Applying lessons learned from his father, Elfrid Payton Jr. rises up draft boards

Applying lessons learned from his father, Elfrid Payton Jr. rises up draft boards

LOS ANGELES – Elfrid Payton Jr. can close his eyes and still see those poor souls running for their lives, his old man in hot pursuit of Canadian Football League quarterbacks on those endlessly wide fields. From chasing Doug Flutie to Jeff Garcia, the relentlessness of Elfrid Sr. stayed with the most impressionable eyes of a young boy.

"Ah well, I sacked everybody," Elfrid Sr. told Yahoo Sports. "I could run … "

He laughs.

"I could run them down."

History remembers Elfrid Sr. as one of the CFL's greatest defensive ends, 154 sacks for a Canadian Football Hall of Fame career, and he passed down a binder full of lessons to Elfrid Jr., the fastest rising prospect in Thursday's NBA draft. Three months ago, NBA executives suspected Elfrid Jr. could be an early second-round – perhaps late first-round – choice in a deep draft. Only now, everything's changed.

Payton Jr. carried Louisiana Lafayette into the NCAA tournament against Creighton. (Getty Images)
Payton Jr. carried Louisiana Lafayette into the NCAA tournament against Creighton. (Getty Images)

Everything's turned for Payton, the junior guard out of Louisiana-Lafayette. The Sacramento Kings are seriously considering him with the eighth overall pick, league sources say, and few expect Payton to make it past the Orlando Magic at No. 12. Who knows who else could still jump in there and make a draft-day play for him?

He's mesmerized executives with an old-school blend of wiry toughness and guile, blazing ball-handling and a devastating determination on defense. Those long arms and fleet feet get into players, and it makes Payton, 6-foot-4 1/2, an intriguing two-way talent.

For all the sons of pro basketball players coming out of colleges these days, it is the son of a CFL legend who believes he walks into the gymnasium with the biggest edge of all.

"I think it gives me a little bit more of a toughness," Elfrid Jr. told Yahoo Sports. "I attack. I go at people. I'm a little different than a regular basketball player."

Elfrid Sr. had walked on to Grambling under the iconic Eddie Robinson as a 174-pound high school nose guard who eventually earned a scholarship, earned team MVP honors in 1988 and '89, and earned one of the greatest honors ever bestowed upon a Grambling man: the privilege of being a pallbearer at the coach's funeral.

After Hurricane Katrina exiled the Paytons from New Orleans' West Bank to Texas for several months, the seventh grader eventually returned home no longer interested in pursuing football. Elfrid Jr. wanted to be a basketball player. He had always played up in age because he started pre-school as a 3-year-old. The family had talked about holding him back a year, but he did so well academically, breezing through the honors curriculum, that it never made sense academically to slow him.

Perhaps that early start in school was the reason Elfrid Jr. had only one Division I scholarship offer as a 16-year-old senior. He hadn't grown, hadn't filled out and it made his future harder to project for recruiters. In so many ways, his story had become his father's. They missed on Elfrid Jr. the way they had on Elfrid Sr., and yet it never discouraged him.

"All I needed was one scholarship to get the chance to show people, and I knew I would," Elfrid Jr. said.

Most of all, his father's words lodged themselves within Elfrid Jr. and buoyed him. "If you can play," Elfrid Sr. told him, "they will find you."

Once Payton made the USA Basketball under-19 team a summer ago, the NBA executives found their desire for him. Florida's Billy Donovan selected him for the national team, and USA Basketball director Sean Ford would marvel at the way Elfrid Jr. was always the last to leave the gym, always so ferocious in those practices with the big-time names out of major schools.

Now 20 years old, Elfrid Jr. delivers a maturity of purpose that has kept him moving up in the minds of NBA executives. They see a kid who had his life uprooted with Hurricane Katrina, moved out of New Orleans to the Houston-area, and back again within a year. They watched him adapt and still flourish. They watched him turn Lafayette into an NCAA tournament team, and watched him come to pro workouts without the diva act of refusing the challenge of tough competition.

"A lot of agents told us, 'I don't want my guy working out against Payton," one GM in the lottery told Yahoo Sports. "He disrupts everything. We love that about him."

The Sacramento Kings are seriously considering Payton Jr. with the eighth overall pick, league sources say. (Getty Images)
The Sacramento Kings are seriously considering Payton Jr. with the eighth overall pick, league sources say. (Getty Images)

Another executive tossed out some old-school comparisons for Elfrid Jr.: Alvin Robertson and Darrell Walker, long-armed guards who blended talents on both ends of the floor. Payton needs to shoot the ball better, but that's something teams believe he can improve with time and work. Payton will look you in the eyes, the way he did in his interviews with teams, and say simply, "I think I can be the best guard in this draft."

Elfrid Payton Sr. never bombarded his son with stories of the great Eddie Robinson, but the young man is well-versed in the most important of them. Mostly, those centered on the will to win, the character that comes out of competing every day, every play. After several years in the CFL, Elfrid Sr. signed a make-good deal with his hometown New Orleans Saints in 1996 and tried to make the NFL.

Every day, Payton Sr. had the chance to go against Hall of Fame offensive tackle Willie Roaf. He even remembers a time or two when he beat him in one-on-ones, and how Roaf would return hellbent to stop him in the next session. And then, Roaf would win, the anger belonged to Payton, and it'd be his turn.

"That would bother me the whole day, until I got him the next day, a chance to get back at him," Elfrid Sr. said. "That's an inner competitiveness. My son's the same way. I see it in him. You can't feel good allowing someone to continue to score on you. If you're fine with that, you're in the wrong business. You've got to want to be the best.

"That's what Coach Robinson said. 'I want to be the best.'"

This is the way the old man chased those quarterbacks across those fields in Canada for a decade, why they'll remember him as one of the greats there. When Elfrid Jr. was a young boy, that was the image seared into his psyche, and it's never left him. The NBA draft is Thursday, and the kid out of Louisiana-Lafayette is coming hard for the lottery, coming for everyone now.