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Two years ago, Cameron Payne was a Rivals.com three-star recruit. He wasn't ranked among the nation's top-100 recruits. He wasn't even remotely considered for the McDonald's All-American game.
Now, after entering college basketball as a little-known mid-major recruit, Payne has made a sudden rise from obscurity to become a potential lottery pick in Thursday's NBA draft.
"I didn't see this at all," Payne told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. "This is really crazy, to be honest. I'm just so happy and couldn't be any happier because I didn't see myself in this position at all.
"It happened so fast. I will be the first one to tell you, it came so unnoticed and happened out of nowhere."
Payne was considered the third-best point guard prospect on Murray State's roster when he signed with the school two years ago. Now, he is considered the third-best point guard prospect in this year's NBA draft behind Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, who bypassed college to play in China last season.
Payne, 6-foot-2, 183 pounds, averaged 20.3 points, six assists, 1.8 steals and 2.5 made 3-pointers per game as a sophomore at Murray State this past season. The 2015 Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year worked out for the Los Angeles Lakers (second and 27th overall picks), Sacramento Kings (sixth), Denver Nuggets (seventh), Indiana Pacers (11th) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (14th) and met with the Boston Celtics (16). The southpaw sharpshooter ranked in the top 15 among NCAA Division I players last season in points and assists per game. Draftexpress.com currently projects Payne to be drafted by the Thunder with the 14th pick.
Payne broke the ring finger of his non-shooting right hand in a workout with the Nuggets last week. Surgery is not needed. He will be re-evaluated in a week and hopes to be cleared to resume playing in two weeks.
"He might be the best true point guard in the draft," one NBA scout said. "He has a knack for always finding the open man while also showing a nice 3-point touch as well. He is really a nice prospect."
Another NBA scout said the success of another former mid-major guard, the Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry, who was the NBA's MVP this season, has made teams more open to taking players from smaller schools.
"Stephen Curry gets drafted lower than he should've because NBA teams didn't respect his feel for the game coming out of a mid-major school," the scout said. "I'm not saying this kid is Stephen Curry, but he has great feel for the game of basketball. The only reason why he is climbing up a bit now is because people are finally doing their homework."
For Payne to even be in the NBA draft now is a surprise considering his backstory.
The Bartlett, Tenn., native was the backup point guard – behind University of Memphis football signee Sam Craft – entering his senior year of high school on an AAU team run by ex-NBA star Penny Hardaway. Payne did lead Lausanne Collegiate School to a 2013 Division II state high school championship in Tennessee. But the biggest all-star game he played in after his high school career was the 2013 Jack Jones Shootout in Memphis where he scored 11 points.
"He was 5-foot-5 when he entered his high school," one NBA scout said. "He was like 6-foot, 150 pounds as a senior in high school. He went to a small private high school. …Everyone dismissed him because he went to this small school even though every time he went to the inner city he kicked their butts."
Said Payne: "Nobody knew me at all."
Former Murray State assistant coach William Small, now on Iowa State's staff, saw something special in Payne when he started recruiting him in the 10th grade. Swayed by Small's early recruitment, Payne chose the school near his home over Wichita State, College of Charleston and Jacksonville University. He also spurned late interest from the University of Memphis.
Payne arrived at Murray State as Isaiah Canaan, a second-round draft pick by the Houston Rockets in 2013, left for the NBA. Zay Jackson was supposed to start for the Racers entering the 2013-14 season, but tore his anterior cruciate ligament before the season began and later transferred. Another potential starter, T.J. Sapp, a transfer from Clemson, wouldn't be eligible until midseason. Thin at point guard, Murray State was forced to start Payne, a freshman.
Payne far exceeded expectations, earning 2014 first-team All-OVC honors and the league's freshman of the year award. He also led the Racers to the 2014 College Invitational Tournament title where he landed MVP honors.
"I asked one Ohio Valley Conference school head coach last November, 'Who is the best player in your conference that nobody knows about?' " one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. "The coach said, 'Cameron Payne. Murray State people think he will be better than Isaiah Canaan.' I then started watching him on tape and said, 'Holy [expletive].' "
Payne felt confident he should leave for the NBA after his stellar sophomore season, but admitted he was initially nervous. The success of NBA point guards from mid-major schools like Damian Lillard (Weber State), Curry (Davidson) and Elfrid Payton (Louisiana-Lafayette) eventually inspired Payne he could succeed.
Lillard and Payton "set the foundation for mid-major players, also Steph Curry and [Indiana Pacers guard] George Hill," Payne said. "Now NBA teams are giving mid-major players a chance. I'm definitely inspired by Damian Lillard. He came from a mid-major like myself and took the NBA by storm. I feel like I can do the same thing."
Lillard was the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year after being selected sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers and is a two-time All-Star.
"He's not as athletic as Damian Lillard, but he is a Damian Lillard-caliber," one NBA scout said. "He scores 20 points a night. The thing he does best is make his teammates better. He sees and completes passes that other guards can't imagine throwing."
Payne said his road from obscurity will keep him grounded in the NBA and motivated to continue to get better every year.
"I have a chip on my shoulder," said Payne, who has been working to get stronger prior to the draft. "I am never going to reach my limit. I will always have something to prove. To me, that's the best attitude I can have. I'm never going to stop trying to get better. I definitely love my path because it's going to make me a better player in the long run.
"I got to work my tail off. I'm a mid-major. But I feel like I can make an impact in the league when I get there."
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