The most surprising player to earn a spot on the U.S. U-19 team Monday night needed a late plea from his head coach just to earn the chance.
Louisiana-Lafayette's Elfrid Payton wasn't on USA Basketball's radar as recently as a few weeks ago when Ragin Cajuns coach Bob Marlin dialed Billy Donovan and urged him to consider inviting the 6-foot-3 rising junior to tryouts.
"I told him, 'I don't sell my guys but Elfrid is really good and might be able to help,'" Marlin said. "I told him he could call Richard Pitino or Tom Izzo because Elfrid really played well against both their teams. He said, 'I don't need to call those guys. You and I have known each other a long time. If you say he's good enough, he's good enough.'"
Payton validated his coach's praise with an eye-opening performance during tryouts in Colorado Springs the past few days. He showcased ball-hawking defense and explosive speed to the rim, outplaying highly touted point guards like Texas' Javan Felix, Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono and Providence's Kris Dunn to survive Sunday's initial cut to 16 players and Monday's final cut to 12.
If Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart and Duke's Rasheed Sulaimon are the likely starters in the backcourt for the U.S. team, Payton has just as good a chance as any of the other three guards to earn playing time off the bench. He'll try to help his team capture gold at what has been the most elusive age level for USA Basketball, one in which the Americans have only taken first place once in the past six tournaments.
“I have a certain confidence about myself that I can play with anybody and against anybody," Payton told his hometown newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, on Monday night. "My goal was to compete against these guys and hold my own. Backing down wasn’t an option."
That mentality won't surprise anyone at Louisiana-Lafayette because they've seen him rise from an undersized, lightly recruited high school prospect into one of the most underrated players in the nation. Payton averaged 15.9 points, 5.5 assists and 2.4 steals per game as a sophomore last season, impressive stats for a kid who received minimal Division I interest until late in his senior year of high school.
The son of a former Grambling College and Canadian Football League standout defensive lineman, Payton inherited his father's athleticism but he didn't hit his growth spurt until late in his career at John Ehret High School in New Orleans. He was nearly a year younger than many of his peers when he began high school, which contributed to him not even surpassing the 6-foot mark until his senior year.
Payton's slight stature kept him from drawing much interest from Division I programs, but Louisiana-Lafeyette assistant Kevin Johnson heard from several New Orleans high school coaches early in Payton's senior year that the guard might be worth keeping an eye on. It was that season that Payton proved himself, averaging 12.8 points, 5.2 assists and 4.1 steals, earning first-team all-state honors and scoring 23 points at the Cajun Dome in Lafayette in a state semifinals loss to Scotlandville.
"That was when I got to see him play for the first time," Marlin said. "He was just a little skinny kid that looked like a ninth grader. He wasn't big at all physically. We got him on an unofficial visit that next week. By then, there were a handful of other programs that were trying to get him to come visit, but he shut it down and signed with us."
In two seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette, Payton has sprouted to 6-foot-3, bulked up a bit in the weight room so he can absorb contact going to the rim and worked tirelessly to improve his oft-erratic outside shot.
Since Payton thrived creating off the dribble in high school and could get to the rim at will, he rarely bothered to attempt an outside shot. He didn't make a single 3-pointer as a freshman at Louisiana-Lafayette and shot just 56.4 percent from the foul line, problems worsened by the fact he couldn't see very well.
Once a routine physical examination after his freshman year revealed that Payton's vision was poor, Marlin and his staff urged the guard to try wearing contacts. He eventually gave in, a decision that helped him go from being a non-threat behind the arc to a streaky shooter whose 32 percent 3-point shooting at least made him a threat from the perimeter.
"He fought it at first, but then he started shooting the ball better immediately," Marlin said. "Your free throws and threes, it helps a little bit when you can see your target. And I think that is part of it, to be honest."
A youthful Louisiana-Lafayette team struggled to a 13-20 record last season, which is why few outside the state were aware of Payton's exploits. Not many saw Payton outplay Keith Appling in a narrow loss to Michigan State or light up Florida International for 23 points or lead Louisiana-Lafayette to three wins over North Texas and potential first-round pick Tony Mitchell.
The performances against Appling and Mitchell were especially noteworthy to Payton as he prepared for USA Basketball tryouts because Marlin reminded him that both those guys played on the U-19 team two years ago. If Payton could have success against them two years later, there was no reason he couldn't outplay current U-19 hopefuls too.
Payton took that to heart and showed off all facets of his game in Colorado Springs, outplaying guards from more prestigious programs and ensuring he won't be able to fly so under the radar next season. Now he'll have a chance to continue to make a name for himself in Prague beginning on June 27.
"I think it helps him in the long run and it certainly will help our team in the short run," Marlin said. "He'll definitely benefit from this experience."
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