As expected, the Portland Trail Blazers brought back Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic to their roster in 2022 free agency. But there’s no doubt that Gary Payton II was the franchise’s biggest free agent addition.
Despite the former Oregon State Beaver’s unconventional NBA journey, the 29-year-old has finally established himself though contributions on a dynastic Championship-winning franchise.
But why has it taken him this long to find a place in the NBA? The son of a nine-time All Star who shares his name, Payton II went undrafted in 2016, battling in stints with the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards, before joining the Golden State Warriors 15 months ago.
He also spent time in the G-League, firstly, with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, followed by the Wisconsin Herd, South Bay Lakers, Capital City Go-Go and Raptors 905.
So what happened last season? Well, as the 2021-22 season progressed, so did the number of minutes Warriors Coach Steve Kerr felt comfortable keeping him on the floor. Perhaps, the first time a coach had shown this much faith in him at this level.
And with that faith came production. He’d figured out how to maximize his strengths, through relentless, savvy and suffocating defense and opportunistic offense.
It probably didn't hurt playing off elite scorers like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins. Payton II was a perfect complementary piece for a Warriors team that was able to turn the tables on the Boston Celtics midway through the NBA Finals.
So when we heard Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer hinted at Portland potentially pursuing Payton II on the first night of free agency, an almost forgotten emotion returned. Excitement. Blazers General Manager Joe Cronin was actually looking at athletic, defensively minded players to complement this already offensively talented roster.
He eventually signed for almost the full midlevel exception, apparently disappointing Warriors fans hoping to go back-to-back.
The Push Back
However, over the past few days, while perusing Blazers Twitter and some of the comments on Blazer’s Edge, my elation was stunted as many appeared disappointed about his return to Oregon.
I read comments like “Great, another 6’3 guard”, “Why would Cronin get another guard”, “Blazers get all the undersized guards", and “Cronin is just like Olshey, he just loves guards”, etc, etc.
I started to question my own exuberance. Is there something I’m missing here? Rationalizing to myself, I said “Sure, Payton II is very much 6’3, but the Blazers, at least during the Olshey era, have never ever paid a player that offers this much defensive prowess or rotational flexibility”.
To confirm my first instinct made sense, I went back over his bona fides.
It is true that Payton II is 6’3 and he has spent six years bouncing between the NBA and G-League, a true NBA vagabond or journeyman.
On the other hand, he also found himself playing crunch-time minutes in an NBA Finals series alongside another 6’3 guard.
Payton II also has a 6’8 wingspan and solid frame — he doesn’t get pushed around.
My confidence returned. I kept going.
The man possesses incredible leg speed, lateral movement and timing — just watch one of the many blocks he executed against centers during the Playoffs — in this case, two-time reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic.
He can guard almost anyone, thanks to the above skillset, a rare commodity in the modern game.
Perhaps, part of this ability was passed on by his father — the guy who won the 1996 Defensive Player of the Year and a ridiculous nine-time All Defensive First team honoree — Gary II has it above the shoulders as well.
While some might say defense is just about effort, it’s not. It’s innate, it’s instinctual. Believe it or not, healthy Damian Lillard does actually try, at times, on defense but it’s clearly not something that comes naturally to him.
For Payton II, defense is as natural as an IPA at a Portland food truck.
But more than that, Payton II is a point of attack defender. Portland fans may have forgotten what that is. Remember Wes Matthews guarding James Harden during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs, a bulldog, tenacious, someone who can guard the best players in the league and not get pinged for fouls. The Blazers have not had this type of player since Matthews and teammate Nicolas Batum played home games in Portland.
On offense, Payton II is obviously limited. But perhaps, through maturity and the hellish path he’s had to trot to achieve success, he well and truly knows his limitations.
As the 2021-22 season progressed, Payton II became a reliable shooter from the corner, cutting, slashing and finishing plays from the dunker spot, highlighted by his 82 percent shooting percentage within three feet of the basket.
By the end of the season he put up averages of 17.6 minutes, 7.1 points on 35 percent three point shooting, 3.5 rebounds, 0.9 assists.
Production didn’t wane come playoffs — where he also missed multiple games through injury — registering 16.9 minutes, 6.5 points on a ridiculous 53 percent three point shooting, 3.1 boards through 12 games.
What position does he play?
While modern basketball might be positionless for some, you’ve still got to get five guys on the court in a way that helps you stop the other five guys on the court.
Payton II could comfortably start at small forward next to Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons. “But, Adrian” you might say, “wasn’t the whole issue with last year’s edition of the Blazers that Norm Powell, at 6’3, was playing small forward?” Again, I'll just say that while Powell was an OK defender, he’s nowhere near the same stratosphere as Payton II.
Having said all that and unless anything changes, Nassir Little will most likely have the starting small forward spot, but don’t be surprised if Payton II or even Justise Winslow fill that role depending on matchups.
To those suggesting Josh Hart, there’s no doubt he could play the three at a pinch. But his natural position is at guard and from the sounds of things, you’ll probably see the former Pelican own some back-up point guard minutes if his end-of-season interview was any indication.
Realistically, Payton II comes off the bench playing either wing position next to Hart and with one of Lillard or Simons.
And given his role in the Warriors’ recent Championship success, don’t be surprised to see him in finishing lineups assisting some combination of Lillard, Simons and Jerami Grant, with either Nurkic, Little or Hart filling that last spot, depending on the situation.
To all those fans, screaming about the fact that the Blazers signed another undersized guard, all I’ll say is Payton II is not Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, CJ McCollum or Norman Powell. He’s actually capable of doing things Blazers fans haven’t seen from their own players in years.
Honestly, I’m just excited to see what this team can do with actual defensive talent. Payton II and Grant offer Coach Billups a whole lot of defensive versatility. If Payton II can complement Curry, Thompson and Wiggins, I can’t wait to see what he can do alongside Lillard, Simons and Grant.
I’m not saying Payton II is the piece that vaults the Blazers into the Finals, he’s not. But this team will be far less predictable if it finds itself playing in late April next year.