 10-day or whatever or another opportunity."
No team claimed Payton, but three days later, after he'd nearly finished packing up his Bay Area home, Kerr and Warriors general manager Bob Myers rang. That 15th spot was actually his.
Flash forward 20 games into this season, and Golden State has marched to a league-best 18-2 record, with Payton II emerging as one of the most improbable key contributors to the Warriors' title contender.
The numbers are modest: 6.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 14.1 minutes per game, but each thunderous dunk and momentum-shifting steal provides a punch to Kerr's expanded rotation, which has supported Stephen Curry's MVP campaign far greater than it did a year ago. Perhaps the most telling stat: he's boasting a ridiculous 28-to-8 steal-to-turnover ratio on the season.
Payton phoned Bleacher Report on Monday morning from his Los Angeles hotel room, before Golden State's practice preparing for its Tuesday night clash with fellow Western Conference juggernaut Phoenix. Ahead of his 29th birthday on Wednesday, Payton discussed his unorthodox impact on the Warriors' title run, his nickname preference and his family's trademark competitive fire.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and flow.
Bleacher Report: I have a soft spot for guys who go to summer league year after year after year. A lot of people eventually get frustrated and go overseas. How did you keep going back to that same route, going to the G League, going to Vegas, trying to get into training camp?
Payton II: My thought process just was like, I know I can play in this league and with these guys. There wasn't nothing that was gonna take me away from trying to make it here and just continuing to fight. I continued to keep getting 10-days just year after year. I knew it was just a matter of time and place where my next 10-day was gonna be. I just told myself, "I'm not gonna go overseas yet. I know I can make it here. Just keep battling it out and just keep going and just stay the course and I'm gonna find my spot."
I had only been on four or five teams. There were still a lot of opportunities to show an organization that I can play in this league and deserve to do what I do in this league and hold my own and help a team win.
An executive who worked with you at a previous stop told me he thinks you're playing a role in Golden State like what Bruce Brown is playing in Brooklyn. You came up purely as a guard; now you're kind of playing the 4. Has that been a big adjustment?
I'm very comfortable and familiar with the dunker spot down there and trying to get behind the defense and whatnot. I've been doing it probably the majority of my basketball career. I know the area very well. It is a Bruce Brown type of feel. Me and him are very similar in what we do and what we bring to the team. I do actually like that comparison.
Golden State understands what I bring to the table, my defensive skills, my off-ball cutting, screening, being able to play the dunker and just take open shots when they present themselves. There are a lot of guys, like Draymond, that can do a lot of different things and help win games.
Not every player is going to score 30, and, I obviously don't shoot like f--king Steph Curry, but I do damn near everything else elite. It just took one organization to understand that and realize that.
Your shooting ability, or lack thereof, was a knock against you among team personnel coming out of the draft and through your early career. It's a small sample size, but you're shooting 39.1 percent from three to start this year. What have you worked on to improve your mechanics from the outside?
For years I trained with Darrel Jordan [now an assistant coach with the Iowa Wolves] just on repetitions, knowing where my spots are going to come, mostly catch-and-shoot and just continuing to get the reps up and keep going. Darrel actually started with my brother first, and then I got in the gym with him, working on shots, different actions, ball in my hands, off the dribble. Just try to make my game a complete game all around.
I worked a whole ton this past offseason with [Golden State assistants] Ron Adams and Nick Kerr, every day before summer league and whatnot, since I've been here and since I've had my call-up. I'd come back with Nicky at night, going through different scenarios, when you're off-balance and focusing on my form, shooting it the same way every time. Just muscle memory and getting my shots up and knowing where they come from. If I'm open, just take them. I'm gonna have time. They're gonna give me time when you're playing with No. 30.
Do players come up to you on the court and start talking trash expecting you to talk like your dad did?
[Laughs] I don't trash-talk like he does. In the league, I just get to my job. Guys are gonna chirp. I wouldn't say I don't talk, we have conversations for sure. Most of the time, I'm probably gonna irritate you by just touching you and annoying you and being in your space. That's all the talk I need. Most of the time, they're having a conversation with the ref that I'm holding and grabbing them and I'm just there listening and laughing, smiling about it.
You're still on a non-guaranteed deal, and you've been living on contract to contract for your whole career. Obviously you've gotten to this point, with this team, because you're fighting to be part of something bigger than yourself, but are there goals you have for yourself on how to make this a long-term home for you?
Yeah, January 10 is my cutoff date [to be guaranteed for the rest of the season]. Just continuing to do everything I can to lock that date in and show that I can hold my own in this league and I can help a team win, and hopefully I can be here for multiple-plus years.
I've been told you don't like "The Mitten" nickname. You prefer "Young Glove." Is that true?
Oh, yeah. The streets just said, "Young Glove." I kinda like Young Glove more than "Mitten." I respect the Young Glove. [Laughs]. Mitten just sounds too kiddy.
How competitive do family game nights get at your dad's house in Vegas?
[Laughs] You don't get away with anything for free. If you mess up, you get a party foul. Gary's not gonna let you get out of the house without paying up.
What counts as a party foul?
If you drop anything. He has a bathroom rule where you can only go to the bathroom every half an hour on the hour, on the dot. So like 9:00 or 9:30, 10:00 or 10:30. But it has to be 10:30 on the dot. If you want to take a party foul, you can take a shot and go use the bathroom, but you're definitely gonna have to pay up. It can be any type of alcohol. Whatever you're drinking.
I've heard Golden Tee, Jenga, Uno. What's the game that gets the most heated?
It doesn't matter. It can be Go Fish. It can be marbles and jacks. It doesn't matter, Gary will turn anything into a competition. But Golden Tee, I'm the best in Golden Tee for sure. Hands down. Not even a discussion. My putting is phenomenal. I have an all-around game in Golden Tee, but once I get to the green, my putting, it doesn't matter how far or what's the slope. It doesn't matter, I'm an elite putter.
Uno is Uno. You gotta know how to use your hand and be strategic and smart. One of my best friends [Oregon State teammate] Langston Morris-Walker is actually a great Uno player, but most of the time I do come out on top, and my father is the one leaving the house a little too drunk.